Simple directions

Pete Keller is steering Republic Services’ recycling operations toward simple, safe yet innovative approaches to collecting and processing materials.

Supporting a coast-to-coast recycling collection and processing organization would not strike most people as a simple proposition, yet Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services Inc., Phoenix, says simplicity is among his foremost goals and philosophies.

Keller has been part of Republic Services since 1998 and, in his current role, helps to oversee the company’s collection fleets and material recovery facilities (MRFs) that collect, sort and sell a wide variety of secondary materials.

With operations that handle some 5 million tons of recyclables each year, Republic Services has achieved a scale that perhaps demands simplicity in the form of a unified strategy if the company is to operate profitably while serving commercial, governmental and residential customers with a wide variety of needs and requests.
 

Scaled up

Republic Services was incorporated in 1996 and “has since experienced dramatic organic and inorganic growth,” Keller says.

After more than a decade of initial growth, Republic made its largest acquisition in 2008 when it merged the former Allied Waste Industries into its operations.

The merger has received generally favorable reviews from the investment community, with Warren Buffet acquiring numerous shares of the merged company in 2009 and Bill Gates listed as another prominent and major shareholder.

Republic Services has continued to make additional acquisitions of hauling and recycling firms, including buying Iowa-based City Carton Recycling in early 2015 and California’s Rainbow Disposal Co. in 2014.

“We’ve focused on strategic acquisitions through the years, welcoming other organizations that share our values and fiduciary discipline,” Keller says.

As of the first half of 2015, Republic Services Inc. is the second largest provider of recycling and nonhazardous solid waste services in the United States, measured by revenue, second only to Waste Management Inc., Houston.

The company comprises “collection companies, recycling centers, transfer stations and landfills focused on providing effective solutions to make proper waste disposal effortless for our commercial, industrial, municipal, residential and oil field customers,” Keller says. The wide scope of activities in handling discarded materials has led Republic to adopt the trademarked slogan, “We’ll handle it from here,” he says.

The company has 60 recycling centers or MRFs (material recovery facilities) in the U.S., “and recycling is a core component of our business,” Keller says. “We are always looking for ways to increase the diversion of materials from landfills while returning valuable recovered recyclables to the economy.”

Many of the 31,000 employees of Republic Services are focused on the collection and disposal of solid waste. Another large percentage, however, staff the company’s considerable presence in the recycling sector. “We specialize in bulk-grade fibers, such as old corrugated containers (OCC), newsprint (ONP) and mixed paper, ferrous and nonferrous metals and all [plastic] resins,” explains Keller regarding the multiple materials Republic Services employees collect, process and trade.

“In 2014, we managed 5 million tons of recyclables,” he notes. “We deliver approximately half of that material to facilities we own and operate and deliver the balance to third-party facilities,” he continues.

Whether collecting solid waste or recyclables, Keller says Republic is endeavoring to manage a safer and more environmentally sound collection fleet. “We are undertaking a big push to automate our fleet,” he says. “That means automated side loaders in the residential line. We have moved away from those two- and three-person routes. With one person and robotic-arm collection, it’s safer for the employee, who does not need to get in and out of the truck.”

Republic’s collection vehicles also are becoming lighter in weight and more fuel efficient, Keller says. “We’re continuously looking for ways to remove weight out of our vehicles,” he says, citing fuel efficiency as one reason to do so. Additionally, Keller says, “states have gross vehicle weight limitations, so to the extent that we can make the tare weight lighter without compromising on the safety of our employees, we want to do that.”

Organic growth

As states, municipalities and regional solid waste districts set aggressive landfill diversion goals, organic materials, such as food scraps, grass clippings and raked leaves, have been targeted as materials that should not head to a landfill.

“Depending on what you read and believe, organics makes up between 30 and 40 percent of the residential [municipal solid waste] stream in North America,” says Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services Inc., Phoenix.

“For communities that want to increase their diversion or recycling rate, you almost have to attack organics,” Keller says.

He adds that this can be easier said than done. “It has proven challenging; collection is a challenge, or can be, for a number of reasons. In dense urban areas, buildings don’t have enclosure space for a third container. Facilities such as cafeterias or hospitals can have a lot of employee turnover. That can provide a challenge from the customer education standpoint, so contamination becomes a problem.”

Even when participation is successful, that can lead to another problem: overweight containers. “This material can weigh anywhere from 600 to 1,000 pounds per cubic yard,” says Keller. “If you have a 6-yard box, you can put yourself in a situation where a truck can’t even lift it.”

Smaller containers or carts can be used, though these then become time consuming to collect.

Despite the logistical challenges, “Some parts of the United States are ahead of others when it comes to diverting this material,” Keller says. “There are some mature markets in the U.S. that have been attacking this challenge for close to 10 years now. Several states have passed legislation or are in the process of doing so. They want to get that material out of the waste stream. In the commercial space, organics diversion also is a growing trend.”

Diversion takes the form of composting and anaerobic digestion energy-from-waste systems. “It very much depends on the infrastructure that is available,” Keller says. “In a lot of markets, we’re collecting for traditional compost, and in a few we’re collecting material that goes to anaerobic digestion. In a few others, we’re collecting mixed waste to be processed and creating an organic fraction that goes to dry fermentation to create biogas—another anaerobic technique,” he adds.

