As technology and automation such as optical sorters, robotics, and controls play a greater role in modern MRFs, it calls for a different skill set in those who manage them and work with them.
Scott Jable, director of North American sales for STADLER America, notes that as with most industries, electronics are taking a greater role in MRFs.
“There are so many advances in operating a MRF when it comes to computer control having to do with things like SCADA capabilities, reporting capabilities, and overall management,” he points out, adding that it has provided preemptive capabilities that mitigate unscheduled downtime.
Bruce Clark, project director and national expert on waste conversion for SCS Engineers, notes that robotic machines are getting to the point where they can start to take over some of the tasks once done through manual human labor.
The machines are becoming more refined as the markets demand cleaner materials, such as in the realm of plastic, Clark points out.
The path towards full automation is being driven by optical-type equipment that can now identify materials fairly precisely by scanning the surface and looking at surface features and colors, says Clark.
“It’s all fed into computers which provide feedback and control of the machines to be able to sort the desired material from other materials that are not desired at that point,” he says, adding that features such as a robotic arm are becoming more common.
Bradley Kelley, senior project engineer for Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, notes that the new robotics “is a very interesting innovation because, depending on what they are doing, they can be reprogrammed to collect or remove just about any type of material.”
He concurs with industry experts that some of the larger MRF equipment is going to be phased out to make room for more optical or robotic-type sorting.
“The reason being is there used to be a lot of newspaper and office paper in the stream that had good value, so everybody was targeting that and if you got some plastics out of it, that was great,” says Kelley, adding that this was the “old MRF mentality” before the dominance of electronics as a way of delivering content.
“There is a lot more plastics, glass, and metals, and a heck of a lot less fiber, so the old traditional large streams that sort out the 2D from the 3D just isn’t as effective anymore,” he adds. “The lightweight plastics tend to get squished and look and act a lot like paper in the MRFs, so you get a lot more of the plastics in the fiber and vice versa.”
Another technology continuing to advance is controls, which are configured into one area and feature cameras and a Human Machine Interface on which the operator can view the waste moving through the facility’s equipment and operate an entire MRF from one place, notes Clark.
STADLER has a system in Oslo, Norway, that is completely automated and is managed entirely from a control room where one employee is monitoring computer screens, looking for problems such as a motor drawing too many amps, says Jable.
“Just by looking at the computer screen, you can actually reduce downtime by stopping issues before they really even start, where in the past, you’d walk around and somebody would scream ‘There’s an issue over here’ and pull an e-stop to figure out what’s going on,” he says.
On a “slightly less advanced level,” an employee can walk around with an iPad and monitor MRF operations such as amp draws, conveyors, and speeds of the screens, Jable adds.
Given the increase of automation in the MRF market, economics is an inherent challenge in the decision to invest in technology or look for more labor, says Kelley.
“Sometimes in the short term, a staff is relatively cheap, and newly-engineered equipment is relatively expensive,” he says. “Depending on the long-term or short-term perspectives of any of the operators, it makes a difference as to which direction they want to go as far as new equipment, building a new MRF, or trying to retrofit something in the current economy. This is something everyone has to weigh depending on how their perspectives look for the economics of the next two to 15 years.”
Changing Waste Stream
Waste streams and regulations are two factors driving technology designs and adaptation into MRFs.
John Kemp, sales and operations specialist for CP Group, notes an increase in OCC and small chip, requiring more hands-on throughout the plant in different locations, especially on the
“Container lines are seeing an increase in PET and the single serve bottle to the point where automation definitely has had to take over that portion of the system,” points out Kemp. “Material is becoming less homogenous—2D is no longer fiber and 3D is no longer containers with the increase in flexible packaging and 3D fiber, so automation and selective sorting become more important.”
Rethinking the old MRF design of large streams for fiber will entail moving toward more optical units to segregate the streams into different sizes “and let the optical or robotic units take out whatever it is that they’re programmed to take out,” says Kelley. “This would seriously reduce the sort labor that would be necessary, but it would absolutely increase the mechanical and more high-tech jobs associated with MRFs that you really don’t get in some of the old school ones now.”
