San Francisco GIANT

MORE THAN 150 YEARS after San Francisco's Gold Rush, the city by the bay believes it has struck it rich again. Surrounded by water and marked by steep hills, San Francisco's location inevitably creates a densely populated downtown and high real estate prices, which subsequently creates a void in commercial real estate development. So when city leaders discovered a vacant 185,000-square-foot warehouse on Pier 96, they jumped at the opportunity to convert it into one of the nation's most modern recycling facilities.

Since the Recycle Central facility opened in 2003 by SF Recycling and Disposal Inc., a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Norcal Waste Systems, it has faced interference from a nationwide economic slump that has hit the city particularly hard. “The poor economy has proven to be very challenging for the refuse and recycling industry,” says Maurice Quillen, facility general manager. “The economy in the Bay Area is definitely lagging behind the rest of the nation. While economists talk about improvements to the national economy, we are definitely not experiencing those improvements in the city.” Nevertheless, facility owners continue to drive downfield to make the facility an integral part of achieving the city's 75 percent waste diversion goal by 2010. In time, they say, the facility will pay dividends.


Located on the eastern side of the San Francisco, the warehouse on Pier 96 once was used for barge-loading operations. When SF Recycling purchased the structure in the late '90s, it was still in good condition and well-suited to receiving, sorting and shipping recyclable commodities. However, the company was unable to excavate pits for conveyors, as might be done elsewhere, because it is on a pier. This led designers to “stack” operations on three levels: top level for processing and sorting; second level for storing material in large walking floor hoppers; and ground level for baling operations. A four-story operations center also was constructed in the center of the facility, giving supervisors an unobstructed view of the processing floor and all operations.

The next design challenge that had to be tackled was related to maintaining the city's dual-stream collection program while rolling out its new single-stream collection system. “The immediate need was to relocate existing recycling operations into the new facility so that we would still be able to process the existing commercial sorting operations and to additionally construct an interim single-stream processing line,” Quillen says.

Today, Recycle Central is divided into two operations, which process recyclables from residential and commercial sources. The facility uses spinning disk technology that sends bottles and cans in one direction and paper in another. A local area network installed in the command center allows managers to monitor functions such as belt speed, running time and number of bales processed.

Despite the economy, San Francisco is famously committed to recycling. Recently, the city exceeded the state's 50 percent diversion goal. And the city's “Fantastic Three” waste management system — in which residents are given three bins for trash, commingled recyclables and organics — has been hailed by environmental organizations and other municipalities for its successful, streamlined approach.

“The residential programs are exceeding our expectations,” Quillen says, “but the commercial programs are lagging behind our expectations.” Quillen cites recent economic reports that nearly 200 restaurants have closed in San Francisco since the recession, hotel room vacancy is at 35 to 40 percent, and commercial office space is 25 percent vacant.

“To cope with the reduction in feedstock, we have had to carefully manage staffing to avoid unnecessary expenses,” Quillen says. “One good point concerning the poor economy is that it has caused the overall production of secondary fiber to be lower than expected, and the shortfall has caused the price of recycled fiber to exceed the industry's expectations. Unfortunately the increase in transacted prices does not come close to filling the gap created by the overall reduction we have experienced.”

Sorting it Out

Recycle Central processes newsprint, old corrugated cardboard, white and colored ledger paper, mixed office paper, aluminum beverage and tin cans, glass bottles and jars, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers, scrap metal and wood. The facility does not accept construction and demolition (C&D) waste or source-separated organics.

Several production lines are used to process mixed paper, source-separated material, single-stream recyclables and mixed commercial material, and a special area is designated for destroying confidential documents. The mixed paper line includes a series of transfer and sort line conveyors, an automatic baling system, and two paper air conveyance systems, which also are connected to the source-separated processing line. The tipping floor for source-separated material includes individual bays for different types of fiber materials.

The single-stream line is centrally located and includes two automatic fiber/container mechanical sorting systems and a container processing line. Related equipment includes a container surge hopper, air classifiers, transfer and storage conveyors, an automatic baling system and overhead storage hoppers.

