Now Arriving, All Unsorted

Feb. 20, 2014

Over the past couple of decades, perhaps the over-arching trend in solid waste has been a kind of gradual shift in the composition of trash headed for recycling. And the shift is transforming waste-processing at every phase.

Pieter Eenkema van Dijk, president of Van Dyk Recycling Solutions (VDRS) in Stamford, CT, outlines what’s been happening.

“In the late 1980s and early 1990s we had dual-stream recycling,” he recalls. Besides your regular curbside garbage, each home had two recycling containers-one for paper and cardboard, the other for all containers, including glass, plastic, tin, or aluminum. The resulting recycled material “was cleaner and of higher quality” than what we have now, he points out.

Then, came the rise of single-stream recycling, beginning in about 2000: All recyclables were tossed into one blue bin-a mix of papers and cardboard with plastic, glass, and cans. Though in a sense it seemed a step back in terms of sorting efficiency, in fact, as Eenkema van Dijk explains, “This was a huge advantage, because it got more participation from more households.” Plus, with fewer trash collectors on the road, hauling costs were slashed.

Over the ensuing years VDRS, for one, built perhaps 100 single-stream recycling systems here in the US, he notes.

But the resulting waste arriving at MRFs posed the challenge of “unscrambling the egg,” i.e., re-separating recyclables-which were now also wet and gooey with garbage. The MRF industry eventually got things sorted out. And the challenge of unmixing actually inspired the importation and development of key tech gains that are now widespread.

Brian Wells, sales operations and marketing manager for Bulk Handling Systems (BHS) of Eugene, OR, points out that single-stream recycling has come to dominate in the past two decades. The all-purpose blue bins arrive at MRFs with a well-known commodity inside. Content is predictable, Wells says approvingly, “at least to a point where we can easily develop, design, and deploy repeatable, reliable systems for sorting it.”

MRFs, he adds, “have more or less settled into using a series of disc screens for sizing and filtering, followed by optical units for identifying and recovering plastics, with some electro-magnetic and air technology also in the mix.”

Now, though, comes the Next Big Thing, just getting under way: a reversion to the old, all-in-one trash can of pre-recycling mixed-waste. It’s all a single nasty pile. No more blue bins. No more haphazard, half-hearted, lackadaisical consumer effort. Instead, says Wells, “we’re getting back to the original, unsorted, unseparated curbside MSW, including kitchen sinks. The difference is, now we have the technology to recycle it.”

Why this is happening is because, instead of city officials forever hoping that green-minded souls will keep maturing in our disposal habits, they’re becoming aware of an alternative. A paradigm-shift is steering the planet another way. Sortation and extraction of recyclables is now being handed-over entirely to the MRF professionals and their slick machinery. To use the current buzz-phrase, MRFs are going “dirty,” as trash arrives unsorted.

Unscrambling this egg is obviously a much greater challenge. But, fortunately, advances in technology are being developed here at home, and also arriving from overseas, especially from Europe.

Development of such machinery typically occurs in places where landfill space is at a premium and hauling costs are, say, $200-plus a ton, compared with tipping fees in rural USA that often come out to a small fraction of that. And, after recyclables are extracted, Europe’s higher fuel prices also incentivize the use of “leftovers” for waste-to-energy conversion.

In addition to this driver, certain domestic public policy factors are edging America a bit further towards the European model. There’s still source separation, but, as several commenters note, there’s a steady shift back to trucking of more concentrated streams of mixed, unsorted garbage: recyclables, organics and useless waste together.

Wells observes that America is “still in its infancy” on this. But the technology and skills transfer is under way. “Just look at BHS,” he says, pointing out that it has “screening, air, and optical separation and anaerobic digestion technology all available under one roof.” BHS, along with Nashville-based National Recovery Technologies (NRT) and Nihot, of Amsterdam, have accumulated considerable experience in waste-to-energy feedstock preparation, which, says Wells, “is quickly gaining a presence in the US.”

What’s critical to realize is that, although US cities need to invest a bit for these advances, the potential gains are going to be enticing. The reasons are basically the same here as for the earlier shift from dual- to single-stream: By having solo-bin pickup and hauling routes, we’ll see huge savings every day of the week. These can underwrite further MRF automation.

