Mid America Recycling co-owner Scott Emery serves as the general manager of the company’s Des Moines, Iowa, MRF.
Photos: Brent Isenberger

Michael “Mick” Barry, co-owner (along with Brian Meng and numerous other investors noted in the sidebar at right) and president of Mid America Recycling, Des Moines, Iowa, has witnessed the evolution of the recycling industry during his career, which includes more than 29 years operating material recovery facilities (MRFs).

Today, many consumers of recyclables point to residential single-stream processing as the main factor in the reduced quality of the recyclables available on the market. Regarding single stream, Barry says it “was never the ‘silver bullet’ it was intended to be,” contributing to lost markets and poor quality, especially in light of the high contamination rates seen in incoming material as of late.

“If we continue with 11-20 percent trash contamination rates, we will be forced to look at nontraditional uses of residential single-stream materials, such as alternative energy, as the long-term solution for the residential single-stream crisis,” he continues. “This is a long-term problem that needs long-term solutions, and new pulp mills are not popping up every day to take advantage of this large volume of recovered material that is contaminated.”

Barry also says some MRF operators have lost sight of their true mission as manufacturers of raw materials.

“The key to our success is that we see the production from our plants not as bales of scrap but as bales of raw material that will be made into a new product,” Barry says. “After safety, quality is the No. 1 core value we have for our operations.”

He continues, “The old computer adage applies to us as well: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

“The key to our success is that we see the production from our plants not as bales of scrap but as bales of raw material that will be made into a new product.” – Mick Barry, co-owner and president, Mid America Recycling

Calling it a comeback

Barry and Meng started the current Mid America Recycling in 2015, reviving the name the partners used for their previous company, which was founded in 1979. By 2007, Mid America had grown to own numerous facilities in nine states that recycled more than 750,000 tons annually. 2007 also was the year the partners sold Mid America Recycling to Greenstar, which was subsequently acquired by Houston-based Waste Management (WM) in 2013.

Greenstar had sold off its Lincoln, Nebraska, MRF prior to the company’s acquisition by WM. That facility, which was operating as Midland Recycling, was owned by Palmer Refuse. In 2014, Barry and Meng received a phone call from the owner, who wanted their advice on operations, Barry says. Instead, the duo ended up buying the facility. At the time, the business partners were eyeing two additional purchases, which ended up falling through, he says.

In mid-2015, WM sold its Des Moines MRF to Barry and Meng. Kelley McReynolds, general manager of the Lincoln MRF, and Scott Emery, general manager, of the Des Moines MRF, also joined Mid America Recycling as co-owners then.

When the purchase was announced, Barry said, “We feel that now is the right time to re-enter the recycling market in the Des Moines area. My business partner, Brian Meng, and I will utilize our experience, resources and intellectual capital to ensure that Mid America Recycling will return to the forefront of the recycling industry in the central United States.”

When Mid America Recycling began operating the Des Moines MRF again, he says the company slowed down its processing speeds and jettisoned the “worst of the worst” customers. “This allowed us to work with materials that were intended to run in the system and produce high-quality single-stream products,” Barry continues.

“Now, we meet all the specs on our residential single-stream production for all grades. Our tons are in demand by end users, who we worked with during our comeback to ensure our products met their inbound raw material standards,” he says.

Barry points out that the owners and managers of Mid America Recycling have more than 200 years of combined recycling industry experience, which he adds positions the company “to evolve with the ever-changing landscape of the recycling industry, especially as we move through the end of this decade and into the new age of recycling.”

Navigating the current landscape

It might be something of an understatement to say the current landscape of residential recycling is challenging. Mid America Recycling has not been spared the effects of the evolving situation in China regarding scrap imports.

“Markets in the Midwest are currently in the tank as they are across the U.S.,” Barry says. “Mixed paper is going into the landfill due to lack of markets that can be economically reached due to a tsunami of volume out of the Chicago region due to lost export and the high cost of freight out of Iowa to the domestic mills,” Barry says in early May.

He adds that Mid America is taking one-third of its mixed paper to the landfill, noting that when the average sale price is considered together with the cost of landfilling this material, the company is “selling” mixed paper at negative $11 per ton FOB (freight on board) to the consumer.

Equally bad are markets for bales of Nos. 3-7 plastics. Barry says a regional processor in the area is taking this material for further sorting. Mid America Recycling typically generates one load per quarter, which the processor picks up, but no money has been changing hands.

Barry says “wishful recycling,” or residents including nonrecyclable items in the recycling bin hoping they are recyclable, is amplifying the impact of the current market on single-stream processors of residential material. “‘Wishful recycling’ creates extra cost for the plant and safety issues in moving bulky items manually from sort lines,” he continues. “The damaged screens—wrapped with plastic bags, hoses, etc.—can also create friction and fires.”

Barry adds that wishful recycling has led to China’s ban on residential single-stream material.

