Photo by Nic Coury

If you polled recyclers on the most inopportune time to open a new material recovery facility (MRF) over the last several decades, early 2018 would surely be high on the list.

China’s comprehensive recycling ban imposed by its National Sword policy was put into effect in January of last year, wiping out the lion’s share of domestic recyclers’ No. 1 market overnight. Stockpiling material and plummeting commodity prices ensued across the country.

Those were challenges the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) faced as it opened the doors to its newly renovated $24 million, 100,000-square-foot facility in February 2018 that was constructed to process single-stream recycling, construction and demolition (C&D) debris and mixed commercial waste. The MRF is part of MRWMD’s comprehensive waste management infrastructure that includes a landfill, a reuse store and composting and anaerobic digestion sites.

Dealing with the changes

According to Tim Brownell, the director of operations at Monterey Regional Waste Management District, it quickly became obvious that the changes in the market were going to have a profound effect on the MRF’s bottom line.

“There was sticker shock in a way when we opened in that the revenue we thought we would be getting from the facility was obviously less than anticipated,” Brownell says. “So, when we opened the facility, our business plan in terms of revenues and costs was turned upside down right off the bat.”

According to Brownell, the half-percent contamination thresholds imposed by the China ban required the facility to rethink its strategy for handling incoming material. To help improve purity rates, the facility brought in more manual sorting personnel to assist with the recycling efforts.

“We originally were thinking we would need roughly 16 sorters on the line to go with all the new separation equipment, but we really needed to bulk up the number of folks on our presort line,” Brownell says. “We also had to add additional folks on our post-sort line to really aggressively pull out nonrecyclable materials. So, our sorting staff estimate was that we’d need approximately 16 people on the line, and within two months of opening, we had 26 sorters on the line.”

Beyond the contamination thresholds that required unanticipated vigilance, Brownell says the facility was also being tasked with handling unforeseen volumes. The facility is on pace to process 60,000-65,000 tons of single-stream recycling a year—four times more than the 15,000 annual tons they expected when opening.

“National Sword has impacted everybody in that they’ve had to slow down their lines to try and meet those contamination requirements,” Brownell says. “Instead of a facility being able to run 40 tons an hour, they had to slow down to 30 tons an hour. It has decreased processing capacity across our area. Our facility opening up allowed recyclers a local option for offloading materials instead of them having to move their materials to the San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland Bay area.”

Although the China ban diminished the price of some materials and facilitated the need to hire more staff, Brownell says the increase in volume that the facility has been processing has allowed the MRWMD to meet its original revenue projections through new and familiar end markets.

The predominance of the fiber generated by MRWMD—mixed paper, office paper and corrugated—is still getting exported but very little is going to China. Brownell says the majority of these materials are now shipping to Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. Conversely, Brownell says the majority of the plastics (separated PET, HDPE, clear and colored, and a No. 5 polypropylene grade) that are sorted on-site, as well as the metals generated at the plant, are shipped domestically. The exception is a mixed rigid plastics grade composed of mostly HDPE that is being shipped internationally, most recently to Taiwan.

Working smarter

The facility has both a C&D line and a single-stream line that also accommodates some mixed solid waste processing. On the C&D line, the MRF processes between 65,000 and 70,000 tons per year at a recovery rate slightly over 65 percent. On the single-stream and mixed solid waste line, they’re processing roughly 65,000 tons per year with a 70 percent recovery rate.

The recycling line features bag breaking and screen technology from Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon, that work together to filter incoming materials and present consistently sized fractions to the plant’s single-drum separators from Nihot, Amsterdam, which remove contamination from the fiber and container streams. A FiberPure optical sorter from National Recovery Technologies (NRT), Nashville, Tennessee, sorts either plastic film or paper, depending on the material stream and the operator’s discretion, and recovers various types of plastics as needed, based on their marketability. MRWMD bales recyclables with a PAAL Konti baler from Kadant, Westford, Massachusetts.

Brownell says that while the combination of new equipment and increased staffing has allowed the plant to better sort incoming materials, the stricter regulations facing the industry have also forced the plant to put a greater emphasis on training.

“There was one benefit, I think, to us opening when we opened,” Brownell says. “We opened probably at the worst point in terms of material value and restrictive quality standards, but we were forced to train our people to those standards. It wasn’t about doing what we did in the past—the market standards set a new precedent. Although the economic timing was awful, the reality that we’ve been able to train our staff to really understand that quality matters has been a tremendous benefit.”

An emphasis on education

Brownell says that in addition to training staff, residents and haulers in the community need to be part of the solution to help bring about a higher standard of quality in the post-China-ban age of recycling.

“I think the biggest learning challenge and the biggest adjustment that needs to be made is getting both the public and the hauling community familiar with the fact that it’s a new time,” Brownell says. “We really want the public to understand what is recyclable and what is not and that the economics of recycling are different now.”

To help educate those in the community about what can and can’t be recycled, MRWMD has launched a year-long awareness campaign to get messaging out via local newspapers and other publications. The district is also releasing an app, “What Goes Where,” to help the community understand what can be placed in the blue bin.

Brownell says haulers also need to recognize the changing economics of recycling. He says charging in accordance with these costs can help a program succeed.

“Where we are at now is the new normal for at least the next two to three years—potentially much longer than that,” Brownell says. “The amount of revenue generated from the sale of recycled materials may not cover the cost of processing in the ways that they did in the past. Having ratepayers, municipalities and independent haulers understand that change is one of the bigger challenges that we face.”

Brownell says the district is working with the haulers that deliver materials to the plant to establish tip and processing fees that recognize quality. This processing fee would be based, in part, upon contamination of incoming single-stream materials above 10 percent. For every percentage point above that, haulers would have to pay a little more.

“We’re trying to create financial incentives to the hauling community to bring us cleaner materials,” Brownell says.

Preparing for the future

Though MRWMD doesn’t have any plans for upgrades at this point, Brownell says he expects discussions over the next year on the merits of incorporating additional optical sorters to target film and flat plastics on the plant’s fiber streams and additional sizing screens to capture smaller grades of brown paper from its mixed paper line.

“These quality standards are becoming the industry standard,” Brownell says. “We have to ask ourselves what the additional investments are that we need to make to either reduce some of our labor costs or increase our quality.”

Brownell says that as the industry works to figure out how to best solve the challenges present in the recycling sector, MRWMD is primed to utilize its resources to find new, and better, solutions for diverting materials.

“What’s interesting about our community is that we have all these waste stream processing activities at one site,” he says. “Over time, it’s going to be fascinating to see what opportunities we have to improve the recycling program in ways that don’t impact the solid waste programs or the composting programs. I want to see how these changes in recycling we’ve seen over the last year impact the rest of the solid waste stream. ... We have a bit of a laboratory here, so it’s going to be an exciting place.”

The author is the editor for Waste Today magazine and can be contacted at