In any case, we’ll also reportedly see much higher waste diversion rates, i.e., slowing-down landfill exhaustion, because so much more that was sorted only haphazardly now will find its reuse.

It’s all still a work-in-progress here. Wells points out that, “Sorting this waste is a much bigger practical challenge than single-stream is, because you can no longer predict the material. The trash arriving is different every minute of every day. And people throw everything into the pile, from used plastic water bottles to couches. This requires new technologies and sorting systems to separate the good from the bad.”

Last of all, on top of this revival of daily unpredictability, there are shifts going on in consumer behavior, altering the underlying composition of trash from year to year. This, too, necessitates frequent MRF revamping and process-line retooling.

Changes in Single-Stream Trash Composition
Anyone remember old newspapers (ONP)?

I daresay most of us do!

Not so long ago there were weekly mounds of newsprint in designated dumpsters. Often sitting next to these were drop-off bins for aluminum cans. Both were the bread-and-butter staples of recycling. Here, Eenkema van Dijk cites a revealing figure: “By weight, about 70% of the total recyclable stream back then was paper.” The balance overwhelmingly was composed of assorted containers. Recycling was easily organized around collecting and reclaiming ONP and containers.

Then came digitizing of our news and text, and then the Web for delivery. Eenkema van Dijk recalls that, “Suddenly, in about 10 years, the paper weight” for one typical sorting site that he’s worked with in Chicago, “dropped from 72% to 62%. That’s still fairly close,” he observes. “But, out of that new, lower figure, the ONP portion has gone down” dramatically. In its place we now find mixed paper and especially torn-up corrugated boxes. These have really shot up recently, he finds: “The younger generation doesn’t read newspapers, and now they also order everything online. There’s a tremendous increase in boxes” to be sorted, reclaimed, and recycled, he says.

At VDRS, due to such shifts, new processing systems are being designed, and new equipment imported, operating under different principles.

“There are more sizing screens,” he explains. “Paper is skimmed off. Then we work with smaller papers in the containers. PaperMagnets-or French screens, as we call them-or elliptical separators, clean that stream up and get really clean containers out. And then containers are optically sorted.”

It’s a far cry from the 1980s consumer pre-sort era. “Recyclables are now coming in totally commingled,” he says.

In a related observation about paper trash content, Cynthia Andela, president of Andela Products in Richfield Springs, NY, notes: “What’s probably the biggest development in the last few years is the fact that waste has gotten really full of paper shred.” This is owing to the soaring practice of document-shredding at home. Piles of confetti-like output now arrives at MRFs routinely. It’s all commingled in the collective waste heap like a clingy weed mucking up good recyclables. It tends to fall through the sorting screens and ends up in the bottom mix. This area, says Andela, “is now becoming heavier and heavier with paper,” thereby contaminating the tiny leftover, unsortable glass and ceramic shards which, incidentally, her company is earnestly trying to redeem as a “silica commodity” for money. Andela’s primary business is developing equipment to clean and recycle this “bottom-of-the-barrel” residue.

On this point, she adds, it now sometimes surprises people to learn that glass use is actually making a comeback. A half-dozen years ago nearly everyone thought otherwise, supposing that this heavy, breakage-prone material would fade away in use, as consumers would give their love to plastics. “People would ask us, “˜Why are you still in this business?’ The mantra then was, “˜Glass is going to disappear,'” she recalls.

But as things have turned out, glass containers are gaining in popularity, and they account for an increasing percentage of the recycling mix, by weight. Andela is one of several entrepreneurs who are developing ways to find value in the dregs of the waste processing-consisting of the tiniest paper, plastic, and glass.

Paper, Plastic, and 800-Pound Pandas
Meanwhile, markets for profitably selling reclaimed paper and plastics are also shifting.

For the past decade or so we’ve seen a booming Asian dynamo gorging itself on such materials shipped from Europe, the US, and the world.

Lately, though, the appetite has become a bit sated, and the taste has turned pickier. This has caused a ripple effect on MRF sorting and recycling strategies here.