He says contamination from wishful recycling and plain old trash, such as diapers and food waste, equals 12 percent to nearly 20 percent of the company’s incoming material. Mid America Recycling landfills this material at its expense because its 2008 contract with the city of Des Moines and the Metro Waste Authority—an independent government agency comprised of 16 member communities, one county and six planning members—states that the MRF is responsible for the costs associated with landfilling material arising from the residential single-stream recycling program. “Of course, contamination rates at the onset of the contract were less than 3 percent due to curb sorting by the haulers prior to the commingling of material at the curb utilizing single-stream,” Barry adds.

“Education is critical, and our city and regional agencies are trying everything they can to keep the public aware,” he says. “Unfortunately, the public is not getting or does not want to understand the message as trash recycling rates have been on the rise for the last several years.”

Lessening the impact

Revenue from Mid America Recycling’s operations is evenly split between its five business units—residential and commercial single-stream recycling, glass beneficiation, mixed baled recyclables from the retail sector, paper packing and processing material generated through Iowa’s bottle bill. This combination helps lessen the effect of the issues currently being seen in the residential single-stream recycling business unit, Barry says.

The company processes more than 114,000 tons annually, with approximately 30 percent of this material being from residential and commercial single-stream programs. (Of this 30 percent, residential material comprises 80 percent by weight.) Mid America primarily produces and markets old corrugated containers (OCC) No. 11, sorted residential papers and news (SRPN) No. 56, mixed paper No. 54, steel cans, aluminum cans, natural high-density polyethylene (HDPE), colored HDPE, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Nos. 3-7 plastics and mixed-color glass cullet from the company’s residential single-stream unit.

Mid America also produces and markets green, amber and flint/clear glass from the deposit material it processes and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) from retail clients.

The company’s industrial/paper packing unit produces sorted office paper (SOP) No. 37, sorted white ledger (SWL) No. 40, coated book stock (CBS) No. 43, OCC No. 11 and several groundwood grades.

“We sell our materials across the United States and into Mexico,” Barry says.

Mid America sells the plastics it handles domestically, while metals are sold domestically to can sheet manufacturers, secondary smelters and steel mills.

“We had always felt rail was critical to the long-term success for marketing from our locations, and that has proven to be a key to our past and future success. However, many new mills have chosen to locate closer to major population centers and have not added rail, so trucking is the looming crisis for our industry.” – Mick Barry, co-owner and president, Mid America Recycling

It sells old newspapers (ONP) to its longtime partner mill in Mexico, while the OCC and mixed paper Mid America Recycling handles remain in the domestic market. Office paper is sold domestically and into Mexico.

The company’s Des Moines MRF features a sorting system from Machinex, Plessisville, Quebec, that includes an optical sorter for recovering PET, Barry says.

Mid America Recycling retrofitted its single-stream plant in Lincoln in 2017. The company added a 10-ton-per-hour ballistic sorting system from Machinex, which was funded in part by a grant from Nebraska. It also added equipment to better separate paper from containers and an optical unit to sort plastics by type. This retrofit increased Mid America’s capacity from 1 ton per hour to more than 10 tons per hour. “In addition to adding five full-time positions, this new equipment allowed the facility to nearly double its existing capacity for commercial single stream,” Barry says.

Lincoln has banned OCC from going to landfill with the goal of increasing commercial single-stream recycling in the city, he adds.

The commercially and industrially generated materials Mid America Recycling handles are not plagued by the same contamination issues affecting residential recycling, Barry says. While China’s actions are getting much of the attention, the root of the issue is contamination, which he says presents the “biggest threat to residential recycling.”

Barry adds, “I’ve lost faith in the public as they seem to just not be wanting to hear the message,” again noting the “extraordinary” effort and work the city of Des Moines and the Metro Waste Authority have done in this area. “And yet we see continued growth in the amount of trash and nonacceptable material arriving daily at the plant.”

Barry says he believes it will be another year before balance returns to the mixed paper market and the glut of material is absorbed. However, he adds that this material is never going to be highly valued.

He says energy recovery might be the “next legitimate solution in the recovery of low-grade materials from residential single stream” that have more value in terms of Btu (British thermal units) than raw material value.

In the meantime, Mid America Recycling will continue to focus on making quality products. “If you are making a quality product, you will have an outlet for your product except for transportation issues and a glut of material in the market,” Barry says.

He refers to transportation-related issues as the “silent crisis” affecting the recycling industry, noting the major shortfall of drivers that is predicted as more than 50 percent of current drivers reach retirement age in the coming years.

Barry continues, “We had always felt rail was critical to the long-term success for marketing from our locations, and that has proven to be a key to our past and future success. However, many new mills have chosen to locate closer to major population centers and have not added rail, so trucking is the looming crisis for our industry.” He adds, “There are plenty of trucks and trailers, just not the people to drive them.”

While he says Mid America may be centrally located, the company is “becoming isolated due to the distance of the end using mills from our locations.”

These market realities have the company exploring alternative options, such as gasification, for the low-value materials it handles. Barry says Mid America also is looking into investing in a mini pulp mill to handle off-spec paper grades.

This may be out-of-the-box thinking for recyclers, he adds, “But it’s exactly this type of thinking that is needed to find a long-term solution for the major problem facing residential recycling.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at dtoto@gie.net.