“Glass is the most challenging thing to deal with,” Quillen says. “Single-stream collection, while very efficient and environmentally friendly, results in some glass breakage … The trend in single-stream plants is to color-sort the whole bottles. Plants tend to focus heavily on the recovery of mixed glass cullet. I like to focus on the recovery of whole glass bottles. I have found substantial glass recovery gains … by actively removing whole bottles prior to the disk screens during pre-sort.”

Contamination is occasionally a problem. The only solution, Quillen says, is education. “It is very important that the consumer knows what is acceptable. One common misconception is that all products that are recyclable are acceptable. For example, wire coat hangers, while recyclable, are prohibited in our program; educated consumers know that returning the hangers to their cleaner presents a better option for reuse,” he says.

The facility's sorting system includes two disk screens to remove newspaper and mixed paper. The screens tend to be magnets for contaminants — film plastic, extension cords, coat hangers, magnetic tape and stringy material. More than six hours a day, Quillen says, are spent cleaning film plastic from rotating machinery. “There is no substitute for removing contaminants via hand sorting, quality control measures and supervision.”

On one particularly frustrating day, a golf ball became wedged between the wall of the disk screen and one of the disks. “It was quite challenging trying to figure out why the facility would not run,” Quillen says. “Eventually the culprit ball was located and removed, and the system began to operate once again.”

Training and Monitoring

While the occasional ball can fumble operations, people, Quillen says, “make or break the operation.” Recycle Central employs 135 people. Employee training blends one-on-one programs with managers with on-the-job training to cover safe work practices, emergency evacuation, hazardous materials handling, plant rules, attendance requirements, and other policies. Training pairs new hires with a seasoned employee and a manager to work side by side on the processing floor.

“As a manager, you must be able to realistically identify your employees' strengths and weaknesses and put individuals with the proper skill sets in functions that fit those strengths and weaknesses,” Quillen says. “The garbage industry is not the same as recycling, and I have found that individuals who excel in collection operations may not be the best fit for the recycling industry.”

Other ongoing challenges, Quillen says, include keeping equipment running and properly maintained. Especially when the plant first opened, he says, “constant equipment evaluation, with continuous process monitoring and control, had to be accomplished while the staff and line personnel learned to manage the process. Change and retraining now are the norm.”

A Long-Term View

Once the facility got under way, Quillen says he had to square equipment manufacturers' throughput calculations with reality, which was less than expected. “What is important,” Quillen says, “is that you stay focused on attaining your goals and elicit the help of the equipment manufacturers.” Coupling good plant management practices with recommendations from manufacturers helped to overcome problems. Thorough operational reporting also was critical, especially during start-ups, he adds.

Although the economy and other aspects of the new facility have been challenging, Recycle Central's team is not worried. “Major recycling facilities are built with a long-term view,” Quillen says. “Such facilities provide key infrastructure improvements designed to serve their communities for many decades. I am confident that Recycle Central will play a vital role in helping the city toward its goal of achieving 75 percent citywide diversion by 2010. I look forward to what the future holds for the facility.”

Kim A. O'Connell is a Waste Age Contributor based in Arlington, Va.


Location: Pier 96, Port of San Francisco

Permitted Capacity: Daily average - 1,400 tons; maximum - 2,100 tons per day (tpd).

Production Breakdown: mixed paper line -160 tpd; source-separated line - 140 tpd; single-stream line - 480 tpd; mixed commercial line - 560 tpd; public buy-back - 60 tpd.

Projected Throughput: 1,200 tpd through 2006.

Materials Recycled: Office and mixed paper, cardboard, glass and plastic bottles, steel and aluminum cans, wood, and scrap metal.

Equipment: 6 recycling lines: 3 for mixed commercial recyclables (dry), 2 for residential recyclables, and 1 for commingled containers.

  • Keith walking floor conveyer systems
  • Six balers by Enterprise Baler
  • Air conveyer (vacuum) system by California Air Conveying Systems captures computer paper and white ledger
  • Spinning disk screens by Bulk Handling Systems send bottles and cans in one direction and paper in another
  • Eddy current separator by Dings Co. flips aluminum cans off the belt
  • Computerized conveyer belt control system by Hustler Conveyor assembled by Enterprise Baler.
  • Residual compactor by SSI

Plant Operator: SF Recycling & Disposal Inc., a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Norcal Waste Systems Inc.

Employees: 135 (8 management, 9 clerical, 7 maintenance, 33 equipment operators and 78 material processors)