Sorting Out the Future of MRFs and Transfer Stations

Sept. 1, 2009

“Waste is a social issue,” says Eric Lombardi the managing director of Ecocycle, a community-based resource recycling facility that operates on a business principle of “cost plus 10%” in Boulder, CO, “and government has to set guidelines and incentives for the private sector to follow.” Mark Oldfield, spokesperson for California’s Department of Conservation, believes that California, one of 11 states with a bottle bill, is doing just that. Take, for instance, the California Redemption Value (CRV) program. When thirsty citizens purchase beverage containers in California, they pay a deposit on the containers. As of January 1, 2007, a customer seeking to redeem the value on those containers would receive the sum of 5 cents for each container 24-fluid ounces or less in capacity and 10 cents for each beverage container above 24-fluid-ounce capacity. California’s program promotes recycling and litter abatement, but it also provides grant monies to processors, says Oldfield. Since 21.9 billion beverage drinks were purchased annually in California and only 14.7 billion were redeemed for money, the Department of Conservation had the sum of 7.2 billion containers’ unclaimed deposit money to use for grants to assist in such things as processing recyclables. Unfortunately, reports Oldfield, these unredeemed monies are potential red meat for a revenue-starved California state government and their intended disbursement is not a certainty.

A case in point is a grant provided to the 53-acre Davis Street Material Recycling and Transfer Center, located south of Jack London Square and the Oakland Raiders’ stadium in San Leandro, CA. Built upon an old landfill site, the facility has room to operate two shifts, six days a week, serving a population of over one million in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Managed and operated by Waste Management Inc. (WM) and more unions and labor contracts than one can keep track of, the facility has the feel of a solid waste campus, with customers milling about the buy-back center, employees going to and from their positions as if to classrooms, and an IRecycle school where 20,000 children visit each year. The facility also features a building for residential single-stream materials recovery facility (MRF) processing 400 tons a day; a construction-and-demolition recycling operation handling 350 tons per day; a tire-recycling area where this rolling resource is triaged into tires that can be retreaded and those that must be disemboweled of their steel belts and the rubber processed for a new product; a mattress-recovery area where semi-trailers of mattresses are trucked to Eugene, OR, where the folks of Saint Vincent de Paul dismantle these resource beds of foam, steel, cotton, wood, and polyurethane for diversion; an organic quad of sorts offering two varieties of compost and seven types of mulches to the public, handling 550 tons a day; a transfer station for trash; a motor-oil drop-off; three maintenance facilities; and a latex paint consolidation depot where white is separated from colored paints and each poured into 55-gallon drums and sent to Early American Coating, which processes it, packs it into 5-gallon containers, ships it back to the Davis Street facility, and WM’s recycling programs manager, Rebecca Jewell, distributes the recycled paint to community groups. The tip fee is $117 per ton, with $9.92 of that going back to Alameda County to support diversion activities throughout the county.

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At the heart of this campus, Paul Faias, senior MRF maintenance manager, sits in front of a whiteboard of his calculations, which look uncomfortably similar to those made by the Mad Hatters of nearby Livermore Labs, who had cracked the atom. On the white board are lines of expenses, tons, and CRV revenues for post-consumer glass. The state had granted the Davis Street facility $744,000 of the state’s nonrefunded container deposit money toward the purchase and implementation of optical sorters for post-consumer containers, including glass. This upgrade is made to an initial $9 million single-stream MRF investment that has had another $5 million in upgrades to the facility, bringing the total MRF capital investment to $14 million. The result is a residential MRF facility with three optical lines to reduce contaminates, working two shifts, a throughput of 28 tons per hour, an increase in CRV revenue of approximately $700,000 a year, an increase in paper-grade quality (and hence sales) by decreasing the number of containers and brown paper in the ONP stream, and a reduction of five employees from the sort line.

“We have to make recycling as easy as trash for the customer. Recycling has to be fall-off-the-log easy ” says Lombardi of Ecocycle. “Curbside recycling started off by being curb-sorted, then to dual-stream collection, and now to single-stream,” says Lombardi.

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Both Faias and Lombardi have purchased and implemented TiTech Optical Sorters that use a combination of near-infrared, printed colors, color camera, and image-recognition technology to automatically sort a wide variety of recyclable materials with accuracy rates up to 95%, say its users. Kevin Brogan represents TiTech on the West Coast for Van Dyk Baler Corp., which is the exclusive distributor of Bollegraaf Recycling Machinery in North America and a sister company to Lubo USA, a producer of screens, air systems, variable speed belts, and eddy-current separators. Brogan worked closely with Faias to implement the new systems at Davis Street and credits Faias with his understanding of processing equipment, customer and end-user demands, and the CRV/grant funding potential as a major reason for the facility’s relatively smooth transition to the new sorting technology.

