Mulch to be Happy About

KANSAS' WOOD RECYCLING AND COMPOSTING CENTER (WRC) is proving that you don't need to rely on yard waste bans to solicit feedstocks and operate a successful wood processing facility. Born as the offshoot of a pallet refurbishing company, the facility has doubled in size annually over the past four years and now processes 200,000 cubic yards of wood waste and 25,000 tons of organics.

When Dean Frankenberry originally purchased the pallet company in 1994, it was generating a small amount of wood waste. To reduce waste disposal costs, he purchased a grinder to turn the wood waste into a mulch product that could be marketed. The company originally was located on a 10-acre site in the livestock area of Wichita, Kan., a city of 400,000 people. As the facility faced pressures from growth, WRC moved to a 77-acre site on the north end of the city in January 1999.

Now, the facility processes approximately 200,000 cubic yards of end-products, including mulch and compost. Between 1999 and 2002, WRC has seen 240 percent growth.

In addition to wood waste, the processing facility also handles yard waste and source separated organics. Currently, only 40 acres have been developed into grinding, screening and composting areas, as well as an area for retail sales, which leaves room for additional development.

“This facility has had phenomenal growth,” says Alan Chappell, principal of Environmental Concepts and Design (EC&D), the company that guided WRC through permitting and market development issues. “WRC is the only source-separated organics composting facility in the state of Kansas. [Dean] knew that in this market, not much recycling was occurring and the landfill was going to close at some point. Dean has been the driving force on recycling in the Wichita area for years.”

Product Pilots

Part of WRC's success is due to the variety of wastes it accepts. In 1998, Chappell's company helped WRC to identify six organic types of waste — grain wastes, fibers, production and post-consumer food wastes, drywall, manure and bedding, and commercially generated, nutrient-laden liquids and solids — that the facility could capture.

Initially, regulations governing these wastes did not exist. “The state didn't have regulations pertaining to source-separated organics composting facilities, so we worked with [the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on] a series of pilot projects where we recovered up to 1,000 tons of different types of feedstocks that we wanted to include in the permit,” Chappell says.

In the pilots, wastes were composted and various analyses were performed on the end-products. “We had to show that the [materials] were recoverable and that the compost produced from those feed stocks were of high quality and safe for the environment,” Chappell says.

Based on the pilots, WRC's operations now are fairly straightforward. Waste haulers bring materials in on roll-off trucks, dump trucks or tandem trucks. Trucks then are weighed at the scalehouse and are directed to the appropriate unloading area. Next, organics materials are mixed with yard waste to help control potential odors before materials are loaded into windrows. The waste then is segregated until it is selected for processing. This helps to minimize the amount of handling and costs

“We are very conscious about [separation] because every time you cut something, you put more money into that material,” Chappell says. WRC wants to go into the highest potential revenue-generating markets, “but it all goes back to how much production cost you have in the material,” he says.

To prevent contamination, the facility stations people near the loaders to monitor drop-offs. Contaminants are a big concern, Chappell adds. So when a new client comes online, its employees are closely monitored to ensure that the materials are clean.

“If they have never participated with our facility, they may or may not understand everything,” Chappell says. “We'll try to get them on track just as soon as possible. Any types of contamination or situations that occur where we have to pull materials out and dispose of those materials just add [to the facility's] costs.”

Feeding the Facility

In the past, WRC has had problems attracting enough feedstocks to the expanded facility. Because Kansas does not have a landfill ban on yard wastes or organics, WRC developed financial incentives to attract materials. This was accomplished by working through the proposed operating costs to provide a competitive tipping fee when compared with tipping fees for landfilling.

“When we set up the operations, we were very cognizant of production costs, which allows us … to maintain as high a profit margin as possible,” Chappell says. “It's very tough to develop composting facilities when your main competition is a landfill with a tipping fee of $25.”

Prior to expansion, WRC analyzed the waste streams of commercial businesses operating in the area and made site visits to users who could potentially use the processing facility. Chappell says this indicated where WRC could help businesses to reduce costs by working with the processing facility instead of landfilling their waste or using the nearby transfer stations.

The push for recycling throughout the Midwest is not as great as it is along the coast or in the areas with higher tipping fees, Chappell says. But “more companies are putting a higher priority on recycling. If we can show them where they are recycling 20 to 30 percent of their waste streams, they like to be in that position,” he notes. “We send them reports to document that they're recycling X amount of their waste stream.”

Made Up to Market

WRC's goal is to recycle everything that comes onsite and to develop as many marketable products for the materials it generates. “It's not that we don't occasionally send a roll-off of material to the landfill, but [that's] probably about less than 1 to 2 percent,” Chappell says.

WRC is expected to grow another 35 to 40 percent this year, although the facility may not maintain the same growth spurt it experienced in the past four years, Chappell admits.

He anticipates that food waste will be the largest growth area, as the company begins its emphasis on working with businesses with in-house cafeterias. “Food waste is a large part of the waste stream,” he says, “but it's a very difficult one to maintain the quality of the feed stocks coming in.”

The company currently is trying to find equipment or develop a process to help eliminate plastics contamination from food waste. “We actually began building [a food waste recycling program] and then capped it at 15 schools until we could find equipment or come up with something where the plastics did not increase our contamination in our end-product.”

As problems are worked out, WRC will be expanding the school program and looking at a similar food waste program for the commercial sector.

Primarily, WRC's focus is to find processes and products that work. “As long as you come up with new products that perform in the market better than existing products, then this allows you to recycle more in this market,” Chappell says.

Lynn Merrill is director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif.