Ricardo "Ricky" Lopez has been with GreenWaste Recovery for about 23 years and climbed to the demanding position of materials recovery facility (MRF) manager in 2008 at the young age of 30. In this role, he oversees multiple, vital operations and a staff of 240.
He has seen the operations through multiple upgrades and an expansion to include a carpet recycling division. Today, GreenWaste’s MRF, which processed approximately 22 tons per hour (tph) of single stream material and 26 tph of municipal solid waste (MSW) when he came to the helm, now processes approximately 50 tph in its single stream facility and 90 tph in its MSW facility.
During these past two decades, Lopez has worked in almost every area of the solid waste industry, including collection, processing, materials management, safety, contract compliance and more.
"With our executive team in full support of Ricardo’s expertise and vision, GreenWaste consistently stays ahead of the game," says coworker Zoraya Atayde. "There is no question Ricardo cannot answer. He has promoted a high work ethic among all employees with a sense of responsibility to our communities and environment. And he has established a great networking community for the recycling industry."
We recently sat down with Lopez, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, to ask about some of the most innovative work at the MRF under his leadership and to learn of the six expansions since he stepped into his current role. He shed light on what he believes is most important in venturing out into new partnerships and discussed where he sees recycling going into the future.
Waste360: You are responsible for multiple operations under GreenWaste Recovery’s MRF. Can you describe them?
Ricky Lopez: GreenWaste Recovery operates three different facilities, which we consider the MRF. There is a municipal solid waste facility, where we process the black or gray cart; we manually and mechanically process material, and we retrieve [misplaced] recyclables as well as organics for compost. We also have a single stream facility for recyclables. And we have a clean yard trimmings facility.
Waste360: GreenWaste added a carpet recycling division. Can you explain why?
Ricky Lopez: Yes, we have a carpet facility that is a separate division, but part of the MRF operations, where carpet material is sorted and recycled. This facility is open to the public.
We added this division because as proud innovators, GreenWaste is always looking for new ways to recover and recycle items instead of having them end up in landfills. Diversion and recovery are important when venturing out into new opportunities and partnerships.
Waste360: What most motivates you in your work, and why is this motivating and rewarding?
Ricky Lopez: Working with people I respect and can call family has been the most rewarding part of my job. I have the pleasure of coming into work and having friends around me. I have established a lot of friendships through the industry, which has been great. On top of that, knowing that what we do as a company helps ensure that my children have a safe environment to grow up in is more motivation than I need to make sure we continue to recycle and reduce what ends up in landfill.
Waste360: I understand the GreenWaste MRF has been upgraded six times under your leadership. Tell us about these upgrades and how you went about making them.
Ricky Lopez: I oversaw these upgrades with the support of our executive team. Our leadership team is very innovative, and we all care about what we do.
In July 2018, GreenWaste upgraded the MSW facility, where we now have four Max-AI AQC (autonomous quality control) units performing quality control on optically sorted recyclables and two additional Max-AI AQC units pulling remaining recyclables from the organic fraction of garbage prior to being sent to compost.
We also added optical sorters, which allow better separation of recyclables from the waste stream, and a Nihot Air Separation unit and six screens to sort material by size. The screens allowed us to recover organic/compostable items, preventing them from going to landfill.
Approximately 60 to 65 percent of the material that is processed in the MSW building is organic/compostable material. Once this is screened out, the material is sent to Z-Best, where landscaping compost is created and reintroduced to local landscaping companies. This upgrade makes the GreenWaste MRF operation in San Jose, Calif., one of the most advanced systems in the world.
In April 2019, the single stream facility was also renovated. We added six optical sorters to the facility, conveyors, vacuums for film plastic, along with other equipment. The equipment allowed us to generate cleaner bales and maximize marketability of products, increasing the amount of material that can be recycled and recovered. With the constant changes in the recycling markets, this equipment allows GreenWaste to adjust as needed to detect different types of plastics. As a result of all the upgrades, GreenWaste can obtain quality bales, increase diversion and continue to recycle.
Waste360: I understand you manage a staff of 240. How can you oversee that many people? What is your philosophy when it comes to managing workers?
Ricky Lopez: Our employees are our most important resources. I personally know all my employees by name. A lot of them have been with the company since the beginning, so they have personally witnessed the changes we have made to our facilities over the years. I have a supervisory team, which helps with the day to day, and an assistant operations manager who knows everything about the MRF. If you surround yourself with great people, I believe you can achieve great things. We all have a can-do attitude, and this makes our team proactive, innovative and always wanting to improve. I have had supportive staff and management allowing me to expand, improve and who allow us to recycle better.
Waste360: Please speak to your role with California Refuse Recycling Council. Why is involvement with this organization important to you?
Ricky Lopez: I am a California Refuse Recycling Council Next Generation alumnus. As an active member, I participate in monthly meetings so we are aware of the political changes that might affect our industry. The objective is to be able to work together to achieve a common goal. I recently joined a new committee that was formed. In this committee, our focus is to review legislative updates/changes as they are being proposed and provide feedback from an operational point of view. Sometimes ideas work in theory; however, there are also unintended consequences. It is important that we collaborate to reach the intended goals and make improvements to regulations that are in place today.
Waste360: If you are remembered for one accomplishment or one strength by your work colleagues, what would you like that to be?
Ricky Lopez: What I would like to be remembered for is that I care. You should care about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The day you stop caring is the day you should move on to something new.
Waste360: Where do you see recycling going moving forward and what will be key to getting there?
Ricky Lopez: If people care and want to improve, we will adapt to the changes in behavior and consumption. Out of everything that is happening right now, a positive note is that it has brought awareness to a problem that has existed for years. Specifically, China’s National Sword has brought awareness to a lot more people. The spotlight on recycling has generated more articles to be written and more documentaries to be made. And there’s an overall awareness on the full journey of recyclables.
We cannot continue to wishcycle. Just because it is placed in the blue cart doesn’t mean there is a market and/or it can be recycled. This reality is bringing awareness to consumers as well so they can make more educated purchasing decisions. I think that as more people understand the reality of recycling, they will want to find a way to fix the problem, and recycling will continue to improve.