Recycling Case Sudy

Going Greener

Advanced MRF helps streamline recycling plants with Siemens automation solutions.

Paul Sims

Richard Price is a baby boomer whose lifelong passion for the environment and technology is fueling his ambitious plans for recycling. The Canadian-born electrician turned California entrepreneur is transforming an industry one material recycling facility (MRF) at a time. “Recycling is synonymous with efficiency until you take a closer look at recycling plants across the country,” said Price, president of Advanced MRF. “The majority of them are operating some of the most inefficient, archaic processes on the planet.”

While Price predicts the human element will always play a vital role in the recycling plant, especially along thepre-sorting lines, he is convinced the industry is ready for a big technological leap forward. His San Diego-based systems integration firm, Advanced MRF, is deploying Siemens-based automation and control solutions aimed at making recycling systems smarter, safer, greener and more productive and profitable. The campaign is gaining momentum. Industry leader Waste Management has already enlisted Advanced MRF to upgrade its major recycling operations in Oakland, Castroville and Lodi, CA, Denver, CO, Tucson, AZ, Chicago, IL, Minneapolis, MN and Germantown, WI.

Other waste companies are taking note and action. “We’re chipping away at outdated and manual practices that have been holding the industry back for years,” Price said, referring to a host of inefficiencies from wasteful energy consumption to clipboard-toting plant workers gathering important production data by hand. The recycling companies are paid by the ton, yet their standard machines are not designed to monitor and document operations.

Most recycling plants still rely on humans to manually track truckloads of arriving recyclables, calculate the tonnage processed each day and troubleshoot technical and operational glitches that can lead to costly downtime. “Downtime is one of the biggest challenges facing MRFs today. It can get very expensive very fast,” Price said. “Dozens of line workers are standing around waiting for the conveyors to run again. Meanwhile, the trucks keep coming and the material keeps piling up on the plant floor.”

If the culprit is a faulty motor in a system of dozens of devices, hunting it down without the aid of technology is like finding a needle in a haystack. Equally daunting is tackling black belt, a widespread problem that occurs when conveyors are running empty due to a bottleneck or material jam upstream. Industrial-grade web cams are often used to monitor the lines. “Black belt is even worse than downtime because the electricity is running full speed,” said Price, who estimates utilities at the MRF operations can cost as much as $175,000 to $400,000 per year. Advanced MRF is helping recycling plants make substantial cuts in energy consumption. “Yet our biggest hurdle is convincing waste companies to break from the norm. Once they realize what smart control and automation can do for their business, they’re in.”

Upgrading to Intelligent Control

Paul Faias does not need to be persuaded. Waste Management’s district manager has seen firsthand how Advanced MRF, equipped with Siemens automation, has successfully upgraded sister plants. The 56-acre Waste Management MRF he oversees in San Leandro, CA, is in the midst of a major two-year automation overhaul designed to slash energy use and increase uptime.

Three separate onsite plants are processing recyclables from homes, commercial businesses and construction sites. About 450 tons of material per day, 18 million pounds per month are sorted and baled at the residential facility alone. The mammoth contraption with 110 conveyors has long been powered by a hodgepodge of control gear, variable frequency drives (VFDs) and single speed motors. “We’re replacing three different brands of proprietary control systems across our entire facility with Siemens automation, which will boost productivity by helping us anticipate and pinpoint potential problems before they occur,” Faias said. “Our old control had locked us into silos of inefficiencies and never delivered full integration to the panel.”

Advanced MRF is implementing Siemens’ Simatic platform, a totally integrated automation (TIA) solution, managed and monitored by an S7-300 series programmable logic controller (PLC). It is the brain of the plant, directing the speed of the conveyors, sorters and blowers that are separating paper from aluminum and plastic. “The PLC is bundled with inputs/outputs (I/O), direct motor starters and VFDs in a single form factor and linked over PROFINET to human machine interface (HMI) touch screens and Siemens’ powerful WinCC SCADA,” said Al Esparza, the Siemens account manager supporting Advanced MRF. “It is a gateway to seamless connectivity that is delivering unprecedented productivity to the recycling industry,” Esparza said.

Siemens WinCC will tie all three Waste Management recycling lines together seamlessly for a new level of intelligent control that’s fully capable of automatically delivering detailed data collection and reporting aimed at improving productivity and profits,” Price said.

Our operators, maintenance crew and Advanced MRF support team will have a real-time snapshot of the plant anytime, anywhere,” Faias said. “If a conveyor motor is pulling too many amps, the PLC will immediately push a trouble alert to the HMI and SCADA,” Faias said. “That is peace of mind, knowing if we have a problem Advanced MRF is just a login away,” said Faias, recalling a three-day stoppage in 2008 caused by a hard-to-find technical glitch that cost the firm more than $100,000. “No doubt we will have nipped that type outage in the bud with this technology and support.”

We can keep a constant eye on our MRF customers across the country, based on the remote monitoring capabilities of Siemens WinCC,” said Advanced MRF engineer Elena Romero while watching live data and camera shots streaming in from a plant in the Midwest. “In most cases, we can talk a plant employee through the process of replacing control panel components,” Romero said.

It’s a modular solution, so in many cases you can hot swap gear without shutting down production,” said Price as he opened up the primary control panel running an MRF on the outskirts of San Diego. “You don’t even need a screw driver.”

Having Price on the case has been a godsend for a growing number of MRF operators who have grown to trust the innovative engineer and his team. His knowledge of recycling plants runs deep. For example, when a San Diego plant was facing the expensive installation costs of new conduit and wiring required to meet conveyor safety guidelines, Price recommended PROFIsafe over the existing PROFIBUS network to bypass the need for hardwired E-stops.

Knowledge is Power, Power Saved

The extensive automation upgrade at Waste Management’s San Leandro plant is part of an overall five-year master plan focused on turning the operation into one of the greenest MRFs in the world. “This will be one of the most advanced one-stop recycling facilities anywhere,” Faias said, noting the plant will soon offer everything from collection and recycling to turning compost gases into energy.

Energy conservation is gradually becoming as important to recycling companies as keeping waste out of landfills. Advanced MRF is integrating some of the very latest Siemens technologies to help innovators like Waste Management operate far more energy efficiently. “Intelligent motor control is a fundamental step toward going greener,” Price said, outlining the energy-saving role the VFDs, advanced PLCs, sensors and WinCC SCADA can play in dramatically reducing power consumption. Siemens regenerative Sinamics G series drives are being integrated into the San Leandro plant. They take excess energy that normally gets burned up and puts it back into the power grid. “Combine that regenerative drive with premium efficiency three-phase motors, which will be mandatory in 2011, and you’ve got the pinnacle of performance,” Price said.

Knowledge is power. The more we know about our minute-to-minute operation and demand, the more we can modify things like conveyor speeds and blower intensity on the fly,” Faias said. “That cuts costs and adds more green to the bottom line. Siemens automation is enabling us to take control of our operation in ways we’ve long wished for.”

Waste Management can also tap the Siemens TIA architecture to connect with Siemens intelligent building technologies to ensure the plant lights and AC units are off after business hours. More facilities are replacing traditional air conditioning units at the control panel with vortex cooling, which dissipates heat in tight spots far more efficiently than Freon-based systems. Even solar power is under consideration for sections of the Oakland-area recycling center.

The sky’s the limit for MRFs built on Siemens’ totally integrated automation platform,” Price said. “It is enabling us to help recycling industry innovators like Waste Management think out of the box on their way to going greener and operating smarter than ever before.”

Paul Sims is an Atlanta, GA-based freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics and issues, including technology innovations in automation and waste management. For more information, visit