Determining modifications when taking over an existing facility in order to convert it to a new MRF.
By Jeff Eriks and Evan Williams

Converting an existing facility into a new Material Recovery Facility (MRF) or transfer station is never easy. There will always be compromises made between ideal conditions versus what can work due to cost considerations in various spaces throughout that are not an issue with a new building. One of the biggest challenges in converting an existing building is that it is hard to find existing buildings that are zoned properly for these uses and, thus, your options are limited. In addition, most existing buildings are not compatible for these uses, often having rooflines that are much too low, column grids that are too restrictive or sites that are too small. In this article, we will touch on a few important points that you should remember when going through this process.


Existing MRF equipment replacement – Single Stream Material Recovery Facility – Interior Process Area (Michigan).

Step 1: Clearly Define Your End Goal
With a processing facility, you need to clearly define the goals for the facility. For instance, what are your material throughput requirements, what is the material composition, what are your output requirements, who will supply the equipment, how will traffic flow, how much onsite trailer parking do you need, how many employees do you need? The list goes on and on. All of this information needs to be documented in a detailed plan for execution before you can properly evaluate different properties/existing buildings to determine which ones suit your needs. Ideally, you will rank your programming/goals document in Must Have and Nice to Have categories. For example, you could note that you must have 20,000 square feet of tipping floor with 25′ clear to the ceiling structure, but it would be nice to have 25,000 square feet with 30′ clear. That helps inform the property search and selection process.


Existing MRF tipping addition – Single Stream Material Recovery Facility – Exterior (Michigan).

Step 2: Develop Conceptual Building and Site Space Needs
Using the information developed previously, you should work with a design/build partner that knows these facilities as well as an equipment expert to help define approximate areas of need within your facility. These areas include:

  • Tipping floor size factoring in equipment movements, storage pile capacity, tipping area and floor space to pull out unwanted materials. This sizing exercise should incorporate how material is unloaded in your facility throughout the day versus your ability to process it to ensure you have sufficient floor area to handle the material well. In addition, the project team should define how much surge storage should be provided to account for equipment stoppage or hauling issues.
  • Processing area floor size, which includes the equipment footprint, areas for clean load tipping, baler output, maintenance access and bunker locations, and material storage. The layout of the building around this equipment may also incorporate locations for equipment revision/expansion to make sure that no work being done now will limit future modifications.
  • Bale storage and load out floor space
  • Office area
  • Equipment maintenance and parts storage. You should work with your equipment partner to help determine what parts and supplies you will want to keep onsite. With current shipping and supply chain issues, maintaining a more extensive Attic Stock may be prudent.
  • Residual handling
  • Site traffic patterns, queueing, scales and scale house and employee parking
  • Stormwater requirements locally

Any other ancillary activities that will take place onsite and what that means to your operation Identifying the approximate square foot needs of each of these areas will better help you identify how much total square feet you need for the building and how many acres you need onsite, approximately. This knowledge will help you be prepared for the next step, which is site analysis and selection.

New greenfield development: Construction and Demolition Debris Recovery Facility – Interior Process Area (Oregon).

Step 3: Site/Building Evaluation
Once the short list of potential sites is identified, work with your MRF design/build experts to analyze each option, develop potential building modifications required and associated budgets as well as a list of pros and cons of each identifying what you are giving up or sacrificing by going with that option. Every building has them, you just need to decide which option is best for you. In most cases, you will need to add additional square footage to the existing facility or take down parts of the existing and build new, taller structures to accommodate the operations. In addition, you may want to work internally to develop a cost based on distance for the site options. A site and building may be ideal for your needs, but if it is 25 miles farther out from your routes and hauling company than another option, it may end up costing you much more in the long term in fuel, truck cycle time and driver time. Whatever it may be, you want to have a general idea of what the changes are, a clear itemized budget for each change and a contingency fund to cover unknowns.

