Anyone who has been in the recycling business for any length of time has seen the industry change significantly. Michael Benedetto, president and CEO of Chesapeake, Va.-based TFC Recycling, not only has seen many of these changes, he also often has played the role of catalyst.
TFC Recycling is focused on the collection, processing and marketing of traditional recyclables, often generated through municipal recycling programs. In addition to its Chesapeake headquarters and material recovery facility (MRF), the company also operates a facility in Newport News, Va., and one in Chester, Va. TFC Recycling serves more than 700,000 households and more than 4,000 commercial customers within an area that extends roughly 100 miles south of Washington, D.C., to the northern part of North Carolina.
The company began when Benedetto’s father left the family’s New York City-based recycling business to set up operations in Virginia in 1973.
“He had friends moving to Virginia, and we didn’t want to compete with the family business,” Benedetto says of his father’s decision to locate his business in Virginia.
Prior to the emergence of curbside recycling programs, TFC took an approach similar to that of other private recyclers: buying, processing and selling material depending on their economics.
In the late 1980s, however, the burgeoning environmental movement, stoked by the publicity over the Mobro garbage barge, awoke many municipalities to the importance of developing a comprehensive approach to collecting and processing recyclables. “That was the advent of curbside recycling,” Benedetto says.
Welcoming Curbside Recycling
While curbside recycling programs had spread across the country by the mid-1990s, Benedetto says Virginia Beach officials felt the city’s recycling program wasn’t efficient enough. Officials saw how automation helped to reduce trash handling costs and wanted to see if a similar approach would work for recycling, he says. “They wanted to convert to a larger cart with automation.”
Benedetto says economic drivers were needed to make curbside recycling work. With the 18-gallon bins that were traditionally used to collect curbside recyclables, collection and processing costs were significant. “The costs were not competitive at all,” he adds. “There was no economic driver for recycling.”
In the late 1990s, TFC Recycling received the Virginia Beach contract to collect and process single-stream recyclables, Benedetto says. “Since then we have seen single-stream spread through our area and the country.”
Five years later more than 100 facilities were operating single-stream systems. Benedetto says haulers and MRF operators saw that single-stream programs could make good economic sense.
Although single-stream processing is now commonplace, in the beginning the approach had few cheerleaders. Even TFC Recycling, a company that had a habit of being on the front end of technology, was uncertain about developing a new way to collect and process materials. “[Virginia Beach] was looking for someone to bid on a 95-gallon cart and do the collection and processing for the city. We were skeptical,” he says.
Consumers of secondary commodities also expressed skepticism. “All the feedback from the mills was negative,” Benedetto says of the proposed shift to single-stream processing. “They said if you put the glass in with the paper you will never get it out. You couldn’t sell the material. Don’t do it.”
Despite this opposition to single-stream processing, Benedetto says TFC Recycling took its time to ensure it had the right equipment in place to process the material. “We searched around and didn’t find anything,” he says of the company’s quest to find suitable processing equipment. “We spent lots of time and energy back in 1996 and found very few systems out there, none of which were using screening technology to speak of to process material in a cart.”
Vendors could offer partial answers to the processing conundrum, he says.
“In 1997, Bollegraaf had not put in one single-stream system in the United States. They had screens for cardboard, but not one system in place for single stream,” Benedetto says.
TFC Recycling worked with Bulk Handling Systems, which had screening technology, he says. The equipment company had installed a small system in Ohio that was processing commingled material collected in bins. A cart program in Greenville, N.C., used conveyor belts with magnets, with the last conveyor routing the material that remained back to the beginning of the line or out to a trash compactor, he says.
Benedetto says another equipment company offered a container line, though challenges were present with that system as well.
“We had to use two different contractors to put a system together. There was a learning curve. The material wasn’t clean enough for either side to process to where it should be,” he says of the container and fiber lines.
TFC Recycling was venturing into uncharted territory by pursuing single-stream recycling. “We were a pioneer,” Benedetto says. “We were the first company that I am aware of in the United States to do actual collection of material from 95-gallon carts and process the material in single-stream form using screens.”
Although TFC Recycling began seeing economic benefits to single-stream processing, Benedetto says it was an outlook most processors didn’t share. “If other people recognized the benefits of single stream, they weren’t jumping up and down,” he says.
The shift to single-stream recycling presented opportunities, as well as challenges, for the company and ultimately laid the groundwork for TFC Recycling’s efforts to drive municipal recycling forward.
