Coming home to Houston

Features - MRF Series

FCC Environmental Services makes Houston the home of its most advanced MRF and U.S. corporate headquarters.

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October 23, 2019

Providing competitive pricing and the latest technology is how FCC Environmental Services, the U.S.-based subsidiary of Spanish company FCC Group, says it remains competitive and successful in today’s recycling market.

The company has big plans for Houston, which is home to FCC’s new single-stream material recovery facility (MRF) that opened in March. FCC also recently moved its U.S. corporate headquarters back to Houston, a rapidly growing area that FCC envisions to be the “capital of recycling.” The company was previously headquartered in Houston from 2008 to 2014 before moving to The Woodlands, Texas.

“Houston is our hometown, where we started our environmental business back in 2008,” says Andrea Rodríguez-Piñero, director of recycling at FCC Environmental Services. “Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, growing rapidly and with a very strong and diverse economy. We don’t see any better place for us to be.”

Coming back home

Rodríguez-Piñero joined the FCC team in 2010. She is directly responsible for all technical aspects of FCC’s U.S. business, including overseeing operations at the company’s single-stream MRFs in Dallas and Houston. FCC opened its Dallas MRF in 2017.

She describes the Houston market as a “very competitive and challenging market” but also as a market with “many opportunities for our company to grow.”

During the bidding process for Houston’s recycling contract, Rodríguez-Piñero says FCC tried to distinguish itself by “proposing the latest technology available, the highest rates of recycling efficiency [and] safe operations.” She adds that FCC also expressed its willingness “to partner with local companies to embrace the local community.”

Houston awarded the contract to build the single-stream plant to FCC in January 2018 after a bidding process that included five competitors. After the contract was awarded, FCC had 14 months to complete construction and open the MRF.

“It was indeed a very tight schedule for such a major project,” Rodríguez-Piñero says. “The weather did not help either, but the facility was finished and successfully operating on time before the 14-month deadline.”

Under the terms of the 15-year contract, the city will pay FCC $87 per ton to process recyclables at the MRF. FCC will split the profits, and losses, from the sale of commodities with the city fifty-fifty.

In addition, the company built an education center at the MRF and has committed $100,000 per year to the city of Houston to support its educational efforts and programs.

“FCC is committed to education, and we believe that for this industry education is key and it should be done in a way that reaches the entire community,” Rodríguez-Piñero says. “Civic groups, schools and any other interested parties are welcome to visit and learn more about recycling.”

The contract includes reinstating glass into Houston’s curbside recycling program after a three-year suspension under the city’s previous contract. The city’s request for proposal asked that glass containers be collected with the rest of the recycling stream, which is why FCC installed a glass cleanup system at the MRF.

Inside the MRF

The MRF is housed in a 120,000-square-foot building that includes a 40,000-square-foot tipping floor and more than 15,000 square feet for bale storage.

Cardboard, paper, glass, aluminum, metal cans and Nos. 1-7 plastics enter the MRF and flow through FCC’s sorting system, which includes a combination of nonwrapping screens, the glass cleanup system and five optical sorters.

FCC purchased the 35 ton-per-hour system from Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Norwalk, Connecticut. The two companies worked together to design and build FCC’s single-stream MRF in Dallas. That system won the National Waste & Recycling Association’s Recycling Facility of the Year award in 2017.

“We did learn from our Dallas operations,” Rodríguez-Piñero says. “Dallas is an excellent plant, but, as it always happens, the last facility is usually a bit more modern than the previous one.”

She says the biggest difference between the two plants so far is the percentage of glass coming in, which is larger in Dallas than in Houston. The glass is delivered to the Houston MRF commingled with the rest of the single-stream recyclables. FCC removes the glass at the front end of the system because glass is “very abrasive and can damage the conveyors and the optical sorters,” Rodríguez-Piñero says. FCC sells the glass it recovers locally in Texas.

“Since glass was not included for the past several years in Houston, the volume is still lower as a percentage than in Dallas but increasing month to month,” Rodríguez-Piñero says. “It will take some time for the citizens to adapt to this change, but we believe that shortly the volume percentages will be very similar in both cities.”

The Houston MRF is FCC’s most advanced facility and was designed to “recover high-quality material,” she says.

“Two of the total five optical sorters are used to recover plastic film and the small packaging coming from what is known as ‘the Amazon effect,’” Rodríguez-Piñero says, referring to small boxes used to ship online orders.

“We did learn from our Dallas operations. Dallas is an excellent plant, but, as it always happens, the last facility is usually a bit more modern than the previous one.” – Andrea Rodríguez-Piñero, director of recycling, FCC Environmental Services

She adds, “Although FCC promotes the use of paper and reusable bags in our educational programs, we know that plastic film will arrive to our MRF.” The company worked with Van Dyk to design an optical sorter to remove these bags from the paper stream.

FCC also selected an elliptical separator to use in place of a third paper screen to properly clean and prepare the container stream for the optical sorters.

“This actually helps to clean the container line and reduce the maintenance cost of changing the stars discs,” Rodríguez-Piñero says of the elliptical separator.

Material is then baled using a Bollegraaf HBC-120S baler.

The MRF’s single-stream system has the capacity to process 145,000 tons per year, which is more than double the city’s current needs. FCC says it expects to process 65,000 tons between the MRF’s opening in March and March 2020. The company says it built its Houston MRF with double the capacity of the city’s current needs because it anticipates growth in the region.

FCC employs 100 people at the MRF, including some from a second-chance labor provider.

“Our group is well-known for its long-term commitment and integration with the communities where we are operating,” Rodríguez-Piñero says. She adds that in many of the 5,000 cities that FCC Group operates in, the company has been part of the neighborhoods it serves.

She adds, “This is something impossible to achieve unless you really become a part of the community, its projects and challenges and the development for future generations and its education.”

Planning for the future

FCC Group’s Environmental division is a multinational corporation with more than 100 years of experience in waste management. The division has operations in 35 countries and is one of the top five largest environmental services companies in the world with more than 50,000 employees. In the United States, FCC Group provides environmental services that touch more than 8 million residents. The company’s motto is “From waste to resource.”

FCC Environmental Services plans to “sustainably grow by adding more contracts that we will bid on in the future plus some select acquisitions we intend to make in the near future,” Rodríguez-Piñero says, referring to the Houston area and to the U.S. more broadly.

“Houston and its metropolitan area are growing rapidly, and this is a long-term contract,” she says. “We wanted to make sure to have enough capacity to accommodate both future additional tonnage from Houston and also from other cities in the vicinity.”

She adds, “We believe that recycling is the future. There may be some headwind from time to time; but, at the end, it will be the most important component of the waste stream. Being placed in large cities like Houston with long-term recycling assets is the perfect combination to secure the future. We are partnering with the city to make Houston the capital of recycling.”

The author is the digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at kmaile@gie.net.