A partner in one recent startup that represents European equipment manufacturers observes that China began heavily buying those tanker loads of recyclables here at about the time that two-bin trash pickups were being eclipsed by single-stream. Back then, our paper mills were still busy making newsprint and were meeting a relatively high spec, he notes. But the shift to single-stream meant much dirtier raw stock to sort. China was happy to buy the reclaimed paper output anyway, even though it was lowered in grade by a factor of 30 or 40.

More recently, China’s government has reversed course and raised its standard on wastepaper imports. They’ve also capped what Chinese businesses are allowed to pay for it.

In this precarious market, then, MRF equipment vendors have been hoping somehow to sell a lot more machines to clean it up, either here or elsewhere. The source who is providing this market overview (anonymously, on request) opened for business quite recently, he says, “to be a gateway to the whole gamut of European equipment” for processing of residential and commercial single-stream waste. He points out that, given the currently depressed prices for waste paper, “My [MRF] customers can’t afford to reinvest” yet.

“But what my customers really need now,” he says emphatically, “is flexibility. Things are always changing these days. Material streams are getting so varied, and markets are so volatile now. Customers need to be able to push a button and process different incoming streams, then push a button and create a different outgoing stream” of reclaimed materials. “So that’s the key,” he says.

“But flexibility is a big word,” he goes on. “The more you get, the more expensive it becomes. And the more expensive it is, the harder it is to cost-justify.” He sums up: “For MRF equipment suppliers the question becomes, how do you build it?”

An Era of Continuous MRF Innovation
The industry is answering, more or less, with a transformation in waste-sorting practices.

Eenkema van Dijk’s firm VDRS, for one, represents a Netherlands-based manufacturer, Bollegraaf Recycling Solutions. BRS is a major global exporter of balers and related devices for single stream processing, and the firm has equipped hundreds of such plants overseas.

Eenkema van Dijk also handles U.S. interests for Titech, of Norway. They’re known for sensor-based sorters. Titech introduced itself here a decade ago or so, and now reportedly enjoys about a 65% market share for optical sorting in US single-stream plants.

In 2012, VDRS began reconfiguring North American MRFs for the newly shifting waste-composition realities. Under the previous design schema, for example, separation of paper and plastics employed screens tilted at a 45-degree angle. As the recyclables moved along, paper would rise up above the three-dimensional containers. The latter would fall downward. But this design, as Eenkema van Dijk notes, required high maintenance, and the line was brought to a halt with frequent downtime.

Now, though, because “ONP is going anyway,” he continues, “our new ones work on a different principle. Sizing screens are no longer at 45-degree angles but are flatter or at 10 degrees. They’re much easier to maintain and are more productive.”

VDRS’ optical sorting system from Titech, he continues, “is also a completely new generation.” It uses flying-beam technology to replace lamps, for better recognition. Sorting over a conveyor can now be subdivided into three different tracks; for example, one for PET [number one plastic, polyethylene terephthalate], one for PE [polyethylene], and a third with (say) aseptic containers.

Since launching the first US plant with this technology in the beginning of 2013, subsequent operations have validated all expectations. As of autumn 2013, VDRS had quickly filled orders for two dozen or more, Eenkema van Dijk reports.

In 2011, VDRS designed a large single-stream plant for the state of Rhode Island. Eenkema van Dijk recalls a significant market insight that was later applied there. After doing some analysis, it was recognized that the market for plastics numbered three to seven had basically collapsed, because, although this grade range had once been in demand, China was no longer taking it.

“We found out that in the three to seven [plastics], 60% or more is actually polypropylene, PP. So now, instead of doing three to sevens, we shoot out PP, number-five plastic. And you get a good value for that,” says Eenkema van Dijk.

With Titech optical equipment being applied, making such a transition is easy, he adds: “Literally, with just a push of a button. Without any cost you can just sort PP out, instead of three to seven [plastics].”

Air Density Sorting: Up for Grabs
In Oregon, BHS’s Wells outlines how BHS now proposes handling MRF paper and plastic sortation duties by applying “highly tuned, high-volume air.” A Nihot single-drum separator uses closed-loop air technology to separate material by weight and density. Paper, cardboard, plastics and aluminum pass over a drum while heavy items, whether old shoes, bowling balls, or last evening’s lasagna, fall down on another route.

Air separation is not another European import. Rather, air jets and optical technologies were invented and pioneered by Nashville-based NRT. “Europe has taken the technology and run with it out of necessity,” notes one of Wells BHS colleagues. NRT’s In-Flight Sorting “provides a number of accuracy advantages not available even in Europe,” he adds.

Worldwide, Wells reports that Nihot has about 750-plus installations “in just about every kind of waste steam that exists.”

For use on a conveyor of totally mixed garbage, the specially designed objective is to aim the jets. Density separation of this kind applies a high-volume, low-pressure vacuum process that removes lightweight materials from the heavy.

“So you create a stream,” Wells explains, “that looks more like single-stream recyclables. It’s not quite as clean as single-stream material. There’s always other items in the mix. But using the density separation allows you to “˜condition’ the material stream so that you have the opportunity to apply more accurate recovery equipment like disc screens and optical sorters, to do your final sorting.”

He continues: “Optical technology allows us to apply a positive sort, where we can accurately eject recyclables to create a very pure end product. In most single-stream recycling, we’re using a negative sort, where we target and eject contaminants.”

Coming eventually, and still over the horizon for air-density tools to tackle, Wells describes a sort of Mount Everest which the whole MRF industry would like to scale someday.

“Believe it or not,” he says, “the biggest challenge for sorting plants is getting film plastic (i.e., trash bags) away from paper. In single-stream recycling, this is discouraged by telling people, “˜You can’t put your plastic bags in recycling bins’-although everybody does it. And, of course, the garbage under the kitchen sink is plastic bagged.”

Currently, all such bags are removed with manual labor. It’s horrendous work; 60 grocery bags add up to just one pound in weight. “Think of people picking all those grocery bags out of those massive volumes,” says Wells. “The numbers become crazy.”

To further complicate the separation challenge, paper and plastic behave similarly in many air-drum and screening applications. Wells notes that “BHS has been using more and more optical technology to tackle this issue. NRT SpydIR units can easily identify the plastic as a contaminant and fire on it. The accuracy levels are extremely high.”

Bouncing It Around
Ballistic separators represent another major MRF innovation these days.

Again, they’re imported from Europe. One domestic builder of MRFs, MetalTech Systems Inc., located in Pawley’s Island, SC, represents a German manufacturer, Hartner. MetalTech’s vice president Richard Howard observes, “A lot of sites [abroad] have ballistic separators now, but for some reason they’ve not been widely used in single- and multistream systems in the US. In Europe, it’s a totally different story.”

Previously, MetalTech introduced the use of rod decks and finger screens for waste-streams, Howard notes.

Hartner’s machinery is newly arriving here after being used to equip several hundred installations abroad. MetalTech’s first Hartner-based US ballistic separator plant was installed early in 2012 in Tallahassee, FL, at Marpan Recycling.

More ballistic separators here will be landing ashore as would-be successors to disk screens, which have generally dominated wastestream processing in the US.

As Howard explains, the two concepts work very differently. Disk screens filter the trash, with the disks providing movement pressure. In a ballistic separation alternative, the quality-control staff greet the arriving solid waste by first picking out the large contaminates. Then, rather than proceeding to a manual pre-sort on the QC line, he explains, “We put everything-the paper and glass, as is-on the run deck. This automatically separates OCC [old corrugated containers] along with any type of paper as well as contaminates. Finger screens remove the glass. The resulting OCC is very clean and very free of glass, the major contaminate.”

Next comes the ballistic separator itself. This consists of a series of paddles numbering between six and 10. They continually “bat” the trash 2 or 3 feet upward, so that it separates while airborne.

Based on an online video showing the new line at work for Marpan, the trash looks like hundreds of items bouncing on tiny trampolines.

Underneath, an angled mesh screen boosts the flattest items (paper or cardboard) uphill, while the containers go downhill. The loose glass, etc., falls through.

Mechanically, says Howard, “the key advantages of this method over disk screens is, we simply have a single moving deck and a single motor. So, costwise the maintenance and operation are easier and cheaper. Bearings can be changed in place, if needed, without shaft removal.”

