Bret Biggers, ISRI senior economist, began the materials recovery facilities (MRF) panel at the 2022 ISRI Commodity Roundtables by introducing the two speakers Michael Hughes, vice president of safety and compliance at Casella Waste Systems and Jeff Snyder, director of recycling at Rumpke Waste & Recycling. Hughes and Snyder covered a variety of topics including safety programs, MRF operations, and the paper and plastics commodity markets.
A Strong Safety Program
Hughes began by discussing the benefits of implementing a strong safety program at MRFs. He recommended cross-training employees in different areas especially those who have been in employment for several years.
“It’s important to provide orientation and training to new employees but it’s also necessary to cross-train employees on how to operate different types of equipment in case they need to fill in or cover for another employee,” he says. He adds that every MRF operates a little differently so having employees receive this type of training is vital.
Fire Safety and Prevention
Part of developing a good fire safety program is to have open and frequent communication with the local fire department. “We prepare with our fire department, so they know where to go, where all our equipment is, and the set-up of the facility,” he says. “Have a good relationship with your fire department.” While there might be initial concerns that the fire department will come into a facility looking for problems, they really want enough information about the facility so that their firefighters are safe during an emergency.
After discussing fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems, Hughes noted that people play an important part in fire prevention. “When we close our facility each night, we have someone on staff look over the facility with a thermal imaging camera to check for any hot spots. We keep logs of any issues that may come up.”
Paper and Plastics Markets
Snyder discussed how the paper market has changed since the pandemic. In 2017, most of what consumers put in the recycling bin was mixed paper but lockdowns during COVID-19 meant people were using, and later recycling, less school and office papers. “Instead, we’re seeing a lot of old corrugated cardboard (OCC) because we like having packages delivered to our doorsteps,” he says. “That’s what’s going into the paper recycling stream. OCC has increased dramatically across the country.”
He reviewed the plastics market, particularly how brands are looking to pull more post-consumer resin (PCR) into their products. He discussed how the hundreds of MRFs in the U.S. each has its own processes and equipment. “That’s why something recyclable in the residential stream in the Midwest by Rumpke may be different than what runs in the Northeast.”
Technologies in the MRF
Hughes and Snyder discussed the importance of new technologies that could be useful in MRFs such as artificial intelligence (AI). Hughes noted how AI could be a game changer for safety because it keeps more people out of dangerous positions. Snyder focused on the work the AI could do in the MRF.
“Imagine material going down a conveyer belt and an AI can tell you exactly what’s on your belt and then whether it’s a PET clamshell or a water bottle,” Snyder says. “An AI can be trained to tell the difference in the materials by recognizing the shape, color, and size. In this way it can segregate more materials than ever before.”