Recycling Talk

INCREASED INTERNATIONAL demand for recyclables. Single-stream collection systems. Worker safety. These are a few of the many issues that confront materials recovery facility (MRF) managers on a daily basis.

Waste Age recently conducted, via e-mail, interviews with three MRF managers to see what challenges their facilities are facing and how the sites are responding.

The interviewees included:

  • Vidal Maldonado and Amy Slagle of the Austin, Texas, Solid Waste Department; and

  • Mike Tunney, manager of WM Recycle America's MRF in south Chicago. WM Recycle America is a subsidiary of Waste Management.

Waste Age (WA): What are the biggest issues in recycling today and what do you anticipate will be the biggest issues five years from now?

Maldonado and Slagle: Currently, glass markets. Five years from now, glass markets.

Tunney: The biggest issues in recycling today and in the future [concern finding] the most cost-effective recycling solutions for our customers. We need to continue to develop strategic alliances with generators, municipalities, regulators and individuals committed to working to create adaptable and affordable recycling programs on a global basis. Clearly the industry will continue to be challenged to find beneficial end uses for all recyclable materials.

WA: How have the prices for recycled commodities changed in the last year or so, and how has that affected your business?

Maldonado and Slagle: Paper, tin and aluminum have increased in price per ton, resulting in higher revenues.

Tunney: The prices for recycled commodities have been very strong in the past year. This is due, in large part, to the increased global demand for recycled materials. As a result, we have seen significant growth in revenue over this period of time, which has resulted in higher rebates to our customers. However, we have experienced higher-than-anticipated operating costs for fuel, utility and transportation services, which have lowered the impact to our margin.

WA: How are the overseas markets impacting the demand for recycled materials?

Maldonado and Slagle: They affect the city of Austin on a smaller scale. We sell PET bottles on the international market, which usually brings a higher price per ton than domestic markets.

Tunney: The growth of overseas markets has had a tremendous impact on demand for recycled materials in the U.S. China, in particular, has a number of new mills coming online, and some sources estimate as much as an additional 10 million tons of annual demand in the next year or two.

WA: Have the communities that your facility serves switched to single-stream recycling? If any of them have switched, how has this impacted your operations?

Maldonado and Slagle: None of the communities we serve have completely switched. However, the city of Austin currently runs a 5,000-home pilot for single-stream recycling. The tonnages received from this pilot program involve additional trailer space and more service hauls from our provider. Austin is working toward the establishment of a new single-stream MRF due to come online in October 2008.

Tunney: A majority of the communities in the greater Chicago area have converted to single-stream over the past few years. As a result, we have invested a significant amount of new capital into an additional high-volume single-stream facility just south of the city. This facility is equipped with the latest technology and is capable of processing in excess of 15,000 tons per month of recycled materials.

WA: Describe your efforts to find new markets and customers for your materials.

Maldonado and Slagle: We advertise online and in certain periodicals. We are in the process of hiring a full-time marketing person that will be dedicated to the marketing of our products.

Tunney: We have an extensive network of sales and marketing representatives that work with the plant operations team on a daily basis to identify new markets and customers. We set goals for sourcing growth and manage to our goals.

WA: For various reasons, Americans appear to be growing more interested in living a “greener” lifestyle. Has this resulted in an increase in the amount of materials that are brought to your facility?

Maldonado and Slagle: We have seen an increase in tonnages, but Austin is a green community, and this has historically led to higher participation rates and volumes.

Tunney: Yes, we believe that the educational emphasis on green initiatives has increased awareness and participation in all types of recycling programs. As a result, we continue to see increased recycling volumes from our residential collection operations. The largest increase in residential materials has been in post-consumer plastics.

Additionally, we have seen steady, recent growth in our commercial and industrial customers who have implemented or expanded their recycling programs and are looking for innovative ways to improve recycling rates and reduce the quantity of materials being sent to landfills.

WA: What steps do you take at your MRF to increase the safety of your workers?

Maldonado and Slagle: Working safely is a condition of employment, and annual performance reviews contain a safety component. Our safety section conducts monthly meetings; we have safety inspections periodically. Wearing PPE is a requirement, and maintaining a good attitude towards working safely helps.

Tunney: First, as a management team, we make a personal commitment to the health and safety of every employee, contractor or guest at the facility. We believe that we are a family and that each person should go home to their family in exactly the same condition as they arrived.

Second, we have developed a comprehensive Injury and Illness Prevention Program that is in place at all of our facilities. The program is designed to eliminate physical hazards, train workers and comply with all regulatory standards.

Every employee is required to complete a safety orientation process prior to the start of work that encompasses a wide range of safety training, including lock-out/tag-out, conveyor operations, personal protective equipment and bloodborne pathogens.

We perform daily, weekly and monthly monitoring of our programs to ensure we are in compliance with our policies and procedures. We engage our employees and supervisors in the development and maintenance of a strong safety culture by participation in safety committee meetings, near-miss analysis and employee work observations, etc.

WA: Has it been difficult to find and maintain a sufficient number of good employees?

Maldonado and Slagle: The city of Austin's MRF has been fortunate with regard to employee retention. Most of the same employees that began working here in 1999 when the facility opened are still working with us today.

Tunney: It has always been a challenge to find and keep good employees. We are fortunate that we have been able to attract and retain a core group of employees who have been with us since we opened over two years ago.

WA: Are there any changes that you would like to see in the recycling sector?

Maldonado and Slagle: Expanded markets for # 3-7 plastics and expanded efforts in single-stream collection and processing.

Tunney: We would like to see a closer relationship between the recyclers and the manufacturers to develop beneficial end uses of packaging products prior to new packaging materials being brought into the marketplace. Additionally, we would like to improve the education process at the homeowner level to reduce contamination of recyclables.