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The National Sword policy implemented by China in 2018 prompted many material recovery facility (MRF) operators to make various upgrades, installations and layout changes to their facilities.

Together, these changes have helped redefine the look and operation of the modern MRF.

“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, Baxley, Georgia. “In the past, that’s probably not been as big 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 along with Eric Konik is the co-owner of Single Stream Recyclers in Sarasota, Florida, says China’s bans and restrictions on U.S. commodities have made the export market more challenging. He adds that changing market conditions convinced his team to add optical scanners at the facility to produce a higher quality commodity “that can go anywhere at any time for the highest price.”

Waste Today connected with several MRF operators during this year’s Southeast Recycling Conference in Orlando, Florida, to learn about what changes they have made to their operations and layout design in response to changing commodity values in the market. Hansen of Single Stream Recyclers; Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling in Des Moines, Iowa; and Tim Horkay, director of recycling at Penn Waste in Manchester, Pennsylvania, each shared stories of what they’re changing at their MRFs and offered best practices for improving MRF layouts in today’s market.

Waste Today (WT): 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, and 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 [to implement them] because you can remove two people for every one robot. [Robots] show up to work every day. They don’t get angry. They don’t take bathroom breaks. They will make a difference. Additionally, we optically scan all of our plastics. Every single day, we get consistency on those lines. However, we still need to think about [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 Tetra Pak and any other high-value items from our residual line.

We had to add some additional optical scanners last year. We added [them] 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. So, 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 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] pre-sorters, 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. As an example, my dad was a telephone repairman. Does anyone know what that is anymore? In his 40 years of work, the world changed. In the next 10 years, the world is going to change again. 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, not next year, to build it properly, or you will wind up building a dinosaur.

WT: What are recent changes you’ve made to your MRF layout, or what changes would you want to make?

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 [artificial intelligence] 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.

WT: What are your best practices 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 also 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 worry about fitting the equipment into an existing building.” Generally, almost every MRF in existence was put in a building that was already there and had 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 [Konik] 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 will encompass the next biggest crisis facing recycling’s future, and it will go well beyond the trade sanctions and bans [we’re currently seeing] globally because nobody’s paid attention to it the last four or five years—it’s been hiding in the weeds.

From left: John Hansen, Sidney Wildes, Tim Horkay and Mick Barry

WT: Making changes to a 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. You also need to plan for larger investments over a period of time.

MB: We work closely with our banks, and we 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 think about 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.

So, 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 [that will take] the next quantum leap in the next five to 10 years. These will likely become more of a mixed waste, one-bin process and include very capital-intense systems composed of AI, robotics and scanners where organic recovery, alternative energy solutions and traditional recyclable raw materials are the output.

JH: You have to have a lot of cost analysis to determine whether or not you’re going to have return on your investments, and [you really have to understand] what this looks like. There are a lot of things that go into that process. Hour-for-hour reduction in labor and higher capture rates that might be possible post-investment are things atop the list of what to consider, to name a few, when thinking of investment in your MRF.

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today, a sister publication of Waste Today. She can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.