Maintenance complexity moves up from gears and bolts to the optical sorting software. The brains of the optical system are housed above the belt and debris. Brogan says that 95% of the maintenance is still mechanical, but when there is a software problem 85% of those problems can be solved through a modem hookup to TiTech specialists. “Of the over 1,000 TiTech’s in operation worldwide, on average, we see 7,000 hours mean time between failures,” Brogan says. To assist facilities with these new systems, Van Dyk offers quarterly training of its mechanics, preventative maintenance programs and a four-day seminar at the TiTech facility in Germany.

WM’s customers are all single-stream curbside collection, and the Davis Street facility has geared up for it with a new commercial-commingled processing line in series with the residential line expected to be activated in October 2009. Yet this has repercussions on the end-user market. William Winchester, of Bergmill Supply Co., markets the paper from the Davis Street facility and says “glass is a problem because it becomes a maintenance issue for the mills, and Davis Street is pioneering the way it uses the optical sorters.” With the tightening of the worldwide market, there is ever more vigilance on the part of purchasers and customs officials to limit the amount of contamination and tons that end up in their respective landfills. “End users,” Winchester says, “would love to see glass out of the single-stream collection.”

The CRV makes it possible for Davis Street to extricate the glass from the wastestream but what of Colorado’s Ecocycle? Glass, after all, competes with sand, and glass is generally considered the economic loser between the two-and Colorado has no bottle-bill to create its own version of a CRV. Ecocycle implemented its TiTech Optical System for the purpose of removing ceramics and rocks from the mixed colored glass stream and sells the glass to Coors. The TiTech sorting has been so efficient, Lombardi says, that Coors has increased its purchase order with Ecocycle. Davis Street also takes advantage of a local glass reuser, Gallo Glass. Its facility in Modesto, CA, has 125 different color and mold options and, according to the trade journal, The Manufacturer, this single facility produces 2.5 million wine bottles a day and 1 billion bottles a year.

Managers of processing facilities feel themselves pressed by the customers generating the material and by the end users purchasing the product. The managers interviewed for this article appear to have their own versions of Faias’ white board to understand the financial, environmental, and legal opportunities and responsibilities they are facing. In New Jersey, Ocean County’s Department of Solid Waste contracts out the operation of its MRF to service the needs of 33 communities across a 638-square-mile area. These communities, says Ernest J. Kuhlwein Jr., the county’s director of solid waste management, “operate their curbside collection programs and are moving to single-stream collections because it is efficient.” Kuhlwein says that the county has grown with the technology, putting in two optical sorters for plastics. The county’s processing facility accepts glass, paper, beverage and aerosol containers from municipal, commercial, and private haulers. “The new MRF had to be put into place if we wanted to have our clients continue to bring us the material,” he says. The capital expense appears to be offset by a reduction in labor from 15 to 4 on the sort lines, but, more importantly, by being able to service the greater demands of the member jurisdictions.

As Lombardi’s Ecocycle shows, nonprofits are not exempt from these same business pressures. John Matthews has been involved with Oregon waste management issues since the early 1970s. He currently manages a nonprofit MRF, Garten Services Inc. in Salem, OR, which has hired people with developmental disabilities to separate and prepare post consumer goods for end users since 1975. This facility handles electronics, old corrugated containers (OCC), other fiber, and plastics to the amount of 2,000 tons a month. Commercial haulers and businesses are Garten’s major customers and space limitations and collection efficiencies are driving Matthews to consider implementing an OCC screen and a standard belt conveyor. Garten will continue to target businesses that have internal reasons to segregate waste commodities, but the same financial concerns that drive Ocean County and Ecocycle will continue to pressure Garten and, possibly, divert material away from that facility. Matthews had relied upon a business strategy of partnering with other facilities and haulers so as to find Garten’s market niche and will continue to do so as long as the “safety and the dignity of the worker can be upheld.”

Transfer stations for waste are not immune to the need to diversify both in operations and design. When asked what they needed most, transfer station managers said “space.” Rebecca Jewel, WM’s recycling programs manager, said that “properly zoned property for waste facilities is becoming harder to find.” The diminished manufacturing in this country has forced city and county planners to infill once industrial-zoned areas with residential or mixed-use construction. Waste facilities adjacent to and surrounded by like-minded activity may be a thing of the past as residential densification and the decimation of USA manufacturing continues. Transfer stations have to “look good” if they want to be built.

Case in point is King County, WA, which manages the disposal of wastestreams from the unincorporated areas of the county and for 37 suburban cities in the county, excluding the city of Seattle, through Interlocal Agreements. In the early 1960s, the transfer system put in place by King County was visionary. From the presidency of John F. Kennedy, these transfer stations have been servicing the people of King County with no significant changes as population density increased, as more recycling has been produced, or as the mix of commercial and residential customers has changed over time.

