Seismic shifts

List & Map of North America's Largest MRFs - List & Map of North America’s Largest MRFs

North America’s largest material recovery facilities have weathered a number of tremors that have shaken the municipal recycling landscape.

September 17, 2019

The municipal recycling sector has faced many challenges in recent years, including the changing material stream. Old corrugated containers (OCC) and plastic packaging of various types continue to increase, while old newspapers (ONP) have dwindled to a trickle. Material recovery facilities (MRFs) also are facing labor shortages and increasing contamination in incoming loads. Additionally, China has essentially disappeared as an end market, and the country’s restrictions on postconsumer scrap imports have led to an abundance of mixed paper and mixed plastics in North America, which has driven down pricing for these materials and made movement more challenging.

The rankings for our 2019 Map & List of North America’s Largest MRFs are based on the tons of recyclables these facilities shipped in 2018. (In the case of MRFs operated by Phoenix-based Republic Services Inc., the figures reported equal the tons the company sold from its individual MRFs. If material moved at negative value, the company did not report it.)

Despite the challenges the municipal recycling sector has been facing, the 75 largest MRFs in North America still processed and shipped a total of nearly 8.2 million tons of recyclables in 2018.

Some MRFs handled and shipped more tons in 2018, including our No. 1 facility, Sims Municipal Recycling’s Sunset Park MRF in Brooklyn, New York. That MRF shipped 241,884 tons in 2016. In 2018, that figure grew to 247,201 tons.

However, other MRFs saw their total tons shipped decrease, including Resource Management Cos.’ Chicago Ridge, Illinois, MRF, which ranked in the No. 3 spot on our 2019 list. That facility shipped 222,433 tons of recyclables in 2016, which declined to 203,307 tons in 2018. Casella Waste Systems Inc.’s Charlestown, Massachusetts, MRF (No. 4 on this year’s list) also saw a decrease in tons shipped in 2018 compared with 2016: 194,450 versus 204,580.

Houston-based Waste Management continues to dominate the list with a total of 21 MRFs. Toronto-based Waste Connections has 11 MRFs on the list, while Republic Services has 10.

Below, we offer a closer look at some of the facilities and companies on this list:

Inside the MRF: No. 1, Sims Municipal Recycling Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York 

Sims Municipal Recycling’s Sunset Park MRF topped Recycling Today’s list of the largest MRFs in North America for the second consecutive time. The MRF, located on the 11-acre 29th Street Pier in the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, was opened in late 2013 and processes most of New York City’s (NYC’s) commingled curbside recyclables.

The MRF operates three shifts daily, setting aside time for scheduled cleaning and maintenance, says Tom Outerbridge, general manager for Sims Municipal Recycling, a business of Rye, New York-based Sims Metal Management.

In 2016, the MRF shipped nearly 242,000 tons of recyclables. In 2018, that figure grew to 247,201 tons. Outerbridge says the growth can be attributed to increased public participation in New York City’s curbside recycling program.

“There is an overall increase in public awareness and appreciation of environmental issues, and the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) has done a great job with improving New Yorkers’ awareness of recycling in NYC,” he says. 

Barge access is a unique feature of the Sunset Park MRF, which allows DSNY collection trucks to cut nearly one-quarter of a million miles from New York City’s roadways annually.

The Sunset Park MRF is equipped with a Bollegraaf processing system designed and supplied by Van Dyk Recycling Solutions (VDRS), Norwalk, Connecticut. It can process 1,000 tons of material per day and is equipped with more than one dozen optical sorters; balers manufactured by Harris, Cordele, Georgia; a slow-speed shredder from SSI Shredding Systems, Wilsonville, Oregon; ballistic separators from Altshausen, Germany-based Stadler Anlagenbau GmbH; and magnets from Steinert US, Walton, Kentucky.

“Our facility was built from the ground up,” Outerbridge says, “so that afforded us with the opportunity to plan for traffic flow, maintenance, etc., which helps a lot with safety and reliability. We also built post-Green Fence, so our sorting systems are designed to produce plastics for domestic customers.”

He is referring to China’s Operation Green Fence, which that country introduced in February 2013 with the intention of discontinuing it in November 2013. Under Green Fence, China began inspecting incoming loads of scrap material to enforce import regulations the country passed in 2006 and 2010. Mixed paper and mixed rigid plastic scrap in particular were affected. 

