Paper Quality And Efficiency: It's Not Pulp Fiction

This is your mission should you choose to accept it: Do more with less while improving the quality of your product in order to sell - or move - it. Material recovery facilities (MRF) operators and paper processors have researched how they can manage paper processing facilities and cut costs to operate more efficiently. Certainly, every facility strives for this. However decreasing paper revenues have forced many operators to take a good, hard look at procedures.

Across the country, MRFs ranging from 25 tons per day (tpd) to more than 150 tpd have made significant changes to improve efficiency. This improvement is not limited to the private sector; many public MRFs also are streamlining operations. "There is a new trend in people handling more materials," said Tade Mahoney, president of Recycling and Equipment Service, a distributor in Freeport, Maine, who believes that some changes to the existing system must be made.

Quality Sells Paper processors must adhere strictly to mill specifications to move the material, especially when market prices are low and only quality paper sells. This may require more processing time - time that must be used wisely. Since paper is a commodity, and markets are cyclical, quality is the only real control you have.

How do processors that accept multiple grades of paper together deal with this? Rhode Island's MRF experienced a recent retrofit, allowing it to process residential mixed paper (RMP) into different commodities, said Edward Connelly, manager of resource recovery and planning for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, Johnston, which serves approximately one million people. "We designed for maximum flexibility," Connelly said, noting that the paper grades likely to be sorted from RMP are corrugated cardboard, newspaper, paperboard, unwanted mail/paper and magazines. "We saw mill specifications changing [in early 1994], and didn't know what the markets would bring."

The corporation's MRF operator, RRT/Waste Management Inc., Johnston, installed a parallel sorting line, a baler capable of 65 tons per hour (tph) and two conveyor belts, which enables the facility to handle two paper materials at once. In this system, one town's newspapers can be processed simultaneously with another town's RMP, according to Connelly. Additionally, "shorter sorting lines allow the sorters to get a better look at the material," he said. To make the MRF more flexible, paper can be marketed loose, using an open pit. "If a baler ever breaks down, we have another way to do business," Connelly said.

The corporation's bid specifications required that RRT/Waste Management provide equipment which is capable of processing more than 90,000 tons of paper per year. "We needed to plan for the maximum incoming materials and a buffer for storage," Connelly said.

Financial Advantages The capital improvements are paying off fast. The new equipment and sorting system has granted Rhode Island a unique position in the current market: Demands for its product have resulted in increased production at the facility.

By instituting a quality bonus program, workers at Oak Brook, Ill.-based Waste Management Inc.'s paper MRF in Woodinville, Wash., have an added incentive to follow sorting specifications, said Bill Stansberry, plant manager: Employees receive a bonus of $1 per ton for every 'Aquality' ton of newspaper.

Communication is vital between the procurement manager and the employees on the sorting line, said Susan Combs, procurement manager at Capitol Fiber, Springfield, Va. "The procurement person must train employees about the different grades which they need to make.

"Make your specifications known to your customers," Combs continued. "You have no control of paper quality as it enters your facility. One option is to develop tiered acceptance levels so the customer feels it when paper is downgraded."

John Neyman, facility manager of Confi-Shred in New Castle, Del., agrees. "To improve our product [shredded office paper], we worked with customers and showed them how to clear up the paper," he said. "One customer had been leaving the plastic bags which contained the shredded paper in the paper compactor. We asked them to dump the paper from the plastic bags, leaving only paper in the compactor."

The customer saved money possibly by reusing plastic bags, while not forcing us to pass on the extra sorting costs, Neyman explained. "We saved a valued customer and upgraded the paper. The quality improved by reducing contamination levels to less than 10 percent from 40 percent with a little education."

Rabanco Recycling, Seattle, Wash., conducted stringent research when searching for the best automated sorting system, said Robert Evans, vice president. After concluding that the perfect system did not exist, Rabanco built their own "Recyclone" for their 80,000-square foot Third and Lander MRF. The equipment allows employees on a picking line to hold the paper up to one of multiple suction tubes, which hang over them. The tubes operate like a vacuum, sucking the paper from the pickers' hands before releasing it directly into a baler.

Rabanco's results: Productivity has increased dramatically, and the paper is available to mills exactly to their specifications. Rabanco, which processes materials from approximately 25 communities bordering Seattle and from small, commercial haulers, produces about 400 tpd and has never experienced a rejection due to contamination, according to Evans.

Cost-Savers "Think outside the box," advised Combs. "Look at everything to maximize your efficiency - even repair broken pallets." She suggested looking at opportunities to sell bale wire and plastic wrapping from newspaper bundling left over from your operation. Capitol Fiber is currently selling its wire for $50 per ton, Combs said.

Leasing equipment is another efficiency option. "Look at the cost benefit analysis of leasing rather than owning moveable equipment," Combs suggested. "There is no depreciation with leasing, and you can get an agreement with the leasing company to repair and replace the equipment, which minimizes downtime." Leasing equipment may eliminate the need for a paid staff mechanic - a step that would reduce overhead and improve the bottom line, said Combs.

Mahoney acknowledged that "there may be tax advantages to leasing, as well as an opportunity to get into a good piece of equipment without spending the money," but admits that many companies still prefer to buy.

The decision to lease equipment depends on the amount of working capital available, said Connelly. Leasing may make sense if the issue is cash flow. It also may be prudent to lease experimental equipment on a test basis. Connelly concedes that this isn't practical for governments, but may be for private operators.