Managing engineer Neil Fujii and Lisa Williams of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Solid Waste Division are members of a team made up of KPG Inc. (architect and engineering), KPFF (construction management), and Lydig Construction (contractor) to design and build replacement transfer stations for the County. Approximately one and a half years ago, they built a $24 million transfer station with solar panels and passive lighting to offset the energy use and sell energy back to the power grid, natural ventilation system again reducing energy needs, and a rain water capturing system that utilizes an acre’s worth of water to wash down the floor. This 250-ton-per-day facility holds the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification, won the American Public Works Project of the Year, and the 2009 Judges Award for Sustainable Design form the American Council of Engineering Companies, as well as many more awards and accolades. These environmental aspects are interesting and appealing, but what is fascinating about this facility is that Fujii and Williams made the building on an old landfill and dug down into the ground so that backup transfer trailers and trucks could be housed underneath the facility and so that sound would be projected upward and not across. “The trailers,” Fujii said, “are out of sight and out of mind” to any neighbors.

Fujii and Williams are currently building another transfer station near SeaTac Airport which currently handles a third of all the transfer stations’ tonnage in the King County system. Originally this facility was for residents and commercial haulers to drop off trash with a few rolloff boxes at the front of the facility for recyclable items. Fujii intends to have the new transfer station meet the same environmental standards that Shoreline did but add to it an OCC baling operation with an in-floor conveyer. After reviewing the wastestream, Fujii and his team realized that a significant portion of the stream coming into the transfer station was OCC being dropped off into the trash by businesses. In the new facility, OCC will be pushed off into a bay and surged into the baler, loaded onto a cargo box, and trucked to a shipping point.

At the beginning of every episode of Star Trek,Captain James T. Kirk recites “Space, the final frontier…”as do managers of transfer stations, who ask themselves every day: “How can I utilize more space?” Fujii and Williams answered the question by digging down at Shoreline, while Kuhlwein in Ocean County built the 40,000-square-foot Southern Recycling Center in Stafford Township. The facility “has a cardboard baling operation, a load-out dock, and the ability to tip trucks and pull from behind the pile of material with a loader to load transfer trailers,” says Kuhlwein. It has an interesting series of walls whereby the loader can work with the material without having to wait for the tipping truck to finish and leave.

Allied Waste of Chicago has several operations that are geared to servicing customer demands. In January 2009, Allied opened its Northlake Transfer Station to handle 750 tons a day of trash. Allied wanted to maximize the space potential of the site but had one unusual constraint, three high-tension, high-voltage power-line towers. Allied’s building team decided to dig down an additional 4 feet to assure proper clearance. The transfer station incorporates an elaborate interior netting to deter birds from interfering with customers and workers. It sports a multistation dust-collection system controlled by the loading operator, who will activate area zones as needed from the cab of the loader.

Chicago is known as a city that has been on the cutting edge of architecture. The Chicago School was one of the first to explore steel-frame construction and Louis Sullivan’s modern skyscrapers. A walk around Chicago and its bookshops specializing in architecture will immediately tell the visitor that Chicago takes great pride in its skyline. Allied has moved to service its building customers with a construction-and-demolition debris processing facility to help meet the minimum requirement of 50% diversion, which the city requires, and to meet the LEED certification in the Materials and Resources category awarded by the US Green building Council. Allied and its equipment contractor, Machinex, constructed a 90,000-square-foot facility located on Chicago’s West Side and began operations in August 2008. The facility can process a maximum of 1,500 tons a day with a 90% recovery of recyclable material and a 78% total diversion. The diverted material becomes biofuel, wood pellets, landscape mulch, hot-mix asphalt, cold patch, new concrete, and recycled OCC.

Currently the tip fees vary between $20 and $35 a ton. The facility now receives 300 tons a day, with 70 tons going to a landfill and the rest diverted. A VecoPlan industrial shredder reduces the size of the material before it is separated into two lines, one under and one over 2.5 inches in size. Wood is separated in a water bath where heavy objects sink onto a conveyor system and are transported for further processing while the wood floats off into a separate stream to be ground for fuel at power plants and feedstock for new paper and mulch.

Allied Waste (now Republic and formerly BFI, but everyone in the area knows it as Allied) of Chicago is managed by a 28-year-veteran of the Chicago waste business, Robert Kalebich. He senses that there is a growing political and social demand for sustainable waste management practices, tempered by financial realities, hardened by logistical and technological constraints, and fueled by dreams of zero waste. The city of Chicago implemented its 50% diversion requirement for C&D and is now moving forward with diverting more organic waste. Allied recently won a $100,000 grant to implement an organic collection/processing operation. Kalebich and his team are evaluating the different technologies to possibly utilize at their facility in order to service the customers’ foodwaste needs.

