Feedstock or Famine

Anyone who works the sort line at a materials recovery facility (MRF) knows about contamination, but what do you do when six nervous kittens come traveling down the conveyor? At the Brooks, Ore.-based Marion Resource Recovery Facility where this occurred, employees chalked it up to another day at the office. Although the kittens were scared and shaking, and one was bleeding, employees quickly handled the situation and all survived the ordeal.

In today's 21st-century world, where kids learn about recycling along with their ABCs, contamination of the waste stream remains one of the most persistent challenges facing MRF managers. Add to that a down economy and increased competition, and the business seems more complicated than ever.

But the best MRF managers remember that the secret to success is simple: the flow of material coming into a facility needs to be consistent and reliable, and the material going out needs to be clean and marketable. Several MRF managers recently spoke to Waste Age about how they keep up both ends of the bargain.

Keeping it Clean

Like many MRFs, the Marion facility grew out of a realization that valuable commodities were being disposed of that could be recycled — in this case, construction and demolition (C&D) debris. The county has an incinerator, but because it wouldn't accept sheet rock, loads of the material simply were being dumped. Eventually, a group of eight county haulers realized that they could benefit by opening their own C&D MRF. With 11 full-time employees, the 36,000-square-foot facility opened in April 2000 and now processes about 2,500 tons a month, moving 27,000 tons in its first year.

The facility's main challenge is keeping the loads free of contamination, especially in a competitive economy. “You want to make a good product,” says Dan Dudley, facility plant manager. “If you're shipping a box full of wood, you don't want a lot of garbage in it. In the world of paper, if you ship bales full of magazines, they'll get rejected. It's not that different in the C&D waste stream.”

It is essential, he says, that his facility is operating as cleanly and safely as possible. The tipping floor of a C&D MRF, unlike “regular” facilities, for example, tends to be a dirty mess. “A load will come in and be half mud, dust and busted wood,” he says. “Whatever's in the wall of your office will be on the floor on my MRF.” Heavy equipment is navigated through this mess all day long. “If you don't pay attention in there,” Dudley says, “you'll get killed.” So safety programs for employees are paramount, as are routine air sampling and noise monitoring.

Another priority, which goes hand-in-hand with contamination, is watching the markets. “One of the biggest issues in a C&D MRF is markets,” Dudley says. “That's always a battle.”

But Dudley says that the current economic downturn has not really affected business; he is used to fluctuations because the C&D waste stream is always seasonal in rain-soaked Oregon. “I ride it out, and keep my costs down and overhead as low as absolutely possible,” he says. “I concentrate the employees and the labor on the stuff that's marketable and that's coming in.”

A Revolving Workforce

At Lycoming County, Pa.'s MRF, a public facility that serves 12 municipalities across 1,200 square miles, the current economy has stimulated the recyclables flow, not deterred it. “I've seen an increase in materials, not necessarily a decrease,” says resource recovery manager John Yingling. “I'm seeing more cardboard. Instead of going to private recyclers, when the market price for cardboard goes down, we have more coming in here.”

In fact, the facility, which normally runs a single-shift operation five days a week, now has regularly started working on Saturdays to handle the influx.

The facility averages about 1,700 tons a month in outbound tonnage, and moved 18,118 tons in 2000. The facility also supplements its 13 full-time employees with three to 10 Lycoming County prison inmates, who usually work the sort line.

Although the pros and cons of prison labor have been debated, many solid waste authorities find employing inmates to be good for both the operation and the inmates. “The Lycoming County prison system was looking for a way to provide training and rehabilitative support [for the prisoners],” Yingling says.

With such a rotating workforce, Yingling's operation is especially focused on safety, training and quality assurance. Yingling noticed, for instance, that workers often were getting cut while stacking and banding aluminum bales. Having formerly worked in firefighting, Yingling provided employees with Kevlar arm guards to help prevent injury.

Similar to Marion County, Yingling ensures that all bales are as clean as possible, especially when markets are competitive. “The biggest challenge [in tight markets] is [when] we get a call from the paper mill saying there was a high number of glossy inserts. Then we have to make sure to talk to the sorters.” Yingling adds that employees inspect every bale that is produced.

