Processing Change

Features - MRF Series

MRF operators share their approaches to maintaining quality in the face of many variables.

December 7, 2012
Kristin Smith

With ever-changing material streams, advancements in single-stream processing technology, price volatility and quality concerns, perhaps change is the one constant for material recovery facilities (MRFs). Knowing how to adapt to these conditions is the key to successfully operating a MRF.

During the 2012 Paper Recycling Conference & Trade Show, held in mid-October in Chicago, attendees heard from several MRF operators throughout the United States about how they are addressing quality concerns in an ever-changing industry.

Sean Duffy, president and COO of ReCommunity Recycling, Charlotte, N.C., told attendees that the economic downturn of 2008 had a major impact on the composition of materials the company’s MRFs have been receiving ever since.

Duffy said ReCommunity’s 30 years of experience have helped it get through the difficulties that MRFs encounter daily.

He stressed the importance of building relationships with municipalities that result in partnerships that are mutually beneficial,” he said.

Other changes have further emphasized producing quality products, he said. “We are 100 percent reliant on the sale of our product,” Duffy said. “If we can’t make a quality product, we aren’t going to last through all these changes.”

Quality Control

Duffy discussed strategies ReCommunity employs to ensure product quality. He said the company meets with its staff as well as its vendors so they understand ReCommunity’s priorities. In addition, the company generates daily quality reports. ReCommunity examines its MRFs’ residues and audits sellable products. The company also relies on feedback from its customers.

“We have to get that feedback from the mills,” he added.

ReCommunity tracks and posts the results of its audits, including information on its out-throws and prohibitives, on shared networks. “Quality does mean everything; we want to make sure we are sharing [the results],” Duffy said.

Issues with quality usually can be attributed to how the MRF’s sorting equipment is running, whether it’s a malfunctioning eddy-current separator or a plugged screen in need of cleaning. “It is very simple at the end of the day to figure out the problems,” Duffy said.

He emphasized the importance of monitoring and adjusting equipment to ensure proper functioning.

Duffy added that a MRF could have all the automation in the world but if someone was not fine-tuning the equipment by changing the speed of the belts or adjusting the angles of the screens, it would be difficult to produce a quality product. “So we really take a lot of pride in making sure we understand that,” he said.

Educating the public also means higher participation and cleaner material coming in to the MRF, according to Duffy. ReCommunity has added education centers to some of its facilities for that purpose.

Karl Mockros, vice president of WM Recycle America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. (WM), Houston, talked about how MRFs often receive materials that aren’t included in a community’s recycling program, such as large pieces of scrap metal and plastic film. He says MRFs should be designed to handle this material whether they are part of the municipality’s program or not.

“You are going to have to handle it anyways; you might at well capture the value out of it,” he said.

He also spoke to the issue of quality, saying that an aluminum can in a bale of fiber has no value to a paper mill but it does have value to the MRF.

WM operates 115 MRFs, 40 of which are single-stream facilities. The company manages more than 10 million tons of traditional recyclables per year and another 3 million tons of organics.

Mockros mentioned that municipal solid waste (MSW) has been declining on a per capita basis for some time. “The recycling stream is growing, while the waste stream is shrinking. This presents a lot of opportunity,” he said.

Mockros said WM has spent up to $29 million dollars to build a single MRF. “These [sorting systems] are not the kind of things we used to piece together 20 years ago,” he told attendees. “It is a completely different world out there. If you are not going to make the investment, you are not going to get the quality.”

Mockros talked about how WM is the go-between for its inbound and outbound customers. “Inbound customers supply the material, and outbound customers consume the material,” he said. “Unfortunately, their expectations and their goals often conflict, and it’s our responsibility and our job to find balance.”

Advancing Technology
People’s behaviors have changed, as has the material stream, Mockros said. For example, MRFs receive more small brown fiber today than they did five years ago. Because there isn’t equipment to extract small brown fiber, WM relies on labor to manually sort the material. “That still presents one of our biggest challenges,” he said.

WM has employed two operations improvement teams to address quality at its MRFs, Mockros said. These teams are implementing quality management systems, of which maintenance programs are an essential component.

When it comes to replacement parts to keep equipment operating efficiently, Mockros says WM only buys replacement disks for screens from OEMs. “We’ve had difficulties and challenges with some of the quality control,” he said, “and the performance of those screens is critical to the quality.”

While Mockros said WM doesn’t want to be in the equipment development business, it has been investing in its own proprietary technologies. The company is looking at robotics to improve quality and capture rates and at technology to remove plastic film.

“If the plastic bag went away tomorrow, I don’t think there would be too many folks in this room who would be disappointed,” he said to the audience. “The biggest nemesis in these plants is keeping these screens clean and operating effectively with the amount of bags that come in. Removing them by hand bag by bag has been a challenge for us.”

Targeting Residents

Tim Horkay, vice president of production and marketing, TFC Recycling, Chesapeake, Va., said his company’s waste diversion model includes geo-targeting marketing methods to change behavior.

TFC operates three MRFs in Chesapeake, Newport News and the greater Richmond areas of Virginia. According to Horkay, TFC was the first company to offer single-stream recycling in the Mid-Atlantic region. About 90 percent of the material TFC processes comes from municipalities, Horkay said.

TFC uses Recycling Perks, an incentive program that promotes curbside recycling participation. The program uses RFID technology, enabling TFC to track the areas that have the poorest recycling rates or those individuals who try to recycle the wrong materials. TFC then can target specific neighborhoods for education outreach programs.

Public/Private Partnership

Hilary Gans, contract manager, South Bayside Waste Management Authority (SBWMA), also known as RethinkWaste, San Carlos, Calif., offered a municipality’s perspective on recycling. He discussed RethinkWaste’s Shoreway Environmental Center, which handles approximately 350,000 tons per year of recyclables generated from the SBWMA’s mid-peninsula service area.

Gans helped facilitate the $50 million design and construction project that remade the Shoreway Environmental Center (SEC) into a single-stream recycling facility in 2005. The introduction of single-stream recycling increased diversion by approximately 30 percent, Gans added.

RethinkWaste has contracted with the private company Recology, based in San Francisco, to operate the MRF. Gans emphasized the importance of partnership and of municipal ownership.

“Partnership is something I can’t accentuate enough,” Gans said. “Successful programs rely on an educated municipality, and it requires a partnership between the private industry, private providers and the municipality.” He added that without such a partnership, a MRF would not be able to get the community to participate or to educate them on the recycling program. He added that such a partnership was essential to ensuring the MRF operated properly to produce a quality product on the back end.

While RethinkWaste has what Gans describes as a “tremendous quality product on the back end,” 99 percent efficiency and 96 percent uptime, he said, “the real takeaway is the importance of having a private/public partnership that works together.”

He added, “I think it is very important for the municipality to not only have skin in the game but to have ownership.” He said that when a municipality owns the MRF, it “tips the balance of power.” He continued, “We decide who operates. We can change direction and bring other operators in.”

The 2012 Paper Recycling Conference & Trade Show was Oct. 14-16 at the Marriott Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago.


The author is a managing editor with the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at


A video report from this Paper Recycling Conference & Trade Show session is available at