Changing with the tide

Features - IC&I Recycling

IC&I recyclers adjust their operations to produce cleaner products in the face of China’s shifting import policies.

April 2, 2019

Photo courtesy of Alpine Waste & Recycling

With the tumultuous recycling markets seen recently, recyclers who specialize in industrial, commerical and institutional (IC&I) material have adjusted their operations to keep pace with the evolving sector.

When EFI Recycling, Portland, Oregon, first began processing commingled IC&I material about a decade ago, the venture was profitable. With an established history as a source-separated packer of commercially generated recovered fiber, EFI began pursuing commingled recycling streams to bulk up its incoming volumes of cardboard and paper.

Things have changed since then, though. Plastics increasingly have made their way into the commercial sector, presenting an obstacle that some facilities’ existing equipment isn’t fit to handle.

And, as with most recyclers, EFI’s operations were jolted by shifting regulations in China that included a 0.5 percent contamination threshold for incoming shipments of recyclables and 25 percent tariff on U.S. recovered paper and pulp.

“It’s been a journey ever since dealing with the ever-changing world of commingled recycling,” says Scott Jenkins, president and CEO of EFI.

Choosing sides

EFI is a purist, processing only source- separated and commingled IC&I streams at its 25,000-square-foot facility, with the former accounting for the bulk of the material handled. Jenkins says doing so allows EFI to focus on the details and maintain a quality product, which is of utmost importance with China’s quality restrictions.

Various problems can arise from mixing residential recycling streams with the purer IC&I streams, which contain high volumes of old corrugated containers (OCC) and paper, he says. With the more varied residential streams, sorting valuable commodities can be more complex. IC&I material also generally is larger than residentially generated material, which can present further sorting issues.

Even in IC&I streams, contamination remains a challenge. Commercial packaging has evolved to include more plastic film, which tends to clog sorting equipment.

For some facilities, IC&I contamination can be more problematic than residential contamination because open containers at the back of industrial and commercial buildings can present disposal opportunities for passersby.

“In the mixed commercial single- stream world, we see much higher contamination levels than in residential,” says Joaquin Mariel, vice president of operations at Balcones Resources, Austin, Texas. “For our company, contamination creates an operational challenge. It can do damage to equipment or people, and it always slows down the process.”

Upgrading and adapting

Equipment upgrades have been vital to reducing contamination and maintaining quality for IC&I processors.

EFI has invested in equipment upgrades four times over the past decade. Last year, Jenkins transitioned to equipment better suited to handling a wider array of material, including a new baler and screens from Netherlands-based Bollegraaf Recycling Machinery BV, which is represented in North America by Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Stamford, Connecticut, as well as a material handler with an elevating cab from Sennebogen LLC, Stanley, North Carolina. The material handler allows the operator to better see incoming material and sort through it before it is loaded into the system.

“The China regulations have had a pretty massive effect on the industry, but it’s still a great business. As processors, you just have to adapt.” – Brent Hildebrand, Alpine Waste & Recycling

“Since our upgrade, we’re seeing cleaner results,” Jenkins says.

The right equipment upgrades and attention to detail, have been especially important at facilities that accept residential and IC&I material, such as Balcones’ material recovery facility (MRF) in Austin.

Balcones is working with the CP Group, San Diego, to install nearly $5 million worth of upgrades at its Austin MRF starting in April, which will include robotics and optical sorting units. “The majority of it is going to continue to improve on the quality of material we’re producing out of the single-stream system and lower operating cost where we can,” Mariel says.

Alpine Waste & Recycling, a fully integrated waste and recycling business based in Denver, accepts commingled residential and IC&I material streams as well. Most of the material is loaded into the system at once, but not first without work on the front end to remove any damaging contaminants and to decide if the loads would be better processed separately.

“Every load that gets dumped on our tipping floor we visually inspect it,” Brent Hildebrand, vice president of recycling at Alpine, says. “In that visual inspection, we have highly trained personnel that will monitor those loads and then keep some loads separate from others based on what they see dumped out of [the] truck.”

He continues, “If you really boil it down, it’s about managing your tipping floor. It’s kind of like your first line of defense for these systems.”

Alpine also has invested in several equipment upgrades over the past decade “to keep up with our growth and to keep up with the quality restrictions the industry has seen worldwide,” Hildebrand says. The company’s most recent investment includes $2.5 million in upgrades at its Altogether Recycling plant in Denver.

The MRF added new equipment from Machinex, Plessisville, Quebec, including a larger metering bin on the front end of the system, another ballistic separator (in addition to an existing one) to better separate smaller containers and a dual-eject optical sorter to better separate paper. It also upgraded from a three-deck to a four-deck Mach OCC screen to remove smaller pieces of this material at the front end of the system to keep it off of the paper lines. AMP Robotics of Louisville, Colorado, also installed some software updates to improve the facility’s carton-recycling robot, which is nicknamed Clarke.

Navigating the challenges

To further combat contamination issues, IC&I recyclers emphasize the importance of outreach and continuing education.

EFI conducts free “audits” with whomever requests them, though Jenkins says the effort is more of an overview of how potential clients’ needs would best be met, whether by EFI or by other companies if EFI doesn’t have the right services. A staff member evaluates the customers’ waste streams, collection practices and disposal bills to determine which materials can be reclaimed and at what price, along with recommendations for improving collection efficiency and material value.

“When we say waste audit, we’re encompassing everything from the logistics to the commodities,” Jenkins says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about it, and we can point you in the right direction.”

Alpine representatives travel to a new customer’s facility to review the program with employees.

After that, Alpine teams up with the customer’s janitorial staff and deploys them to leave notes on each employee’s desk the day the service changes over to remind them of the new guidelines. The janitorial staff is further charged with keeping employees informed about the program.

“It’s very important to have an internal champion at these locations that continues to monitor and educate their clientele,” Hildebrand says.

Opportunities abound

Shifting local legislation has proven to be advantageous for some IC&I recyclers. All commercial and multifamily properties in the city of Austin, for example, were required by a tiered ordinance to have recycling services available by October 2017. The requirement has benefited Balcones, which Mariel says has seen an uptick in incoming material.

“Our intention was to open this facility and begin to be a resource for the multitude of waste generators in this market,” he says. “It just so happened we were able to fulfill a demand that was developing and has continued to develop.”

In upgrading their equipment, the processors also have been able to meet shifting consumers’ needs and expectations. Alpine’s upgrades, for example, have allowed it to begin accepting expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging and coffee cups in its commercial stream.

“We’re able to recoup those materials, which sets us apart from most,” Hildebrand says. “It’s just a function of us looking at the stream and analyzing what we can pull out and making sure there’s a long-term valuable home for that material.”

Although much has changed since recyclers like Alpine began processing IC&I material, the basic facts remain: The material can, with attention to detail and a willingness to change, be recovered and processed into valuable products.

“When we decided to build a recycling facility back in 2007, we really went after the commercial stream because it was really heavy in valuable commodities. The China regulations have had a pretty massive effect on the industry, but it’s still a great business,” Hildebrand says. “As processors, you just have to adapt.”

The author is the assistant editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be contacted at