Kelley concurs with others that there is more OCC in the waste streams due to the “Amazon effect,” adding that the cardboard that is showing up is smaller, rendering the older ways of recovering it ineffective.
“The screens you use for cardboard for most MRFs have very large openings of 18 inches or greater,” he points out. “That gets the pizza boxes and big stuff, but if you look at a lot of the cardboard that shows up from Amazon, some of it is quite small and will fall through those screens, and it ends up having to be sorted elsewhere.
“In the same sense of maybe you can have one screen for this large stuff, but you still are going to have a lot of cardboard on your screen that will either have to be manually pulled or use automation to get it out.”
Noting an increasing interest in extracting food scraps out of the waste stream, Clark points out that there was a time when food waste was a discard directed to landfills.
“Today with anaerobic digesters, for example, processing systems have become miniaturized, developed for taking food scraps,” he says, adding that the desire to produce energy from the food scraps is a driving factor.
“The machinery plays the upfront role of separating the food out where communities have one bin and the food goes in there with all of the other refuse, including the recyclables,” notes Clark, adding that mixed MRFs are now being designed to extract as much food as possible and process it into either compost or biogas for multiple uses.
Food waste volume can be unpredictable, however, as some people are diverting it to backyard composting, says Clark, adding that waste composition takes on regional characteristics. He concurs that the waste stream also has more cardboard.
“We’re all ordering stuff online these days,” adds Clark. “A lot more cardboard goes out to the curb, so the front end of the MRFs are getting more sophisticated to pull off the boxes and flat cardboard.”
There continues to be an issue of contamination with food mixed in with cardboard and papers, says Clark.
“I’ve maintained all along there’s no machine that can clean paper that’s been soiled by leftover spaghetti, but they’re getting better at sorting out the cleaner stuff, using optics to look at some of these materials,” he says.
Doug Sites, global product portfolio manager for McLanahan, suggests the modern-day MRF manager be “somebody who has a degree where they understand the markets a lot better and the technical side of separating different commodities.
“You have somebody who is a lot more educated,” he adds. “It’s no longer about the days of the guy who flips a switch, there are 40 pickers on the line. You have to have someone who has a better grip on how all of the technologies integrate with each other.”
Jill Martin has seen changes in the way she has had to manage her MRF in the wake of changes in technology, waste streams, labor pools, and regulations.
Martin is the recycling and resource recovery administrator for Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste. The public sector recycling facility in northeast Wisconsin services 500,000 people, primarily through curbside residential recycling. The facility processes 110,000 tons a year of single-stream recycling each year.
The facility was built in July 2009. “We’re a three-county operation, so we’re unique in that we partner with two other counties to run the facility,” says Martin.
Prior to its construction, each of the counties had individual MRFs that were all 15 years old and in need of replacement. Rather than update the facilities, the three operations’ managers decided to join in a cooperative effort to build one single-stream recycling facility. Doing so meant an opportunity to add new technology, so an NRT optical unit was installed on the line.
About 25% of the waste stream in Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste’s service area is glass, notes Martin, adding that it is a large percentage of the total waste stream compared to other operations nationwide.
The shrinking labor pool was another driving factor in adding more automation.
“The more automation we can look at, the better for us in regards to overcoming some of the labor challenges we face,” notes Martin.
Part of troubleshooting the optical unit entails keeping connectivity through the ability to dial in from a remote location,” says Martin, adding that it’s important “because we do rely on the equipment manufacturer to be able to diagnose some of our problems. We have to be able to make sure we’re always connected to that server.”
Managing a modern-day MRF is akin to managing any manufacturing or production environment, notes Martin.
“It comes down to managing and leading teams and finding techniques to continually motivate your employees to show up, especially given the fact that it is a challenge as far as finding enough labor to staff the facility,” says Martin.
Martin—who is Six Sigma trained—says the skills it takes for a MRF manager to run a modern-day operation are no different from the people and communication skills required in any other operation.
“Also, a love for numbers sure helps anyone running a MRF because there is lots of number-crunching involved,” she says. “We are a pool of metrics in our facilities. You have to have a passion for continuous improvement of a process. We do daily pick counts and look at how much material is lost and extrapolate that information to see how much money we are burying, how many aluminum cans we get.”