A waste processing site “will save a lot of time and money compared to disk screens,” he continues. Disks frequently choke on certain solid waste, suffering costly downtime every few hours for untangling. Also, he says, depending on the system being replaced, you may save by needing only minimal QC labor for that initial sorting.

As for Marpan’s experience, by midyear the company had decided its ballistic separator was a bit under size, so in October it asked Howard and MetalTech for a larger one. Productivity then shot up from 56 tons daily to 90, which is 10 or 12 tons hourly, “depending on the materials moisture content,” Howard notes.

“The resulting mixed paper that’s coming out is probably less than 2% contaminated. It’s a dramatic improvement. We think we can do even better,” he adds.

Eye-Popping Optical
By whatever means the paper is divided from containers, afterwards comes sorting of the latter, whether in a single-stream recycling MRF or other MSW plant.

Optical scanning technologies are now widely used here, notes BHS’ Wells, “either infrared or color camera, or a combination, to recover PET [again, number-one plastic, polyethylene terrathesylate], [two, polyethylene], HTPE and HDPE [high-density polyethylene], and other plastics.” Numbers one and two are typically desirable for recycling, while plastics three through seven are usually not sorted further because they have little value (except for the discovery of number five value mentioned above by Eenkema van Dijk).

In mid-2013 BHS commissioned the first two of its latest-generation advanced optical sorters, built by NRT of Nashville. Because they were still being tested at the time of this writing, Wells declined to disclose their locations, but was sure that by early 2014 this technology “will be standard for us.”

As BHS has moved into processing mixed waste, he continues, “we must deal with often much dirtier plastics… More bottles containing fluids, which makes them very difficult for traditional optical sorters to pick up. A lot of them are just filthy, covered in foodwaste and with labels. Contaminated PET still has market value, but you need advanced technology to get it out. NRT’s In-Flight Sorting is so good that equipment can now correctly identify a bottle with only 1% of the plastic surface showing,” he says.

Wells describes the technology as “a low-cost incremental improvement. It still uses IR spectrometers and uses reflective light or transmitted pass, which shines through the bottle.

“What are more advanced,” he continues, “are the sensors themselves, the guts of machine. This software has been completely overhauled. We’ve figured out how to clean up that signal, getting higher resolution and filtering noise, so we actually see what that object is, even when contaminated.”

In terms of resulting accuracy, Wells reports that, “When you turn this thing on [in the processing line], you’re going from getting zero percent of bottles that have fluids in them to something well above half of the bottles with fluids in them.” Containers that formerly would have gone to the landfill are now recovered, he adds.

Since this technology is basically a product software upgrade rather than a completely new device, the payback should come quickly. Wells illustrates: “If 10% of the inbound PET is wet or contaminated, and we’re able to get you just 50% more than what you were getting before, that’s 5% total extra recovery of a high-value commodity. Over a year’s time, at $600 dollars a ton for that product, if you get an extra one hundred tons a year, that could mean an additional $50,000 to $100,000 of revenue a year. And that’s conservative.”

Wells notes that most advanced sorting facilities already have a PET optical sorter, so they could achieve the improvement at only a modest cost. He sums up: “It’s not a matter of adding another optical sorter. That could lead to two sorters missing a bottle with liquid in it. It’s about adding the right technology.”

Green Machine (based in Hampstead, NH, with manufacturing and sales facilities in upstate New York) is a designer and manufacturer of recycling components and systems. Founded in 1991, with distinctive brands like Green Screens and Green Eye optical sorting technology, the company and its president John Green are proud of an extensive product line that is 100% made in the USA.

Green’s latest and most extraordinary innovation is an optical scanning system based on technology acquired from the US Department of Defense.

Functionally, says Green, “It’s like no other system. It’s able to identify the molecular structure” of whatever it’s looking at, even three-dimensionally.”

With plastics, for example, “It can see through barriers. It can see through [containers] internally. It can see the outer label. It can see the interior. It can see colors, including black. It can see things that no other can.

“Very few people even know about it yet,” Green adds. “We’ve not advertised it yet.”

Development began in 2006; the first pilot units came out in 2008. “We’ve been through seven iterations since,” he says, although he declined to state how many are in use in total, or where they are.