“We have a great team in place, and we planned for a lot of the changes we are currently seeing in the industry,” Outerbridge says. “Fortunately for us, we haven’t had to deal with losing a home for mixed plastics, but the reality is that commodity values are extremely low, which makes the business difficult.”

He claims the Sunset Park MRF has improved over time. “We have always paid attention to quality, and it is one of the things that has set us apart from our competitors,” Outerbridge says. “We have had the good fortune of providing the same material to the same customers for many years.”

Sims Municipal Recycling makes a habit of evaluating the latest technology available to MRF operators, he says. “For example, we are really intrigued by the black plastic detection and machine learning robotics, and we are also looking at a number of opportunities to reduce cost and improve throughput and recovery.”

However, Outerbridge adds that Sims Municipal Recycling has not yet decided whether it will make any improvements to the Sunset Park MRF as of late August. 

As is the case at other MRFs, Sunset Park has found recruiting and retaining qualified employees challenging. “The reality is it isn’t an easy work environment, particularly in the coldest and hottest months, and the tight labor market creates a challenge,” Outerbridge says. “Thankfully, we have strong relationships with a number of local placement organizations, and we emphasize our fair pay benefits and strong corporate culture.”

While he says increasing costs for residue disposal and the depressed commodity prices are challenges for MRF operators, he sees reasons for hope. 

“ … [A]fter 30-plus years in the industry, I think this is a time of the greatest potential for recycling,” Outerbridge says. “The technology has never been better, public demand and support is at an all-time high, and so we just need to sort out the commodity markets.” 

– DeAnne Toto


Inside the MRF: No. 3, Resource Management Cos., Chicago Ridge, Illinois

Resource Management Cos.’ MRF in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, ranked No. 3 on this year’s list of the largest MRFs in North America, with 203,307 tons of recyclables shipped in 2018. The company’s Plainfield, Illinois, MRF also ranked on the list at No. 75, with 63,244 tons shipped in 2018.

“The majority of the general public, across the socioeconomic spectrum in our service area continues to participate enthusiastically in single-stream recycling. Additionally, the evolution of automated and semiautomated collection systems, which supply large collection receptacles to residents has resulted in an increase in volumes available versus the smaller containers used previously,” says Cal Tigchelaar, president of Resource Management Cos. 

Resource Management Cos. also previously operated a MRF in Earth City, Missouri, which is close to St. Louis, that ranked at No. 50 on our 2017 list, having shipped 92,353 tons in 2016. However, that MRF recently was sold, Tigchelaar says. He adds that a large portion of the material handled by its St. Louis facility originated from the city of St. Louis’ collection program and it generally was of “very poor quality.”

He says, “Given current final market demands overseas for increased quality and the ongoing deterioration of the single-stream material available in that market, our company made the decision to sell the facility and focus our growth efforts elsewhere.”

Tigchelaar adds that the quality requirements for postconsumer recyclables are more stringent than they have been in prior years, particularly for the recovered fiber stream.

“We have always taken pride in the quality of the material produced in our facilities and we continue to do so,” he says. “For the MRF industry in general, however, the days of Asian countries welcoming highly contaminated shipments of U.S. waste paper and plastics are over, and MRF operators who do not recognize this fact and take steps to improve the quality of their outbound material will end up few market choices for the material that they produce.”

He says the two biggest challenges facing MRF operators today are low commodity prices along with increasing inbound material contamination levels. Tigchelaar says, “Unfortunately both of these factors have forced the processing industry to impose significant tip fees in order to remain viable. Materials arriving at our facility, which in the past have produced revenue for our suppliers, have now become a cost to them. Current tip fees for single-stream material arriving at MRFs in our area exceed tip fees for trash being delivered to area landfills, and it is unlikely that this trend will reverse anytime soon. As tip fees at MRFs continue to increase, decision-makers at the municipal level will need to make decisions regarding the ongoing economic viability of their recycling programs.”

– Megan Smalley


Inside the MRFs: Nos. 5, 6, 7 (as well as 18 other rankings), Waste Management Inc.