Keller says the organics diversion trend is likely to continue. “There will be more and more demand [for diversion], and I presume, over time, more and more solutions.”

As it acquires new trucks, Keller says Republic seeks out aluminum wheels and engineered lightweight bodies if such options can reduce truck weights and increase fuel efficiency.

Republic Services invests in recyclables processing capabilities when it sees the opportunity to upgrade materials for the regional or global market. “Our processing capabilities span from dump-and-bale facilities to fully automated state-of-the-art processing facilities,” he says.

In a corporate sustainability report released in January 2015, Republic Services points to its recycling and waste-to-energy (WTE) activities as core components of its commitment to sustainability.
 

Sustainable in several ways

Within its 2014 sustainability report, which is available online at http://mms.prnasia.com/republicservices/20150313/index.html, Republic says it intends to invest in upgrading and expanding its recycling capacity and broadening its presence in the WTE sector.

By 2018, the company says it plans to:

  • add 150,000 tons per year or more of sorting and processing capacity to enable growth of recycling within the communities it serves;
  • develop at least two landfill gas and renewable energy projects per year, resulting in roughly 20,000 tons per year of avoided carbon dioxide; and
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its collection vehicles by 3 percent.
     

Keller says the goals in the report are part of Republic’s broader, overall Blue Planet philosophy. “Blue Planet is a philosophy we’ve been working on for a number of years,” he says. “Blue Planet is focused on five pillars: operations, materials management, communities, safety and people.” (Not necessarily in that order, Keller adds.)

He says Republic formulated Blue Planet knowing that it has several different constituencies to address as it forges a sustainability strategy. “It’s a balanced approach—it takes all stakeholders into account,” he comments. “We want to do the right thing for the environment, always, and our people, always. We have to be responsible citizens in the communities we serve and also take care of customers and our shareholders at the same time.”

The balancing act of considering the different constituencies can be a challenge in his philosophy to keep things simple, Keller acknowledges. “I guess my basic response is, you want to make sure you’re informed,” he says. “There are always going to be counter-views, particularly when talking about things as near and dear as solid waste services. Folks have a lot of energy to devote to it.”

His and the company’s approach, according to Keller: “Try to be a trusted advisor to all stakeholders. Generally, that’s going to serve you well. You’re not always going to agree with everybody, but sometimes it drives compromise. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, folks have a tendency to overcomplicate things.”

Simplicity also comes into play when Keller examines sorting methods at Republic Services’ MRFs. Keller, a New England native who has a civil engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, says he enjoys this aspect of his job, which allows him to use his engineering background.
 

Staying power

Although Keller is an engineer by training, he does not sound like a person who wants to “over engineer” the Republic Services sorting and processing plants he oversees.

“While I do have an engineering background and I’m continuously thinking about ways to do things better, I mostly find myself asking equipment manufacturers to do more with air and with gravity,” he says. “My thinking is that air is cheap and gravity is free.”

Keller continues, “A lot of the separation technology [being used] is really fighting gravity. We’re trying to push things uphill instead of letting them flow downhill.”

He says the materials stream of 2015 does not necessarily lend itself to easy sorting solutions, however.

“Separating by density and size is what a recycling center really does, and changes we’ve seen with some of the lighter-weight packaging, it means a lot of plastics—even rigid containers—have a tendency to behave more like paper today because they are so light,” Keller says. “So we need to change the way we process materials.”

Processing challenges notwithstanding, Keller cites numerous opportunities for Republic Services to meet additional recycling goals for its corporate and governmental customers.

On the municipal solid waste (MSW) front, Keller points to the diversion of organic materials, such as food scraps, as a rapidly emerging opportunity. “Depending on what you read and believe, organics makes up between 30 and 40 percent of the MSW stream in North America,” he remarks. (For more on Keller’s thoughts on this sector, see the sidebar, “Organic Growth,” above.)

Whether collecting from residents or commercial locations, Keller says the always-changing nature of discarded materials will be an aspect of recycling that will consistently challenge Republic Services executives and managers.

“The biggest issue we see is the change in material characteristics,” Keller says. “More specifically,” he continues, are “the declining amounts of newsprint, increasing amounts of lightweight and flexible packaging and increasing amounts of glass and contamination.”

Keller says coping with changing material streams and secondary commodity values are among the aspects of his job he expects to have to contend with for the foreseeable future.

“Market conditions fluctuate, that’s par for the course in this business,” Keller says. “We remain focused on serving our customers, growing our business and providing the highest quality materials we can produce.”

Keller’s ability and that of his colleagues to keep it that simple is one of the core strategies he spells out for Republic Services to remain competitive in the more than 200 regional markets. As the company does so, it will continue to invest to expand geographically and to adopt new technology, he says.

“We are constantly evaluating markets and are currently expanding capacity and capability in Las Vegas and in Anaheim, California,” Keller says. “There are a number of other markets we are considering, and we are always evaluating new technologies.”


 

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.

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