He continues: “We have looked at other systems” comparatively. Green mentions several. “We determined that each was a single-use style technology. We wanted to produce an optical sorter which could sort all things in nature-plastic, papers, metals, organics-with no limits.”

When commissioned, a system can be trained to see specific items a customer is interested in sorting, he says. While in operation it can be retrained to handle any new commodities that are added or to omit or filter existing ones. It can be retrofitted and relocated into different areas of a plant for new uses. Green notes that “Customers can do this themselves, or we can go online and assist in reprogramming.”

He illustrates: “One of largest problem with the industry is sorting aluminum cans next to plastic containers.” Both are very light. As they travel together past an air density separator, he says, “if a can leans against a plastic bottle and gets blown upon, it often flips the can with the bottle.” Not good.

Green continues: “Cans, of course, have much higher value than plastic. The conventional approach is to remove cans from the plastics before they get to the optical sorters. We can now identify the can as it travels down a conveyor belt. We can “˜draw a circle’ around it, so if a plastic bottle is within an inch or two we’ll tell it, “˜Do not blow in that area.’ We put a “˜halo’ around the can so you’re certain you’re not going to pick that aluminum can.”

The same holds for other high-value plastics. “It is easy to instruct the system on which materials to select and which to dismiss or ignore,” he says.

As for speed, at 700 feet per minute, “Ours belts are the fastest… Our computers, our vision systems, can digest the information much more quickly, in real time,” Green asserts.

Incidentally, the scanner can also sort paper, but this application is not practical, and Green has repeatedly talked customers out of fiddling with it. Technically, the scanner can identify fiber, ink, coloration, corrugation, and contamination. However, sorting paper would be impractical, as the flat sheets would have to be spread out singly on a very wide high-speed conveyor.

But again, as a tool for sorting plastics profitably, he says, “with labor costs rising, optical begins to make sense. Even minimum-wage people are too expansive. Now it makes all the sense in the world.”

Doing Something With the Dregs
Finally, here are three small, innovative and potentially significant alternatives for unloading what’s left piled unused on the plant floor after recyclables have been culled.

Randy Baerg, president of Warren & Baerg Manufacturing in Dinuba, CA, designs and manufactures equipment that takes the typically unwanted residue of a processing line and tries to make a product out of it.

“We’re at the tail end” of a given separating system, he says.

Baerg offers machinery that scoops up the jumbled sludge on the sorting floor and transforms or “densifies” it into compact homogeneous chunks, designated as pellets, cubes, or briquettes, depending on the size.

So: What can be done with the bottom crud? Typically, Baerg’s customers want the chunked-up paper and plastic either to burn or gasify as fuel. That’s unusual here in the fuel-rich USA, but not so rare abroad.

Financially, the “magic number,” where such processing becomes viable, gets reached whenever the cost of trucking the residue off to the landfill, combined with its value as fuel, hits about $75 to $100 a ton. “That’s getting into a real workable situation,” says Baerg. “If landfill rates are high, and there are plenty of fuel users in your area and no excess fuel, then it works.”

For example, Baerg is currently developing a project in the Los Angeles area, “where they have this exact situation happening.” The client envisions making and selling 30,000 tons of this densified material annually.

An even more profitable example is the Island of Aruba, where shipping costs for disposal are quite high, and the local utility is glad to pay good money for the redeemed pellets as fuel.

“The unfortunate thing here, though” Baerg continues, “is with glass. That’s a real negative, if these densified products are to go somewhere as an alternative fuel. Glass doesn’t work well then” if present in the proposed fuel. In fact, “Glass is the biggest pain in the neck,” Baerg says.

Here, though, there’s a kind of happy complementary industry getting under way, one that conveniently tackles Baerg’s nemesis.

It’s provided by Andela’s equipment, mentioned briefly above. Baerg wants to keep the paper and plastic but be rid of glass, ceramics, and metal chunks; Andela wants precisely the opposite: She wants glass, purged of clingy paper and plastic.