Houston-based Waste Management Inc. has a total of 21 material recovery facilities (MRFs) on our 2019 Map & List of North America’s Largest MRFs, with three MRFs placing among the 10 largest. The company’s Minneapolis MRF ranked in the No. 5 spot on our list, followed by its Elkridge, Maryland, MRF at No. 6 and its Germantown, Wisconsin, MRF, at No. 7.

Recycling Today talked with Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, about gains and losses the company has experienced over the last two years, as well as exciting plans for growth and investment in recycling.

“We’ve seen [tonnage] down slightly from 2017 to 2019, although roughly half of our facilities have a positive volume swing from those time periods,” Bell says. He adds where MRFs saw a decrease in tonnage, the shift was driven by Waste Management’s new recycling pricing model.

“Since 2017, we’ve come out with a new recycling pricing model to make sure we can continue our investments in recycling,” Bell says. “In order to do that, we had to recover our processing costs.”

He adds, “Our goal is to make sure we can offer this service to customers. Some of these cities just can’t afford to pay for recycling like they’ve seen in the last year, so we’re trying to create a model that works long-term, economically and environmentally.”

The new pricing strategy has caused “us to lose some major customer contracts,” Bell says.

Waste Management’s Philadelphia MRF (No. 31 on the list) shipped 104,990 tons of recyclables in 2018. Bell says the company had a contract to process Philadelphia’s recyclables for a “number of years” but lost the contract because of the new pricing model. Recently, under a new partnership with the city, Waste Management regained the contract and is once again processing their recyclables, Bell says.

Waste Management is building three new facilities that will be running by early 2020, including the Chicago “recycling facility of the future.” In addition to investing $100 million in recycling in 2019, the company will deploy eight robots in its top recycling facilities by the end of the year to “become more efficient” in recycling the shifting material stream, Bell says, which includes more lightweight packaging.

He adds Waste Management has taken on a role to promote the use of recycled materials when working with brands and communities.

“The demand for these products is crucial to the life cycle,” he says. “Prices are low because of lack of demand. When we’re talking to customers, we ask them to require the use of recycled content in paper, boxes and plastic bottles so demand picks up.”

– Kelly Maile

Inside the MRF: No. 56, E.L. Harvey & Sons Inc., Westborough, Massachusetts

Being in Massachusetts, the E.L. Harvey & Sons Inc. MRF in Westborough has one advantage that many of the other MRFs on this list do not: Massachusetts has a disposal ban on recyclables, which means that municipalities in the state cannot discontinue their recycling programs, says Ben Harvey, company president.

However, that doesn’t mean the company is immune from the turmoil affecting the recycling sector overall since China has tightening its import restrictions for recyclables, leaving tons of postconsumer paper and plastics within the U.S. and causing pricing for these materials to decline. 

Harvey says it’s been difficult “convincing the generator/municipalities that the cost of recycling must be borne by them. The markets can no longer support the cost of recycling.”

E.L. Harvey & Sons has been serving customers in Massachusetts since 1911, offering hauling and recycling services for commercial, industrial and residential waste and recyclables, including fiber, metal, plastics, electronics and construction and demolition (C&D) debris. In 2013, the company began operating its 80,000-square-foot single-stream MRF, which is capable of processing 25 tons per hour using a system supplied by Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon. The facility also includes a Bollegraaf baler supplied by Van Dyk Recycling Systems, Norwalk, Connecticut, as well as an IPS baler. 

The BHS system includes a SpydIR-T optical sorter with PET Boost from Nashville, Tennessee-based NRT, a wholly owned subsidiary of BHS. The optical sorter identifies unique polymer signatures from their infrared spectra, according to NRT. The company says the SpydIR-T uses PET Boost to improve detection of thin-wall polyethylene terephthalate (PET), wet PET and full-sleeve-labeled PET.

Harvey says the MRF runs one shift per day, five-and-a-half days per week, expanding its operating hours as needed based on inbound volumes. 

In response to more stringent quality requirements for recyclables, he says the MRF has increased its quality control efforts. “We have also pushed back on the generator, with the assistance of MassDEP (Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection), to get a standard material acceptance list.”

However, Harvey says E.L. Harvey & Sons currently has no plans to make any changes to the MRF’s processing system.   

– DeAnne Toto