Looking ahead, the county is planning to move into a new 63,000-square-foot recycling facility within two years, which will be about four times larger than the existing facility. How this will affect recycling operations depends on the markets, Yingling says.

“Plastic runs our sorting operation right now,” he says. When the new facility is built, “at that point plastic will no longer be the driving factor, and I'll have plenty of storage for anything. I need about a year more to look at the markets.”

Relying on Regulations

Although the markets always are difficult to predict, strong regulations and solid contracts are a good defense, which Office Paper Systems Inc., Gaithersburg, Md., has learned. Its year-old MRF serves commercial and residential customers across a 75-mile area between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., processing about 11,000 tons of paper a month through a 70,000-square-foot facility.

Office Paper Systems started in 1990 by running a successful “paper in/paper out service,” supplying offices with their office and copier paper needs, but also taking paper out for recycling. As it worked in different municipalities in Montgomery County, Md., the company proposed a contract with the county government to process all its residential mixed paper. After winning the bid, Office Paper signed a 15-year contract with the county, which has helped it weather economic ups and downs. Furthermore, the company is working with Smurfit-Stone Corp., Chicago, which buys all its paper.

“As far as marketing goes, we put that issue to bed,” says Kevin Stearman, president and CEO of Office Paper Systems. “We don't need a huge staff trying to move 11,000 tons of material a month [to market].”

Laws and regulations that require recycling help stabilize annual tonnages, Stearman adds. Montgomery County, for example, requires all residences and businesses to recycle. “The recycling regulations are in place and the infrastructure can handle it, but now you need the production efficiency so you need to have tonnages,” Stearman says. “So you need some teeth in the regulations, and some enforcement.”

California tries to keep material moving through the state's MRFs with recycling law AB 939, which requires 50 percent diversion. “The economic downturn definitely has affected the commodity market, but the drive for greater diversion is doing very well indeed,” says Waste Management Inc.'s Northern California Region recycling manager Joel Corona, who oversees eight MRFs around the region. “We're seeing the efficiencies of automated collection programs translate into increased tonnages in the facility and increased opportunities.”

Corona points out that the region's proximity to the export market also helps in a down economy. “We have strong domestic consumers, and that's coupled with a pretty vibrant export opportunity,” he says. With hauling operations increasingly moving to single-stream collection, the company's MRFs also have invested in more up-to-date equipment, such as optical sorting technology, to keep up with the influx.

To protect its customers from the wild swings of the commodity markets, Houston-based Waste Management also recently started a pulp and paper trading group. This will allow the company to fix a reduced paper price for a limited time for its customers. “The new trading group will differentiate us from our competitors in that we will be providing our municipal, national accounts and mill customers with an opportunity to directly manage their commodity price exposure,” says Steve Ragiel, the company's vice president of recycling.

One unexpected issue that California recyclers have dealt with recently is the state's energy crisis. Although Corona says the crisis is less of an issue now than it was six months ago, facilities have had to limit their electrical consumption or operate their equipment during the least expensive periods. “Several of our facilities have brought in PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) to … audit … [and to show us] how to better use our power,” Corona says. “We've worked to make sure our employees understand that in the West, the power can be gone.”

Getting Employee Buy-In

Educating employees about the energy crisis, the effects of a down economy or other business issues is just as important as training them on the equipment, according to several MRF managers.

“Having well-trained, highly motivated employees treated with a high level of respect — and good working conditions — is key,” says Office Paper Systems' Stearman. “We have wonderful processing equipment, but it can't be done without the dedication from motivated employees.”

In addition to ensuring safe, clean and pleasant working conditions, Office Paper Systems has monthly safety meetings with employees, as well as production meetings to discuss performance. Managers also share the company's challenges and concerns with employees, which helps them to buy-in and have pride in the company's mission, he says.

Communication with employees is expected to help the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign MRF weather an expected loss in tonnage. Since being added to the university's transfer station in 1997, the 8,000-square-foot facility has accepted university waste and recyclables from a 30- to 50-mile radius. The facility moves about 850 tons a month — primarily office paper and aluminum cans — and recycled nearly 6,000 tons last year.