For her processes, Andela’s firm introduced a glass pulverizer and pressure and breaker system. It’s able to separate small, otherwise unusable broken bits, by selectively reducing them into a smaller, finer product. These days she is innovating ways for MRFs to market this gritty glass-or “amorphous silica,” as she calls it, on the theory that, after all, “it is a mineral commodity” with established markets.

Of all the glass arriving at the MRF in the single-stream waste, Andela notes, “only about half may be recoverable (by optical sorting).” The remaining chunks are unsortable and largely unwanted.

What to do?

Andela’s pulverizer “takes glass back to smaller-size aggregation that can be used for local application,” she says. Such uses might include, for example, parking-lot cover, road base, and landscape filler.

In order to reuse this rubble, contaminates must be reduced to no more than about 2%. At that threshold, “You can reasonably expect a little bit of revenue” from it, usually determined by negotiation, she says.

To date, a couple of hundred of her systems are in use worldwide. In North America, though, “the problem is, it’s not very popular at MRFs because they really don’t have a place to pile it up and try to sell it as sand or gravel. It’s hard to find any downstream market here,” she’s found.

But, beginning about five years ago, Andela built and commissioned her own glass recycling plant (also located in Richfield), applying a patented CleanGlass process. For about three years, she reports, it’s been increasingly active churning out “really clean, graded, sanitized commodities,” she says.

She’s since built three other like it, in Quebec (Tricentris Co.), in Salt Lake City (Momentum Recycling), and at an undisclosed site.

At last we come truly to the end of the process line, and of this report.

Here, a final entrepreneur wants to tap into the same bottom debris that Baerg wants to densitize, and Andela to pulverize.

Warren Vanderpool president of American Cierra in Auburn, NY, takes a kind of free-form approach to it. His business consists of helping waste processors discover challenging and cutting-edge solutions. “If someone has a feed stream,” for example, “and they don’t know what to do with what’s left, rather than put it in landfill we see if we can devise a method for making a product out of it,” says Vanderpool.

What specifically comes forth will depend on the precise waste composition and local markets.

As a representative sample, Vanderpool touts projects where he has shown clients how to turn waste into faux lumber. He explains: “We got new washing equipment for plastic, in Europe. And we came up a method for making plastic lumber,” typically out of clothing fiber and other waste plastic, especially PE and PP.

“Other times,” he continues, “it’s burned as fuel. And we’ve even purified it and used it as a plant food.”

In its raw state this trash can be quite dirty, but after a bath, says Vanderpool, “It can be ground to a point to where particles won’t show through the lumber board or whatever. Instead, particles go to the center of the board when you mold it.”

Resulting pseudo-timber is of course low-grade and not suitable for aesthetic or demanding uses; but it will do for things like landscaping barriers and fence posts. It’s cheap, and MRFs can get rid of the previously useless floor stuff that they’d otherwise have to truck to a landfill, by giving it away free to would-be lumber alchemists. Or whoever. So far, Vanderpool has set up about 35 machines for such processing, he says.

To sum up, a final word from that latest anonymous startup partner cited earlier, who launched his rep firm just this past year.

“In a lot of places,” he says, “the trash just keeps getting dirtier because local officials want to include more and more items in the recycling program,” i.e., having us throw all our trash in one bin now and making the MRF sort it all.

In any case, he adds ruefully, “Money to continue educating us about proper recycling was cut from budgets long ago.”

Moreover, “Governments are struggling for revenues. So the pickup material is dirtier. The end product is dirtier.”

And thanks to fixed rates set in Beijing, “The prices paid for recyclables doesn’t move,” he adds.

“Meanwhile, the waste processor is sitting there asking himself, ‘What do I do? I can’t put more labor into it. So what do I do?”

He puts it wryly: “That’s what makes the waste industry so exciting! There are so many moving pieces to it. And now it’s global.”

About the Author

David Engle

David Engle specializes in construction-related topics.

Photo 57595966 © Anthony Aneese Totah Jr | Dreamstime.com
Photo 39297166 © Mike2focus | Dreamstime.com
Photo 140820417 © Susanne Fritzsche | Dreamstime.com
Microplastics that were fragmented from larger plastics are called secondary microplastics; they are known as primary microplastics if they originate from small size produced industrial beads, care products or textile fibers.