Illinois is relaxing pollution-control requirements on food scrap composting to make processing of this wastestream more cost friendly, something which many hope would happen with the California Air Pollution and Control Board and various health departments in other states. Managers of processing facilities are aware that organic separation is being talked about as a coming service. Lombardi advocates a 30-day windrow composting process “to let gas create carbon instead of methane.”

Will there be a mounting pressure on MRFs to receive and process foodwaste, and, if so, how will the material be handled? Twenty-year veteran in the waste business, Jonathan Sloan, president of Canusa Hershman Recycling Co., which recently opened a 50-ton-per-hour MRF with three optical sorters for plastic and paper in Prince William County, VA, believes, along with many MRF managers, that adding a mixed-waste line to the processing facility will further degrade the quality of the recyclables and, in low market conditions, and make the sale of material problematic.

Some communities are looking to provide more services at less cost and seeking innovative collection strategies and need processors to handle the material. Olympia, WA, picks residential trash, recycling, and organics (including foodwaste) up once every other week on a pay-as-you-throw basis. The every-other-week strategy was implemented in 1998 and utilizes fewer trucks and personnel, saving the city money. Its regional health department has worked closely with the city to accommodate this collection regime.

Richard Gertman reported in this magazine (July/August 2003) about Portola Valley’s success in separating organics from recyclables and trash. A truck with two compartments, one for recyclables and one for a combined organics and trash, collects weekly; the recyclables are processed through the GreenWaste Recovery processing facility in San Jose and the rest of the material is consolidated and shipped to Z-Best Compost Facility near Gilroy, CA, where contaminates are screened out and the organics are composted in the Ag-Bag system. Portola Valley’s diversion rate went from 30%, Gertman reports, to over 75%.

San Francisco’s waste hauler, Recology (formerly known as NORCAL, the combined Sunset Scavenger, Golden Gate Disposal and Santiary Fill) has been collecting the food waste from residents and restaurants in San Francisco. Two trucks go by the collection point. One has two compartments split evenly in capacity, one compartment for recycling and one for trash. A second truck to collect foodwaste and yardwaste. Both trucks go to the same Transfer Station and are off-loaded in different areas before the foodwaste is consolidated into tractor-trailers and shipped up to Vacaville, where it is composted and sold to vineyards.

MRF managers, however, may be looking for onsite and in-vessel methods to process the organic waste. Some, as Gertman has suggested, may wish to partner with waste water treatment facilities that have underutilized digester capacity, others will be looking at such beta projects as Onsite Power Systems’ anaerobic phased solids digester process to produce biogas and electricity and utilize both for their collection vehicles’ and facility’s energy needs. Onsite is a privately held company located near the University of California at Davis that has the exclusive licensing and research agreement from the University of California Regents.

Other MRF managers may look to having a quick negative aerated static pile system in which the material composted will be covered with an impermeable fabric material that repels water and clings to the compost through negative aeration-which also acts as an exhaust, pulling the odors into a biofilter and stripping the foul smell away from emissions within a small footprint. Companies like Engineered Compost Systems out of Seattle, WA, are assisting companies like Waste Connections.

Some may call them “words of wisdom,” while others could read it as “rules to reduce risk,” but many of the managers interviewed for this article had common advice for those wanting to reconfigure both the physical aspects and business strategy of a MRF and/or transfer station:

  • Know the needs and expectations of the customers bringing in the material and of the customers to whom you will be selling the processed commodities.
  • Create a team early on in the planning stages, which may include state and local government officials who can provide insights into their respective needs and facility siting requirements as well as grant and revenue opportunities, an equipment manufacturer who understands the materials to be processed, end-use purchasers who can help you learn market dynamics and requirements, and labor unions that will be involved with the daily work.
  • Evaluate partnerships to see if risk can be reduced for everyone involved. Partner commodities at single locations to reduce costs and service the immediate needs of customers.
  • Be aware of space: A facility needs more space than one initially thinks or wants to spend funds on. Think of space in a nonlinear manner to allow for such unique construction alternatives as digging down, as in the examples of King County and Chicago, or a unique wall structure that allows for more efficient unloading as in Ocean County.
  • Do the research thoroughly before implementing. There is no great gain in immediate decisions when constructing these types of facilities and preparing a business strategy for the future.
The culture of the waste business has changed. It no longer is a simple calculation of “charge for and sell at” mentality. Managers have to be sensitive to the political, social, and environmental aspects of their businesses and the emerging protocol of legislative and environmental expectations. The time when processors dictated what can and cannot be diverted is over. To put it bluntly, the notion that there was once California and then the rest of the nation is withering away under a complex umbrella of life-cycle costs and quality-of-life issues held up in its center by full cost analysis.
About the Author

Chace Anderson

Writer Chace Anderson is vice president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc.

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