In addition to being on the forefront of single-stream processing, another innovation the company has more recently focused on is the development of its Recycling Perks program, first introduced in late 2008 and early 2009. “We wanted to reward people for recycling more,” Benedetto says of the program.
The goal of Recycling Perks, he says, is to reduce waste, promote local economic growth and preserve natural resources. Through the program, local businesses offer rewards to households that recycle curbside. The program is available to households in close to a dozen cities, with expectations that the program will continue to grow, Benedetto says.
A key to the success of the program is the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on recycling carts. The technology provides data related to which addresses are recycling and how often. Benedetto says the information can help communities create targeted marketing campaigns designed to focus on each performance goal within a municipality.
The net result, he says, is an appreciable increase in the amount of recyclables being collected.
Going forward, Benedetto says Recycling Perks may be spun off from TFC Recycling. While the incentive program is still under the TFC umbrella, he says, “We see an opportunity for Recycling Perks to get bigger than TFC. It can work under any hauler in the country. Anyone collecting recyclables can grow their business with this program.”
Benedetto says TFC Recycling has a history of being a pioneer in many of its endeavors. He says back in the 1980s the company decided to purchase its first roll-off truck because it wanted to target generators of OCC (old corrugated containers) that were throwing out lots of the material. “Our competition was not recycling it but hauling it to landfills,” he says. “We were one of the first to pull OCC out of the mixed waste stream.”
A more recent innovation that TFC is involved in is converting a number of its trucks to compressed natural gas (CNG). Presently, TFC Recycling has 20 trucks that use CNG instead of conventional fuel. Benedetto says he strongly supports the move, despite the high cost of this program, because it shows the community the company is as environmentally conscious as possible.
While acknowledging that many of TFC Recycling’s moves have been motivated by economic benefits, he says, “Not everything environmental has a payback. We need to do other things for society. Not every decision we make is economically driven.” He adds, “Our driving factor is that we shouldn’t just talk the talk, but [also] walk the walk.”
He says TFC Recycling is the first private company and first hauling company in Virginia to use CNG in its vehicles.
“It is very expensive step for us, but we feel that we needed to lead the community by making the investment.”
Because of the company’s proximity to the Port of Norfolk, Va., Benedetto says most of the fiber TFC Recycling processes is shipped overseas. However, most of the plastic, aluminum and steel cans and other recyclables the company processes remains in the domestic market.
As for market conditions and trends, Benedetto says quality is a growing issue for the industry. “If you can’t make a quality product, at the back end you won’t be able to sell it to make the contract work.”
He adds that people who have been in the business for a long time understand this. “However, some of the newer players in the market are just now learning it,” Benedetto says. “If you don’t get a quality pack, you won’t sell it. You will get rejections and downgrades.”
Benedetto also says he believes that more government vigilance is needed within the recycling industry, especially on the permitting side. While many recyclers look at the government’s involvement as anathema, Benedetto says he feels proper permitting ensures companies are legitimately collecting and processing recyclables rather than performing minimal recycling and transferring material to landfills.
“There is a need for some authority to come in, because there is potential for people to think [recyclers] are doing one thing when they may be doing something totally different,” he says, citing companies that are telling their customers to throw all of their material into one container for recycling. However, these companies might remove only 20 percent of the recyclables when they could get much more, he says. “Their goal is to transfer it out of the marketplace and dispose of it for money.”
The Long View
Benedetto reflects on the past 25 years and at how the recycling landscape has changed. “If I went back to 1990s there were other recycling companies bigger than us in our marketplace.” However, Benedetto says, “They didn’t have the vision that we had of what was going to happen with curbside recycling. By the time they figured it out, the contracts were already signed. They didn’t have the vision of single stream and the need to drive down costs and make it easier and less expensive for residents. They were slow to make investments needed for single stream.”
He continues, “We are seeing the same thing with Recycling Perks and CNG. We are at the forefront of that curve. We are different from the typical hauler; they don’t have the people working to educate customers on how to reduce waste and maximize the material they are collecting. If they are doing it, it is in a corporate environment and not at the local level.”
Despite TFC Recycling’s role in shaping the recycling industry, Benedetto says he still is firmly grounded. “I have lived in the same community for the past 25 years, only a few miles from my parents. I also have worked for the same company for the past 25 years and still share an office with my mother and father. I feel blessed in so many ways that I can work in the family business. It has been a great ride.”
The author is Recycling Today’s senior editor and can be emailed at email@example.com.