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The National Sword policy implemented by China in 2018 prompted many material recovery facility (MRF) operators to make various updates to their facilities—upgrades, installations and layout changes to name a few things—to respond to stricter quality standards on scrap commodities shipped to China.

“In talking to and looking at my customers, the biggest impact I have seen [as a result of National Sword] is the impact it has made on the commodities themselves and also the need for quality,” says Sidney Wildes, co-owner of Waste 2 Solutions, an equipment supplier based in Baxley, Georgia. “In the past, that’s not been probably a priority as it is now. The commodities have taken a hit. Quality is definitely priority No. 1, which sometimes slows down the throughput because you have to pick a little bit slower and you have to pick it right.”

John Hansen, who co-owns Single Stream Recyclers in Sarasota, Florida, with Eric Konik, says China’s bans and restrictions on incoming secondary commodities have made the export market more challenging. He adds that the changing market conditions convinced him and Konik to add optical scanners at their MRF to produce higher quality commodities “that can go anywhere at any time for the highest price.”

Recycling Today connected with a few MRF operators during this year’s Southeast Recycling Conference in Orlando, Florida, to learn about the changes they have made to their operations and facilities in response to changing quality requirements and commodity values. Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling in Des Moines, Iowa, and Tim Horkay, director of recycling at Penn Waste in Manchester, Pennsylvania, joined Hansen to share the changes they’re implementing at their MRFs and to offer best practices for improving MRF layouts in today’s market.

Recycling Today (RT): What technologies are you adding at your MRF to combat market-related concerns?

John Hansen (JH): We have six [robots] on order. Robots, a few years back, were doing 40 picks per minute. We had people who were making 40 picks per minute. But now, [robots] are doing up to 80-plus picks per minute, and now it’s come to a point where it makes sense because you can remove two people. [Robots] show up to work every day. They don’t get angry. They don’t take bathroom breaks. They will make a difference.

We optically scan all of our plastics. Every single day we get consistency on those lines. However, we still need to [quality control] for a perfect product and hand pull natural from all PE (polyethylene) that we eject.

We have robots coming to do all of our quality control at the end of our plastic lines. We will use a robot to pull TetraPak and any other high-value items from our residual line.

We had to add some additional optical scanners last year ... because of the Amazon effect and 3D boxes. Small boxes make it to your container line, whereas they used to go right into your cardboard. We have an optical to eject brown grades on our container line as well as three-dimensional fiber [like phone books].

Mick Barry (MB): We’ve shied away from some technology (primarily artificial intelligence, or AI, and robotics) because of weather in the Upper Midwest. We do have optical scanners active in our plant. We run [our MRF] with [four to five] presorters and three to four plastic sorters and three to five paper sorters, all of which are truly quality control persons.

I think [robotics technology] still has five years until it’s really where it’s going to be—that’s why we’re hesitant about it. We see the evolution in the industry and what’s happened in the past. … But as technology evolves, it’s going to be able to find the clean cardboard, the clean paper coming out of the waste stream and divert it to recycling.

If you’re looking at building a MRF today, you have to look 10 to 15 years down the road ... to build it properly, or you will wind up building a dinosaur.

RT: What are changes you’ve made or want to make to your MRF layout?

Tim Horkay (TH): Resetting the container line was the most recent change made to the MRF. We saw a need to increase the throughput at our container line as the percentage of household papers continued to drop. With less paper in the stream, it created an effect that decreased our throughput by 10 tons per hour (tph). With the retrofit, we were able to increase our throughput to 45 tph and make a quality product.

We are evaluating the possibility of deploying additional robots in our MRF. AI gives us the ability to know what’s coming in and going out. It will allow MRFs like ours to make changes on the fly based on what the market will support.

RT: What are your top best practice rules when looking at designing and laying out a facility?

TH: The first step is understanding the composition of the incoming stream. You have to have adequate site space—as much as you can afford since there’s never enough space, and allow room for growth.

You should always vet your equipment manufacturers. Get plenty of references and schedule a visit to meet the manufacturer face to face. And by all means, stay involved in the process from beginning to end.

MB: Space is important; there never is enough. Statements have been made by other MRF operators … that “You have to build a building around the equipment, not the equipment fitting into the building.” Generally, almost every MRF in existence was put in a building that was already there and MRF systems placed in it.

JH: You have to vet your equipment supplier. Vetting your equipment supplier is about having personal relationships. You need an equipment supplier that’s not just a bunch of engineers. They need to listen to the operator.

We’ve had the opportunity to build more than one facility. We create whiteboards for what’s wrong or could be better with our existing facility—we do it every single time we build. Every time you build something, you find another thing you could have done better. We put it all on a whiteboard.

You need to take that to your equipment supplier, and they need to be able to adjust with their engineering staff on how to do things. Eric and I go to our equipment supplier and our key people to analyze constantly.

MB: Also, you have to consider rail options for marketing raw materials. Every plant we’ve ever had has included rail. We’re shipping into Mexico from Iowa every month because of rail. Otherwise, we’d have thousands of tons sitting on the floor. The regional markets can’t handle the high cost of truck freight any longer. Des Moines is on the outer edge of the freight circles, thus making rail even more important in down markets. We’ve even railed to the West Coast instead of paying drayage to export material.

Logistics is the next biggest crisis facing recycling’s future and well beyond the trade sanctions and bans globally. Because nobody’s paid attention to it the last four or five years, it’s been hiding in the weeds.

Pictured from left: John Hansen of Single Stream Recyclers, Sidney Wildes of Waste 2 Solutions, Jim Keefe of Recycling Today, Tim Horkay of Penn Waste and Mick Barry of Mid America Recycling

RT: Making changes to MRF layout and adding equipment has costs. How do you handle these costs in today’s market?

TH: We have to minimize risk. Finding new or better markets for materials and getting commitments from buyers to somewhat stabilize cash flow is key. Make small, less costly improvements and expense where you can. Plan for larger investments over a period of time.

JH: You have a lot of cost analysis of whether you’re going to have payback on it and what does that look like. There’s a lot of things that go into that: hour-for-hour reduction in labor and higher capture rates to name a few.

MB: We work closely with our banks and pray a lot. Mid America, which is celebrating its 40th year being in business, has seen a lot of market ups and downs, and with our experience we have learned how to weather the storms and remain profitable even in these current crumby markets. One of our keys is to not jump to spend capital on the newest and shiniest technology as it comes into the market.

Our philosophy for capital is we really look hard at the traditional ROI (return on investment). We factor in the potential overall cost increase per ton of new technology and how it could impact our residential customers with increased cost to their recycling process—[that] is an important piece to all our decisions. The customer impact is a vital part of our decision-making when looking at new technology, especially in these times of chaotic markets. Our mission is to maintain a sustainable yet cost-effective single-stream processing facility for our communities.

With the Des Moines area market being a smaller market [about 2,600 tons per month in a 75-mile radius of the MRF], it is critical that we truly vet new technology and control capital expenses so as not to make the program cost prohibitive to the residents of central Iowa. We look at all capital expenses as long-term investments that need to contribute now and be valid contributors 10 or more years down the road.

As we make our capital decisions, we look beyond the day-to-day residential single stream with its current contamination issue battle [and] low markets and look to the MRFs of the next quantum evolutionary leap in the next five-to-10-year window, which will likely become more of mixed waste, one-bin process and very capital-intense systems of AI, robotics and scanners, where organic recovery, alternative energy solutions and traditional recyclable raw materials are the outputs of the new MRFs.

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