Changing in Midstream

MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, the decision to retool a materials recovery facility (MRF) is driven by the bottom line. If operators can prove that changes in equipment and facility design will increase the tonnage processed per hour and reduce labor and other operational costs, then the capital investment is worth it. But facility retrofits should be given more than a cursory thought, cautions Eric Herbert, vice president and CEO of Burrtec Waste Industries Inc., Fontana, Calif.

Burrtec recently retrofitted three MRFs in Southern California to help increase its recycling rates and manage new infeeds that went from source-separated to single-stream. Burrtec expanded its MRF in Riverside, completed a major retooling at its Fontana facility and is in the process of retooling a MRF in Victorville owned by a local joint powers authority. According to Herbert, the experiences can provide valuable lessons for others considering MRF expansions or retooling.

Ramping Up Recycling

For Burrtec, the retrofitting cost equation made sense at each of its three MRFs. New technologies for processing recyclables collected in single-stream programs are allowing for major increases in both throughput and efficiency, Herbert explains. The company believed retrofitting the facilities would allow the company to take advantage of innovations such as improved screens and optical sorting devices. “It has amazed us how much, over a relatively short period of time, the technology has changed,” he says.

Herbert notes that he was impressed with new screening technologies that separate paper from containers and then further process the paper and containers into various grades. “Prior to these new technologies, there wasn't a satisfactory answer to that problem. These new technologies can organize the material by commodity now,” he says.

Technological innovations are not only helpful for processing residential streams, but also for increasing recycling rates in commercial waste streams. In states like California where local governments operate with landfill diversion mandates, commercial recycling is critical to achieving high recycling rates. In desert communities like those served by the Victor Valley MRF, there is little yard waste, so communities are focusing on paper recovery from the commercial sector to meet their diversion requirements. Better sorting technologies make reaching higher recycling rates more cost-effective for communities, Herbert says.

Reducing residuals (i.e., material collected in a recycling program that ultimately is landfilled or incinerated) is another important benefit of retooling a MRF. Some single-stream programs have been criticized for generating higher residual rates than source-separated programs. In other words, commingling recyclables can lead to more contamination among recyclables so that they cannot be reprocessed. But by retooling its facilities, Herbert says Burrtec has reduced residuals from 20 percent to 15 percent. This is in part because the newer technologies capture smaller pieces of glass than older systems, he says.

Equipment Evaluations

Once an operator has made the decision to retrofit a MRF, Herbert says it is important to evaluate equipment from a performance standpoint. “You need to increase your awareness about other systems that may be more efficient,” he says. “Collect the data. Talk to vendors. Go view facilities and review engineering designs.”

Then, operators should apply what they've learned to their waste stream and operations, Herbert adds. He suggests operators build a pro forma model of how the new system will operate to determine its impact on operational performance and profitability.

Because the decision to retool is an expensive one that takes several years to fully implement, all of the key players in a MRF's operation should be involved in that decision. For example, while Burrtec owns the Robert A. Nelson Transfer Station, its Riverside MRF, the company did not commit to expanding the facility until the city of Riverside agreed to use the MRF in a long-term contract. Before the expansion, the facility was a traditional transfer station with no automated sorting systems. As of April 2004, it became a fully automated MRF processing residential single-stream and commercial materials at 25 tons per hour.

In Fontana, Burrtec owns the West Valley MRF, but the company has a broader customer base there and is not as dependent on a single user, as in Riverside. “In the case of the Fontana facility,” Herbert says, “we just had to demonstrate to our bankers that it made sense. Then we could go ahead and execute the changes.”

Prior to the retrofit, the Fontana facility was a typical 1990s MRF with manual sort lines, processing 12 tons per hour, Herbert remembers. The retrofit was completed in March 2002, and the facility now processes 30 tons per hour. “We are now processing about two and half times the materials with roughly the same number of people,” he says. The equipment upgrade cost $3.7 million, not including the building expansion.

In Victorville, Burrtec operates the Victor Valley MRF for the Mojave Desert and Mountain Solid Waste Joint Powers Authority (JPA), which was formed by seven high desert cities, including Victorville, and San Bernardino County in 1991. The company is in the process of finalizing contractual agreements with the JPA that will allow the facility to be retooled. Major decisions about the facility are being made together by Burrtec and the JPA. “In this case, we go through a proposal process for the retooling, describing what the enhancements will mean for the communities, and deciding whether the JPA or the company will finance the changes,” Herbert says.

Operations at the Victor Valley MRF consist of manual and floor sorting that process about 12 tons per hour. Burrtec is proposing a $2.6 million retooling that will include automated screens and optical sort systems for paper and containers. “This system will actually save the jurisdictions money,” Herbert says, because the operating cost reductions will offset the capital expense. “Tonnage in the area is growing, so they need additional capacity. Rather than running the old systems for more hours, we can use the new technology to increase the throughput with fewer people.”

Concrete Plans

Once a decision is made to move forward on a pro forma proposal, detailed engineering and construction plans must be designed. This, cautions Herbert, is where retooling can get very complicated. “You have to make it work with your existing operations because the material just keeps coming,” Herbert says. “The engineering and construction challenges involved in retrofitting while maintaining your current level of service are always more complicated that you think they will be. You can't do enough planning in that area. You have to break everything down into pieces to see how it will all work.”

The plan should address how much downtime will be required and when it can be taken. This includes options for moving work to another facility or to a different location within the same facility, and scheduling alternative shifts.

Plans also should integrate existing equipment that will remain in the facility. For example, conveyors, balers, walking floors and bunkers are often reused in the retrofit process. As Herbert describes it, many retrofits are designed with essentially the same system as before, but with more screens, more devices that control the flow of materials and a more complex system of conveyors. At the West Valley MRF, for example, 90 percent of the conveyers from the old system were reused in the retooled facility.

And, Herbert reminds operators to seek input during the design stage from everyone who will be involved with the MRF. “You can't have the designers and construction people walk in and assume they can work with a blank piece of paper, without any knowledge of operational impacts. You have to educate them on what the constraints on their work will be,” he says. One of the biggest lessons Herbert learned was that “you have to work out conflicts ahead of time and make sure they are incorporated into the overall design,” he says.

Ready for the Challenge

Once the engineering and construction phase is complete, Herbert says the facility must meet its performance targets before it can be considered a success. In Burrtec's experience, this usually takes about six months. The workforce must be retrained, which can include tours and shifts at other facilities as well as classroom work. “You don't start up a new system and hit your target right away. It takes a long time to match your operations with your people and your materials stream to get the results you are after,” he says.

There is no standard schedule for when a facility should be retrofitted, and in some ways, the process never really ends, Herbert adds. “You have to constantly look at the facility and what might enhance its operation, from minor, incremental changes to large-scale retrofits.” Burrtec's Fontana facility was originally built in October 1997 and was retooled in March 2002. The Fontana and Riverside facilities were retooled within the past few years, and Herbert already is thinking about another retrofit to add new optical technologies to the systems.

With all of the challenges associated with retrofitting a MRF, it might seem easier to build a building from scratch. But that's not practical for most companies or communities, Herbert says. The siting process for new facilities is time-consuming and expensive, and existing facilities are so fully integrated into the whole waste management system that totally scrapping a facility is extremely difficult, he says.

Kivi Leroux Miller is a contributing editor based in Lexington, N.C.