Up to the challenge

Features - MRF Focus

Marquette County, Michigan, addresses the challenges of rural recycling in part by upgrading its material recovery facility.

May 3, 2021

Photos provided by Machinex Industries Inc.

When Marquette County, Michigan, commissioned Plessisville, Quebec-based Machinex Industries Inc. to design a new material recovery facility (MRF) in November 2020, the county’s solid waste authority had grown accustomed to dealing with the challenges of promoting recycling in its rural community.

Confronted with a lack of participation from residents, outdated equipment and a growing number of recyclables heading to landfill, Marquette County Solid Waste Management Authority (MCSWMA) Director Bradley Austin saw an opportunity to improve recycling not only in Marquette County but also within Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a whole.

“We had a dual-stream recycling [system] here that we actually built ourselves. This was done by some very innovative staff members,” Austin says. “But, ultimately, we came to a crossroads when reviewing the county’s [recycling infrastructure] and knew that we had to make a decision of whether or not we were going to make an improvement.”

Machinex CEO Chris Hawn says Austin had begun initial conversations with the company in 2018 after becoming acquainted with Machinex through industry trade shows.

“Brad had originally called us [to] talk about his decision and what he wanted to do up there at that facility, so we went up there and visited with him,” Hawn says. “[H]e talked about his vision, and we had some technologies that were available to meet his goals.

“He had some distinct ideas, and it was just a great relationship from the start,” Hawn continues. “We spent a lot of time back and forth ironing out the best solutions for his facility and discussing what met his needs. It was probably, from start to finish, a couple year process of doing all the evaluations.”

The county received a $3 million interest-free loan from New York City-based Closed Loop Fund and an $800,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to build the $6.3 million facility. The EGLE grant was part of the funding the state allocated to recycling infrastructure in 2018. Marquette County worked with Resource Recycling Systems, or RRS, Ann Arbor, Michigan, to find the funding for the project.

Working within the space

Prior to the upgrade, the county’s recycling system could process only 1,500 tons per year, a capacity that Hawn says “wasn’t ever going to be enough.”

With future growth and outreach into surrounding communities in mind, the new MRF was designed to address two critical areas: minimizing labor and increasing throughput with limited space.

The new processing system was installed in the same building that housed the previous dual-stream MRF and had to fit within the existing footprint. “We were looking to put this equipment in an existing structure, and that was one of the things that I think was probably the most challenging,” Austin says.

To accommodate the space constraints, Hawn says the MRF needed to be highly automated. With the capacity to sort 10,000 to 15,000 tons per year, the system was designed with a back-scraping drum that ensures input material remains at a consistent depth, a Mach OCC screen for cardboard sorting, a fines screen to separate glass, a Mach ballistic screen to separate two-dimensional material from three-dimensional material, a magnet to recover ferrous metals and a Machinex two-ram baler.

To sort polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers more efficiently, a SamurAI robot was installed, creating a loop that enables containers to be sorted with high efficiency and no waste, according to Machinex. This robot also allows for better recovery rates and reduces the need for manual sorters.

“The anticipated volume coming out is also much higher than what we expected.” – Marquette County Solid Waste Management Authority Director Bradley Austin

In addition, the facility features an alternative storage bunker with a live floor.

“[Staged] material would go and fill a large walking floor bunker and would stay in storage while [the system] processed the tons from the tip floor,” Hawn says. “Once they had run through the materials from the tip floor, they could then turn on the back half of the system. So, empty the motion floor, or the walking floor, that has all the containers in it, and the material meter can then be set to the container line, where we put in a robot.

“The nice thing about the system is that if you just run it with a robot, [you can] put it into a loop where the robot can just pick the PET,” Hawn explains. “And if it’s run out of PET, then we can change it to focus on HDPE. So, the material that passes but didn’t get captured goes back to the same bunker and recirculates until we get what we think are all the commodities out of that. The conveyors that feed that walking floor bunker are reversible, and you can purge the system of the remainder [of materials].”

Increased participation

Operating with the new equipment, Austin says, is like “night and day” compared with the old system.

“The [SamurAI robot] has been a fantastic addition to what we’re currently doing,” he says. “The anticipated volume coming out is also much higher than what we expected, which is a great problem to have. But what it has led to is more hires, more people on the line, and the automation certainly is augmenting that very well,” Austin adds.

The MCSWMA says it has seen a significant increase in recycling volumes since implementing its new single-stream program. When compared with January of last year, the volume of recyclables collected has increased 50 percent.

Austin told Negaunee, Michigan-based WLUC in February that he attributes the increase in volume to more access to curbside recycling. “We’re seeing some more standardized cart programs that are being launched in some of the more populated municipalities, coupled with outreach.”

He tells Waste Today, “In the Upper Peninsula as a whole, there was a lack of recycling capacity. However, I think we’re fortunate in the sense that we’re centrally located within Upper Michigan, and we’ve got the capacity online [now] ... . That’s what really changed here in the region—knowing there is a facility [to go to].”

The author is assistant editor of Recycling Today’s sister publication Waste Today. Email her at hrischar@gie.net. A version of this article first appeared in the March issue of Waste Today.