Along with the design/build team, you should engage a recycling equipment consultant or company to provide some high-level conceptual layouts for your system so that can be overlaid on the existing footprint to see how it fits. The layout will need to consider existing columns that may remain, roof height/clearances, exterior access requirements, total power required verses what is available and several other factors. Your equipment expert can help you identify the key points at this time. Where possible, work with the equipment consultant to maximize the system’s efficiency. More often than not, the equipment vendors can make a system fit almost any building, but it often comes at the expense of a less-than ideal layout leading to higher costs for extra conveyors, increased maintenance costs, etc. Encourage the equipment suppliers to point out building pinch points that hurt their layout and work to see if there are cost-effective approaches to addressing it—that is often a cheaper approach in the long run.

Assuming that you have two to three options to consider, build a spreadsheet that pulls all the information into one document and analyze the options side-by-side. This will help give you a clearer picture of each, and by listing your pros and cons clearly in one document it is easier to work through and identify which facility will work best for you.

Step 4: Final Selection and Next Steps
Now that you have identified your new site and have it under contract, it is time to really dive into the details. Make sure you only have an option on the property while you perform the due diligence. You will want to do phase 1 and phase 2 reports by a qualified firm to help identify all environmental risks associated with the site. In addition, you should have an ALTA (American Land Title Association) survey performed to identify any lot encumbrances (setbacks, rights-of-ways, easements, zoning overlays, flood plains, documented wetlands, etc.). The ALTA survey will provide you with a detailed land parcel map.

During this period, you will also want to do a deeper dive into the required facility changes. This will include additions required, modification to existing building and site areas, slab thicknesses, site traffic requirements or changes, potential life-safety code updates or other requirements by local authorities for offsite work, aesthetic requirements and several other factors. This deeper dive will take your high-level estimate developed in step 3 and break it down much further and provide you with a better handle on overall improvement costs.

This period also allows you to get your equipment expert into the building to better develop the equipment layout and plan. There will always be costs associated with the new equipment that can be substantial, so the more you can uncover during this phase, the better.

We have seen owners finish this phase and change to a different existing site option or just go greenfield because the costs were too extensive and the timelines too long to go through the process of updating an older facility.


New greenfield development: Construction and Demolition Debris Recovery Facility –
Exterior (Oregon).

Key Factor: TIME
While this article is brief, the key take-away that I want to stick with you is that this process takes time. Lots of time. These decisions cannot be made lightly. Steps 1 to 4 could take anywhere from six months to two years depending on what properties (if any) are available. The overall development process once you buy the building or property is another 18 to 30 months, depending on the scope, equipment and size of the facility. Nothing with this process moves quickly if you want it done right, so plan ahead and act early.

Knowledge is Power
The more time you can spend developing the plan and getting it right, the better the information you can have for picking the right facility for your next MRF. We encourage our clients to take the time necessary to really develop Step 1 because the better that information is, the more likely you will be in building a successful MRF, especially if the only option is to modify an existing building. MRFs are major investments; you want to make sure the facility you end up with allows you to process the material needed to get the desired output in an efficient manner so it can generate the return that meets your goals. Take the time needed now to build the right team around you to do the evaluation and assist you through design and construction and work with the right equipment supplier that can build the system you need. | WA

Jeff Eriks is President at Cambridge Companies. He can be reached at (219) 972-1155 or e-mail at [email protected].
Evan Williams is a Design Project Manager at Cambridge Companies. He can be reached at [email protected].

Cambridge Companies, Inc. is a design-build firm, working with the waste and trucking industries for more than 25 years. During this time, more than 170 solid waste design-build projects have been completed, including new build, repairs, upgrades and/or modifications at transfer stations, recycling centers/MRFs, hauling companies and maintenance facilities, landfill facilities, office buildings and more. Cambridge Companies continually monitors the industry to determine any new needs, changes or improvements that will benefit their clients and improve their design-build solutions. For more information, visit