Another creative way to deal with unstable paper markets is to depend less on waste paper prices, and more on the service provided, reports Rob Glass at Ontario-based Shred Tek. In addition to manufacturing a line of stationary shredders, his company sells a mobile document shredder housed in a truck that travels from business to business shredding confidential documents. In this case, the paper is sold as additional revenue for these independent operators.

Man Or Machine? Operating more efficiently doesn't mean losing good workers. None of the 150 Rabanco Recycling employees were laid off despite the use of the Recyclone and the computerization of three balers, Evans said. Displaced employees were retrained for work in other areas.

Sean Austin of Bulk Handling Systems, Eugene, Ore., suggests retraining workers to separate the higher grades of paper at the end of the line.

"Baling technology has been evolving slowly in response to the need for decreased baling costs per ton," said Mahoney, noting that some companies are getting creative at decreasing costs. For example, "the older way of doing things involved larger cylinders [in the baler], which required more oil to help [the cylinders] move back and forth; requiring big pumps and large motors," he said.

Confi-Shred employees have become more productive by simply replacing the old baler with an auto tie baler, said Neyman. "The old, manual tie baler took 20 minutes per bale over the auto tie baler, and if we produce 20 bales per day, we have 400 extra minutes per day of productive time," which could add up to about 2,400 additional worker hours, he said.

At Rhode Island's MRF, the new equipment has given employees some stability in their working hours, said Connelly. Older equipment may result in unanticipated downtime, and workers may never know their hours due to the uncertainty in the production levels, he explained. New equipment allows facilities to predict how long it will take to produce certain bale amounts.

At Capitol Fiber, employee bonuses are tied to the amount of bales made each month, as a productivity incentive. Even if the goal is not reached, they still walk away with some financial reward, Combs said. The system works because everyone has a buy-in. Each month, the staff sets productivity goals and holds a month's end review. "Include your workforce in these meetings and practice open-book management," Combs advised.

With financial gain at stake, "the employees realize that the baler is their lifeline and that they should treat it as such," she said. "We have a chart in the break room that shows the number of bales made each day, and they see it go up over the month."

Safety Improvements Citing "skyrocketing" workers compensation costs and high employee turnover, Mahoney stressed the importance of installing a system "that is faster and improves worker safety."

Worker training and safety was a priority when Confi-Shred replaced its manual tie baler for an auto tie baler. "Any new equipment purchase should come with training, with an emphasis on worker safety," Neyman said.

Manufacturers of balers are making the equipment safer and more automatic with less required operator time. "Programmable controllers allow designers to get more creative on how systems are set up," said Mahoney. "The designers can develop systems which prevent a worker from getting in an unsafe position."

For example, in larger machines, a worker easily could overfeed a baler and the bale couldn't eject. Then, by hand, he would have to remove materials and get inside the baler. Now, machines with two rams have a bale release through the computer technology, said Mahoney, who stressed the importance of keeping people away from machinery.

The Recyclone has allowed Rabanco to experience 23 straight months without a single time loss injury, Evans reported. "The state [of Wash-ington] Department of Labor and Industries loves it," he said.

Employees are happy too. He explained that the employees on the picking line are spared the back-breaking job of twisting and turning to put paper into receptacles on the floor. Instead, they hold their hands full of paper above their heads toward a suction tube.

In the Woodinville facility, Waste Management has instituted an accident/injury-free safety bonus program, said Stansberry. "Our facility is relatively low-tech, while processing 6,500 tons per month," he said. "Safety is number one."

Efficient Operations Mahoney recommended that companies or municipalities make informed decisions about purchases before jumping on the efficiency bandwagon. "Try to determine what an estimated cost per ton will be to run the machine," he said. "Newer machinery may be a less costly alternative, but the only way to tell is by knowing your current costs per ton."

He cautioned against short-term thinking. "It takes political courage in municipalities to make the case for spending more money for more productive equipment, instead of going with the lowest bid," he said, but conceded that this idea may be difficult to justify to taxpayers.

For private companies, the objective may be to process as high a volume as possible. Equipment has been on the market for two years with features that separate paper grades - such as old corrugated cardboard from office paper - and that significantly reduce the amount of man hours.

Bob Quinn, of Marathon Equipment, Vernon, Ala., stressed that buyers consider purchasing a baler with the ability to make the heaviest and most dense bale possible. For example, some equipment can process up to 20 tons an hour and replace up to 15 workers on the floor who can concentrate on sorting through the most valuable grades instead of shifting through corrugated and office paper.

When Robert Loose Jr., paper broker at Maslo Company Inc., Consho-hocken, Penn., purchased a new baler this year, he knew it was important to allow for flexibility in the product and to make top quality bales of a variety of paper grades.

The updating of Maslo's baling capabilities was somewhat delayed, but the conversion from pit-style balers with manual tie-off to a horizontal auto-tie has provided the increased productivity Loose envisioned. The specific baler Maslo chose, which processes 7-10 tons per hour, has yielded efficiencies not possible in higher volume systems.

Ideally, the objective is to become as efficient and cost-effective as possible over the long term. By analyzing your current operating costs versus viable, long-term solutions, you will be able to make educated decisions about the costs as well as the efficiencies of the recycling process.

Monitoring costs constantly and getting as many employees involved in the decision-making process as possible is a way of practicing open-book management, where everyone is informed about the bottom line, said Combs.

This mission is not impossible.

Shirley H. Plews is a free-lance writer based in Bowie, Md.