Materials Recovery facilities (MRFs) today are confronted with many challenges, including rising equipment costs, consumer education, worker safety and the push toward single-stream collection. Waste Age recently conducted, via e-mail, interviews with three MRF managers to discuss the specific issues their facilities are facing and how the sites are responding. The participants included:
Tom Glenn, solid waste program coordinator for Clearwater, Fla.
Stuart Lee, general manager of transfer station/MRF operations for Republic Services of Southern California.
Tom Kusterer, recycling program manager for Montgomery County, Md.
Waste Age (WA): What are the biggest issues in recycling today, and what do you anticipate will be the biggest issues five years from now?
Glenn: Participation in a non-mandatory environment. As for five years from now, we're hopeful that the markets are still high enough to support our programs. We all know recycling is the right thing to do, but can we agree it is market-driven?
Lee: The biggest issue we face today is the cost of collecting and sorting recyclables. The prices of fuel, equipment and labor all have increased dramatically over the past three years. As a result, the cost of providing services to our customers has increased.
I think energy costs will continue to impact the recycling industry over the next five years. Another issue is the sale of commodities. We work with a worldwide market for recyclables. Today, the majority of material that we collect and process is sold in the United States, China and India. Over the next five years, I think we will continue to see development and expansion of the markets in China and India.
Kusterer: Some of the significant issues currently in recycling include collection methodologies and vehicles, communities deciding between single-stream and dual-stream recycling, and adding new materials to the recycling stream.
Some of the issues in the near future could include increased mechanization for sorting materials at material recovery facilities, upgrading material recovery facilities as equipment systems age and the need for improved processing systems occurs, and communities meeting pre-established recycling rates.
WA: There is a growing emphasis on living a “green” lifestyle. Has this resulted in an increased amount of materials brought to your facility?
Glenn: Within the commercial sector — hotels in particular — yes. There does seem to be a great deal of emphasis put out by the media. The public sector may take some more time to get onboard. Education is key! There is a sector, though — lower social economic — that still won't recycle.
Lee: Not so much. For years, we have been introducing creative recycling programs for our customers and investing in facilities to process recyclables. I am encouraged to see other companies throughout the United States jumping on the bandwagon with their “green” initiatives.
Here in California, we have had some extremely aggressive recycling programs over the years. I think that other markets in the United States have seen the increases that California experienced in the '90s.
Kusterer: We have seen an increase in the amount of inbound commingled material over the last several years. We are slightly ahead of last year's inbound tonnage at a comparable point, although two communities that previously delivered their commingled and mixed paper here switched to single-stream recycling and no longer deliver their material to our facility.
WA: How has the growing cost of raw materials — such as steel, plastic and oil — impacted your operations?
Glenn: Fuel costs to collect and process have risen. Costs for equipment and vehicles also have risen.
Lee: No question that the cost of providing recycling services to consumers has increased. Specifically, we have experienced higher fuel prices, insurance costs, labor costs, equipment costs and steel prices, which result in more expensive trucks and equipment.
We all are working hard to control costs. However, the majority of costs are outside of our control. For example, higher fuel and steel prices are significantly impacting our cost structure.
Kusterer: We've seen increases across the board in terms of cost. As examples, the cost of 100 pounds of baling wire increased about 22 percent over the last 12 months, and the cost of a same-positioned conveyor belt increased about 26 percent over the same period.
WA: How have the prices for recycled commodities changed in the last year, and how has that affected your business?
Glenn: The markets have had a good year. All are up, but it doesn't take much to change that, and you must be prepared for the low times. Things change fast in a commodity-based business. Are we pushing the envelope now?
Lee: Prices for commodities are always changing. Managing the changes of every commodity is a full-time job.
Kusterer: Prices, on the whole, have increased. As examples, our per-ton revenue for aluminum used-beverage containers increased by approximately 19 percent from May 2007 to May 2008. Similarly, our per-ton revenue for ferrous increased by 103 percent during the same time.
WA: How are the overseas markets impacting the demand for recycled materials?
Glenn: When material is exported, core industries in our country must rely on domestic material to fill their needs. Lots of buyers are making the rounds.
Lee: Overseas demand continues to be strong. The majority of our recyclables are shipped to China. Shipping container costs have been rising. We are watching this issue closely.
Kusterer: All of our commingled vendors are U.S. companies. To the best of my knowledge, all of the commodities we ship them are consumed domestically. Our mixed paper contractor is also a U.S. company but has sold material overseas on occasion.
WA: Have the communities that your facility serves switched to single-stream recycling? If so, how has this affected your operations?
Glenn: No. We don't have the capability to provide processing of single- or even dual-stream. The communities around Clearwater have done quite well with curb sort. I still don't understand the fervor about dual-stream. In Clearwater, we have been recycling in earnest since 1994. Our equipment always has been set to curb-sort for our city and the surrounding seven cities that we process and market for. Fewer employees are needed to process this way — no pickers. We always have a clean, marketable product.
Lee: Yes. The majority of the communities we serve in Southern California converted to single-stream recycling in the early 1990s. On the collection side, automated trucks have dramatically improved productivity and reduced the number of driver injuries. On the MRF side, we continue to look at new technology to improve our operations.
Kusterer: As noted in the response to the second question, two communities that we previously served have converted to single-stream and deliver their material to another facility. We continue to process commingled material at our facility and ship the mixed paper delivered here to a contractor for processing.
WA: What are the biggest safety issues for MRF workers? How does your facility address them?
Glenn: Noise — earplugs. Dust — eye protection. Trip hazards — keep all areas clean. All processing personnel are issued personal protection equipment (PPE).
Lee: Hand, finger and wrist injuries are the most common for workers at any MRF. We are diligent in educating our people and making certain that safety rules, especially those that address personal protective equipment, are continuously reinforced. We also make a special effort to keep workers and machinery in separate areas.
Kusterer: Some of the many safety issues for MRF workers include assuring safe operations for the loader operator and the haulers on the tipping floor. Also, checking that all workers at the tip floor and the processing area have the required personal protective equipment and are following confined space procedures when cleaning out conveyor pits. We use a combination of training, operations monitoring and regular safety meetings to assure safety at our facility.
WA: What are the changes that you would like to see in the recycling sector?
Glenn: More belief that the little guy (cities) can do it in-house as well and sometimes better then the large corporations. We have the citizen's service at the top of our priorities. I feel that more cooperation between counties and cities should be developed.
Lee: There still needs to be more education, especially among consumers and product makers. Far too many consumers do not participate in recycling programs. Those that do participate think they are recycling by putting materials out at the curb. In reality, this is only the first step in the recycling process.
Consumers need to understand the importance of both sorting materials and buying them back as new products. Product makers also need to step up and ensure that outlets exist for the materials they would like to see collected. Product manufacturers must be willing to buy back and reuse recyclable material.
Governments can also help by stimulating markets for recycled products — especially for items that are difficult to recycle, such as plastics. To the extent possible, governments should work with product makers to determine the best means to promote the use of recycled materials.
Kusterer: It would be great to see even higher recycling rates, continued market demand for recyclable commodities and high revenues for the commodities.