Today, a nearby hauler brings its corrugated cardboard and newspaper to the MRF, but it is planning to construct its own facility. When the new facility is built, the university MRF might have to cut a few employees' hours to save money, says Tim Hoss, the university's recycling manager. “But for now, it's not a real problem.”

The university is planning to expand its composting program, which might more than make up for any lost tonnage. The university maintains about 900 acres of trees and grass, Hoss says.

Hoss' confidence also stems from the fact that the facility places such an emphasis on good communication with employees. “When they speak, [we] listen and try to do what's right,” he says. “You'll have people in different parts of your plant saying things are making noise, so you need to listen. Be a part of the daily lives of the people who work there. Be accessible to them. I think it would be safe to say it's almost like family around here.”

The Bottom Line

The most important thing MRF managers need to remember, however, is that like politics, all markets are local. “The first thing that I always say is pay attention to your markets. It's all local,” Marion County's Dudley says. “Stay in touch with your processors; make sure you know all of them.” That way, when one processor's per-ton fees drop, you'll be ready, he says.

Office Paper Systems' Stearman says that managers not only need to understand their waste stream, but they also need the proper equipment to handle it. “Don't scrimp on the proper equipment,” he recommends. “So many of us scrape by and use the least expensive equipment.”

Waste Management's Corona offers three words of advice for MRF managers: Be “accountable, responsible and flexible,” he says. “Be vigilant about the quality initiatives, vigilant about the health and safety programs for employees, and continue to adapt to what is clearly a changing waste stream.”

Finally, MRF managers should remember when challenges arise that they are performing an important service in their communities. As Dudley says, “You know you're accomplishing something when you're recycling.”

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va. To view additional articles about MRFs, visit www.wasteage.com.

From Challenges to Champions

When the best employees leave the John F. Germ Recycling Center, a division of the Orange Grove Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., managers wouldn't have it any other way.

For the past 50 years, the Orange Grove Center has provided schooling and job training for disabled young adults and adults. For adults moving into the workforce, the center provides training in basic job skills, such as stuffing envelopes or getting to work on time. People with greater physical capabilities are trained on operating heavy equipment such as forklifts and skid loaders. Once various skills are mastered, the center helps to find jobs for students in the community.

About a decade ago, the center realized it could provide a service to the Chattanooga area, while providing gainful employment for its students, by opening a MRF. Today, the 100,000-square-foot facility is located a block away from the Orange Grove Center and is staffed with 60 to 100 people, most of which are students. The MRF collects and processes steel, aluminum, paper and plastic primarily from a residential blue-bag program, and averages about 700 tons a month.

As might be expected, the challenges other MRFs face are multiplied at the Germ Recycling Center. The facility is designed for safety above all else — including a sort line that is much wider than in standard MRFs and is accessible to those in wheelchairs. An elevator takes employees up to the sorting area. The facility also complies with regulations from the local mental health board.

Managers and supervisors also are required to understand the wide variances in skill levels and adjust operations accordingly, says John Chamberlin, the facility's recycling coordinator. For example, one employee might be able to understand that he or she must “fill a skid,” but not be able to grasp a direction to put a specific number of bales on a skid. Sometimes, a supervisor might have to repeat a direction once a day, or even once every 20 minutes.

Not surprisingly, where a typical MRF has one supervisor for every 30 or 40 workers, the Germ facility has four or five supervisors, who are not disabled, for every 40 employees.

Despite these differences, the Orange Grove facility has to deal with a fluctuating marketplace, just like everyone else. “We're all victims of the markets,” Chamberlin says. “We're fortunate in that we're close to two mills, so that when the paper really bottoms out, we at least can get rid of it. One of the things that helps us over time is that we accept all of these materials. There usually are some strong items vs. some lows. Plastics are strong right now, which is offsetting the paper prices, so we can kind of lean on the plastic.”

For some students, the facility is as far as they want to go in the job market; for others, it's a jumping-off point into the world at large. “We're running a school that's also a business, and the two don't always go in hand-in-hand,” Chamberlin says. “Any time I have an individual who has reached his potential and is one of my top producers, they're ready to move on. I'm constantly taking my best employees and losing them. From a business aspect, that's bad. But from a school aspect, that's a success.”
Kim A. O'Connell