For the past three years, Spence Davenport has applied his extensive knowledge of technology to his role in the waste and recycling industry. As process improvement manager at Athens Services, Davenport has developed a number of innovative technology solutions to improve various areas of operations, such as record keeping, routing and materials management.
Davenport joined Athens Services just as it was beginning to build its Sun Valley, Calif., materials recovery facility (MRF), which is now an award-winning MRF that has a 98 percent recovery rate and runs at 95 percent uptime and 60 tons per hour on two lines with mixed waste.
In addition to assisting with the launch of the MRF, Davenport has designed various reports to help Athens Services improve processes and conduct waste characterization studies, which have helped the company track trends and make adjustments where needed.
Waste360 presented Davenport with a Waste360 40 Under 40 award this year and recently spoke with him about what made him switch from working with startups to working with trash, his role in the launch of Athens Services’ award-winning Sun Valley MRF and the apps that he has developed for the industry.
Waste360: What brought you to the waste and recycling industry?
Spence Davenport: I actually studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and when I graduated, I moved to Chicago and worked for about seven years doing sales and business development for a number of data and marketing startups. I eventually got burned out and decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue other career opportunities.
As I was moving to L.A., I built a small scale composting system and became very interested in the concept of reducing food waste. I didn’t know anything about the waste and recycling industry at the time so I cold called and emailed every trash company in L.A. to try and get a job in the industry. I am saddened to say that I didn’t hear back from a single company.
That experience was very frustrating for me, but I eventually got a freelance gig writing about different waste-to-energy concepts. That gig led to a full-time waste broker position at DC Environmental, where I helped sell services, assisted commercial customers with pricing negotiations for collection services and helped educate building tenants on recycling and source separation. That role was a great introduction to the industry, and it helped me realize that I wanted to get into the operations side of the industry.
To help expand my knowledge of the industry, I decided to take some waste management classes at the University of California, Los Angeles. While doing that, I met Eugene Tseng a very well-respected member of the waste industry. He’s now one of my mentors, and he was the one who introduced me to Riel Johnson at Athens Services. I was introduced to Riel at the right time because Athens Services was just starting to build its Sun Valley MRF. Riel ended up giving me an opportunity to work on the operations side, and I have been with the company for about three years now.
Waste360: Tell us about how you helped launch the award-winning Sun Valley MRF.
Spence Davenport: The Sun Valley MRF is Athens Services’ second MRF. The City of Industry MRF was Athens Services’ first MRF and that has about 130 sorters per shift that separate mixed waste material based on commodity type.
For the past 20 years or so, the city of Industry MRF has been informing us on what type of materials come through the L.A. area, and that information is what we went off of when we started developing the Sun Valley MRF.
When the Sun Valley MRF first opened about three years ago, we went through some learning experiences, and Bulk Handling Systems was there to help us out. Now, we constantly do waste characterizations on the inbound stream and all commodities so that we can use accurate data to see where our opportunities are or could be. The great thing about having two MRFs is that we are able to constantly test changes to better our business, and we will continue to do that into the future.
Waste360: Part of your role as process improvement manager is to design various reports to help Athens Services improve its processes and conduct waste characterization studies. Tell us a little about that.
Spence Davenport: My job is to make sure that we are recycling as much as possible. We don’t own any landfills, and that makes us unique in that we are highly incentivized to pull material out of waste stream before sending it to landfill.
To ensure that we are recycling as much as possible, we conduct waste characterization studies in our facilities and give feedback to our employees and customers about the type of trends we are seeing. The waste characterization studies also help us with selling commodities to mills and plastic processors and determining what technology and engineering we want to do going forward, whether it’s installing new optical sorters or robots or taking advantage of more waste-to-energy opportunities. With the new China regulations and the way the waste stream is changing, we have to meet very high specifications, and our data allows us to show the value of our commodities.
Right now, I am working with 2016 Waste360 40 under 40 award winner Jessica Aldridge and other staff members to figure out ways to prevent textiles from ending up in the waste stream. We are seeing a lot of textiles come through our facilities and they are really heavy and can cause jams in our machines. We can send them to waste-to-energy facilities right now, but we would prefer that the material is donated first if possible.
Waste360: You’ve also helped create mobile apps for the waste and recycling industry. Tell us about the apps and their functionalities.
Spence Davenport: We have historically used pen and paper for recording keeping, and although I have only been with the company for about three years, I have noticed that that isn’t an efficient method for record keeping because it can be very difficult to find the exact data you are looking for in a timely manner. To help make our record keeping process more efficient, I developed an app that rates every single inbound load that comes into our MRFs based on the quality of material and contamination. From there, the material that’s collected goes into an online database that uses various formulas to sort the data and spit out grades for every route.
Since the app was developed, we have the ability to target neighborhoods for better education, anticipate when we can expect good loads and improve our uptime. We also have been able to use apps for waste characterizations and general operational tasks, which saves us both time and money in a number of areas.
Waste360: What are some of the exciting things that Athens Services is currently working on?
Spence Davenport: Organics is the biggest thing that everyone is focusing on in California right now. We are one of the few privately owned companies that are very uniquely positioned in the fact that we have two MRFS and one of the largest composting facilities in the state. In addition, we have a lot of data available that can help us determine whether the organic material collected should be sent to our composting facility or to an anaerobic digestion facility.
It’s important to note that there isn’t one solution for every material, and with the aggressive state regulations around organics, it can be difficult to develop and maintain efficient and effective solutions. To comply with the regulations, we are trying to put smart infrastructure in place so that we get the best return possible.
In addition, we are looking at utilizing new sorting equipment and robotics to make our operations more efficient. We are comparing the robotics to humans to figure out where and how we can make use of them. But before we make any operational changes, we really want to make sure that the new technologies are performing at the same level or better than what were there before.
Waste360: What would you say to someone who is interested in working in the waste and recycling industry?
Spence Davenport: Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid questions.” I honestly believe that I have been successful in my young career in the industry by asking questions. I come from a startup background and the mantra of that field is there are no stupid questions and the only stupid question out there is the one that’s not asked.
I took that manta with me to the waste industry because it was a new industry to me, and I believed that I needed to ask questions in order to succeed. This industry is made up of a lot of veterans who know the ins and outs of the industry, and they are more than willing to answer any questions you may have. But while they have been there and done that, and I guarantee someone within earshot has the same question you have but they are afraid to ask it.
The more questions you ask, the more you’ll learn and the more people will appreciate you. As a millennial, I embrace asking questions and expanding my knowledge of the industry. I go home every night and read industry publications and do research so that I am up-to-date on what’s going on in the industry. If you want to get to know the industry better, I highly suggest taking some time every day to read the industry publications and inform yourself on the latest news and trends. But don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, either.