Running an MRF also takes a lot of critical thinking skills, notes Martin, adding that she also employs creative thinking skills and promotes them among her staff members.
“You have to be creative not only with the labor but the packaging changes,” she says. “There are so many changes on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis you have to be able to adapt to as well as dealing with the labor shortages.”
Martin points out that running an MRF operation is a “unique combination between a passion for business and the environment, so if you have that unique combination, that is a recipe for success.”
Arcadis North America provides assistance with oversight of MRF operations and maintenance.
Leah Richter, associate vice president for Arcadis North America, points out that “managing a MRF day-to-day is a multifaceted exercise. At the facility level, it involves scheduling and managing incoming deliveries and matching those up with employee shifts to maintain availability,” she says.
“There is a complex dance for operating equipment, dealing with manpower and employee breaks, and having available downtime for required maintenance and repairs. There is also quite a bit of coordination for compacting, moving, storing, and ultimately shipping out the separated recyclable materials or waste. Often, recyclable materials are stored for much longer than preferred in order to maximize the sale price or the volume to the vendors.”
While these waste streams change, the difficulty of finding and retaining employees who will stay long enough to learn to do different tasks in the system increases, Kemp notes. Thus, automation is going to increase in response to the difficulties in finding and retaining good labor, Kemp adds.
Another consideration driving technology further into the system is the cost of one employee in contrast to the cost of an automated machine.
Case in point: the California minimum wage for businesses with 26 or more employees is expected to increase each year, reaching $15 per hour in 2022, he says.
“As a rule of thumb, an optical sorter for PET can replace up to seven people,” says Kemp, adding that a machine performs with consistency “and shows up every day for work,” thus eliminating concerns over retaining employees.
“Because of the new technology with optical sorting and PLC automation and integration of the systems, you need to have somebody a little more technical and a little more electrically inclined,” notes Sites.
That means electrical engineers and general mechanics are necessary to have on staff, he says.
“It needs to be somebody who understands the mechanical moving parts because of the technology with optical sorting and PLC integration, being able to make adjustments to the system and what products the machines are trying to sort out,” he says. “You need somebody a lot more technically advanced.”
At Outagamie, Martin is struggling to find people to fill entry level positions such as sorters. After employees are hired, the focus is on retaining them.
“Finding those motivation techniques to be able to get employees to come back day after day in a very mundane and dirty atmosphere is a pretty important part of my day in constantly working with my team to staff my facility,” she says.
Martin says she’s trying to “get creative” with labor shortage solutions.
“We’re offering part-time work where we never have before—even if they come in for four hours out of an eight-hour shift, we’ll take them. We offer paid time off, retention and referral bonuses. Those who stay 90 days get a $300 bonus. There are bonuses for referring friends.”
Kelley notes the increase in automation throughout North America’s MRFs has created a significant challenge for MRF operators in hiring workers who are qualified and willing to work in the MRF environment.
The skills required of a modern MRF employee dovetail with the changing waste stream as newspaper goes away and containers, plastics, and aseptics become a higher percentage of the stream, notes Jable.
Optical sorters are the best solution, he says, with human skills coming through someone who has the knowledge of how they work with the near-infrared technology and the air used to reject them and associated controls and computers.
The skills needed for an MRF operator and MRF workers will depend on the waste stream, and no one area of the country is the same as the other, points out Jable. Some areas of the country have fluctuating waste volumes and waste types, due to seasonal factors, tourism—even college students leaving furniture curbside after vacating dorms and apartments.
Some seasonal considerations—such as the use of more PET in humid months—may necessitate putting more people on the line, Kemp points out.
“Then you do an ROI on whether or not put a piece of equipment in—would it remove enough people to justify itself over whatever that three- to four-year period might be for a payback?” he adds.
Not only is automation addressing the challenge of finding employees to work in the MSW industry, but it also adds a measure of safety in trying to cut down on acute injuries from workers getting cut by a piece of material or leaning over on a conveyor belt, Clark says.
“It seems like it will get to a point where it can do something as good as a human, and a machine doesn’t break down as much,” he says, adding that MRF operations also see a reduction in insurance costs.