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With the ambition to retrofit, construct or upgrade at least two to three of its material recovery facilities (MRFs) each year, Houston-based Waste Management has remained steadfast through the pandemic, completing the construction of three new MRFs in Chicago; Salt Lake City; and Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2020.

According to Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management and president of Waste Management Recycle America, these upgrades—especially at the Salt Lake City site—were necessary due to outdated equipment and maxed out production capacity at the company’s existing facilities.

“[Salt Lake City] is a really attractive market for Waste Management,” says Bell. “We always look for areas that support recycling or for areas that are growing, and we [met] both of those criteria in the Salt Lake City area, so that made it a perfect fit [for a new facility].”

Bell says the company’s previous Salt Lake City facility was about 60 percent of the size of the new MRF, with no room to grow.

“That’s why we decided to relocate that facility to expand and invest in some equipment that would allow us to [handle] our customers’ growth in that area,” he says.

"The cutting-edge sorting equipment and expanded production capacity at the new facility will enable us to increase operational efficiencies and exceed the quality standards required by U.S. product manufacturers,” –Mark Snedecor, director of recycling operations, Waste Management of Utah

The new $17 million MRF occupies 50,000 square feet inside an existing structure at WM’s site. Featuring a custom design and more advanced automation, the MRF will support recycling programs throughout Salt Lake Valley—processing recyclables for Salt Lake City’s roughly 41,000 residential customers as well as numerous communities and businesses across the valley.

“This recycling facility was custom designed and equipped to support the future recycling needs of the Salt Lake Valley, one of the fastest growing population centers in the country,” Mark Snedecor, director of recycling operations for Waste Management of Utah, said in a news release announcing the MRF’s opening. “The cutting-edge sorting equipment and expanded production capacity at the new facility will enable us to increase operational efficiencies and exceed the quality standards required by U.S. product manufacturers who buy the metals, cardboard, paper and plastics produced at this MRF.”

A CUSTOM DESIGN

Designed and sequenced by Waste Management’s in-house engineering team, Bell says the Salt Lake City MRF utilizes the “best pieces of all the recycling equipment manufacturers.”

The facility includes advanced automation, as well as rotating fiber screens, ballistic separators, optical sorters and magnets. In addition, more than 2.5 miles of conveyor belts carry materials through the single-stream processing facility, which can sort 35 tons per hour, 280 tons daily and more than 71,000 tons annually, according to the company.

“We put [the equipment] together in a sequence that we understand based on our experience, based on the material composition, based on how much volume we need to put through, and ultimately, what kind of material we wanted to produce and then market there,” Bell says. “So, that’s kind of where the in-house design comes from. We absolutely use what’s best out on the marketplace today, and then we put the equipment together with our own engineering team.”

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With the Salt Lake City MRF in particular, automation was a main area of focus. With six to seven optical sorters currently, and one more being added early next year, the additional automation has helped reduce both labor and maintenance costs.

“I think if you look in the industry overall, one of our biggest challenges is finding a dependent and stable workforce in these facilities,” says Bell. “So, predominately, that’s finding a sorter position. It’s a difficult position to fill and to keep filled, just because … it’s definitely one of the hardest-working jobs in our industry. The belts move fairly fast and it’s a repetitive job to do, so, what we’ve tried to do is make it so we don’t have to rely on that workforce as much through automation.”

Bell adds, “That’s where an optical sorter would come into play. The workforce that you have at these newer facilities has changed, so, as opposed to having people actually manually sort and take the materials out of the stream, you [instead] have someone programming the optical sorter.”

The new optical sorters have a higher recovery rate and will be used to positively sort out the various materials the facility processes, including cardboard, mixed paper, natural high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and more.

“Before, a facility like this probably would have just combined the high-density, color and natural [plastics] together, but now we’re able to separate those materials out to extract further value from them for our customers,” Bell says.

REDUCING DOWNTIME

Since opening in August, Bell says the facility has been running smoothly.

“You get a little bit of downtime when you first start up, just because you’ve got wiring issues and bugs to work out. But we’ve gotten through some of those issues to reduce that,” he says. “We look at downtime in two manners: is there downtime caused by us or … is there downtime that’s been caused by a [foreign] material that got introduced to the stream, like a battery or an engine block that comes through and stops a piece of equipment? So, we measure [downtime] in those two types of categories as we move forward.”

Ultimately, the goal is to get the facility at 90 percent uptime and processing roughly 6,000 to 7,000 tons per month.

“We’ve kind of slowly started to ramp up,” he says. “When you first start one of these facilities, you don’t go for the max capacity on day one. So, we’ve slowly started to increase [the capacity], and by the first quarter in 2021, we should easily be processing 6,000 tons per month there.”

To reduce downtime and to keep the machines running efficiently, Waste Management has put an emphasis on its education programs to solve contamination issues at the source. From social media campaigns to online resources, Bell says the company is constantly trying to educate customers on the right items to put in recycling bins.

“On a national average in 2018, we were at about a 25 percent contamination level. This year, that’s gone down to just below 20 percent,” he says. “So, we do think some of our education efforts are starting to pay off. We like to stop the contamination before it gets to the plant level, because once it’s in the plant and it gets time to sort it, it can cause a lot of problems—not only with the efficiency of the operation, but also with the safety of our employees.”

The author is the assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hrischar@gie.net.