The MRF Summit hosted by SWANA and ISRI over two days in the afternoon was packed with informative speakers and sessions discussing strategies, ideas, technological developments, and government updates while inviting attendees to give their feedback and ask questions throughout the event. The MRF Summit was formally introduced and emceed by Tim Flanagan, General Manager at the Monterey Regional Solid Waste Management District and Vice President of SWANA International.

Introductory remarks were provided by David Biderman, Executive Director and CEO of SWANA, and Robin Wiener, ISRI President. Biderman pointed out that the timing for holding an MRF Summit couldn’t be better, EPA has released its first report that addressed the impact of China’s national sword policy, and while the numbers dropped to 32%, there are reasons for optimism. The value of commodities is about double the value as they were at the beginning of the year, numerous companies are making pledges to develop products that are more recyclable, there has been some decline in contamination rates, and EPA has taken an important leadership role in recycling. The EPA Innovation Fair and Recycling Summit held earlier this week announced the organization’s recycling goals by 2030, and they are looking to take a more active role in recycling and successful implementations that will result in additional recycling and scrap being diverted from landfills and more jobs. Recycling stakeholders are working more closely than ever to improve strategies and the bottom line. Biderman also called out the sponsors, speakers, and attendees and thanked them for making the event possible.

Wiener agreed with Biderman’s remarks and stated that the event was about sharing ideas and enhancing recycling and partnerships. She talked about how early in the pandemic, the government deemed recycling as crucial and that the industry all stepped up to the challenge and was able to keep the feedstock flowing during critical times. There has been more commitment by brands to include more recycled plastics in their content and ISRI is developing a recycling certification protocol for packaging to help them with that and promote innovative packaging. She stressed that this, in turn, will be a huge benefit with more packaging entering the stream that is truly recycling. ISRI has also launched a survey nationwide on the packaging that is coming through the MRFs. She thanked the legislatures at federal and local levels and gave a shout out to the EPA who just finished a very successful recycling summit and innovation fair, sharing a lot of information about their progress and commitment to recycling.

Policy and Initiatives

The first session of the event was “Where Policy Meets the Road: Federal Initiatives to Spur Recycling”, where Peter Wright, Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Sarah Peery, Office of Senator Rob Portman (OH), Legislative Assistant for Energy and Environment Portfolio discussed EPA’s efforts through the America Recycles Network and the several bills that have been introduced in Congress to provide a range of support and resources to the recycling industry, as well as the goals, solutions, and prospects for these federal initiatives to spur recycling.

Wright kicked off the discussion by pointing out that ISRI and SWANA have been key partners in this process and that the last three years have focused on education, infrastructure, improving markets, and improving measurements. He complimented the waste and recycling industry for keeping jobs going and being on the frontline during these challenging times. On Monday, the EPA’s Recycling Innovations Fair had 1,000 attendees and discussed EPA’s 2030 recycling goal—to increase the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030. This goal is a beacon to set the course and inspire action. He discussed the importance of the recycling system as a key driver of the U.S. economy, creating jobs and strengthing the economy, but more needs to be done. The National Recycling Goal has come at the right time. It will help guide investments and commitments across the entire chain. Public comment was held for the initiative in September 2020, and focused on three key objectives—reducing contamination, increasing the efficiency of processing materials to be recycled, and strengthening economic markets for the materials. These are all things we need to do to hit the national 50 percent goal. Reduction of contamination in recycling can help to ensure recycling material can be processed effectively, as well as maximize opportunities for them to be made into new products. Recent EPA efforts have included the WARM Tool (used to estimate greenhouse gas reductions associated with recycling), Recycling and Economic Information Report, 2020 Facts and Figures on Municipal Solid Waste, WasteWise Partnership Program, Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines, American Recycles Network (where they encourage the exchange of information and collaboration). Wright said that 290 organizations have signed the American Recycles pledge, and the EPA also offers a Recycling and Recover Resource Hub, Market Development Workshops, Census Earth Sprint Digital Products, PSAs on Recycling Right During COVID 19, and more. Looking ahead to the future, EPA is implementing strategies in early 2021 in order to set developing standards for the baselines of the recycling goals and measures for progress. A Roadmap will be developed in order to reach the national goal.

Peery talked about how the role of Congress is education. With a U.S. recycling rate around 32% (per EPA) and nearly $9 billion worth of material are thrown away each year, many reports have indicated that consumer confusion is one of the top challenges. There are 10,000 recycling systems in the U.S. today and how recycling programs work can vary based on where you work, live, etc. Collection systems may collect certain types of material at one place and not in another. Another factor is the materials people put into their recycle bin that they shouldn’t (wishcycling). She stressed that Congress with this confusion by helping to provide funding and assistance for education and outreach to help increase participation and decrease contamination. Senator Portman has joined with Senator Debbie Stabenow to introduce the s. 2941 Recycle Act, which authorizes 15 million/year over 5 years in competitive grants to educate consumers and households about their residential and community recycling programs. It also directs EPA to develop a model recycling program toolkit for grantees and requires them to more frequently review and revise its comprehensive procurement guidelines. Supporters include SWANA, ISRI, Recycling Partnership, Plastics Industry Association, American Chemistry Council, and others.

Reducing Hazards at the MRF

Next, the discussion transitioned to reducing hazards at the MRF moderated by Jesse Maxwell, Advocacy and Safety Senior Manager at SWANA, and featured speakers Jerry Sjogren, E.L. Harvey’s Safety Director, and Susan Eppes, ARM Safety Manager for Waste Connections. This session covered strategies on how to reduce hazards at the MRF posed by batteries, needles, propane tanks, and other items that cause personal injuries and property damage. Sjogren kicked things off by providing insights and advice on how to help accomplish this, including establishing rules for MRFs and making sure they are well posted for both visitors and workers. Tipping floors are some of the most dangerous places so take a look at operations and find out a way to keep people off of them. Another significant step is to perform hazard assessments that include identifying what type of PPE you need, evaluating your insurance carrier, and the mandatory tools for safety, like safety glasses. People on foot and on the equipment should also have no distractions from electronic devices. He pointed out that fires are another “hot topic” since there has been an uptick, especially with regards to lithium-ion batteries—make sure workers know what they are looking for and how to deal with them; be sure that you not only have good fire prevention tools, but that you also maintain the fire suppression equipment and make sure everyone knows where they are and how to use them. Consult with engineering firms and insurance carriers when it comes to redesigning facilities. Bale storage can also lead to fires, so make sure they are properly organized. Build and maintain great relationships with emergency services; ensure that they know you and who to contact at your facility. Finally, check your electrical panels regularly in order to prevent fires from hot circuits and dust accumulation, and make sure they are being cleaned by professionals.

Eppes discussed the importance of ANSI standards, which are the minimum safe standards for operating and designing an MRF, helping to reduce hazards in facilities. Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen processing go from curbside sorting to dual-stream and single-stream today. Currently, with robotics beginning to be used more in the sorting process, we need to add specific requirements for that process in the standards. She encouraged attendees to educate themselves about the requirement, join the ANSI committee headed up by the NWRA. The committee consists of baler and compactor manufacturers, equipment designers, trade associations, etc.

Improving Efficiency and Productivity

To close out the first day of the summit, the discussion centered on improving MRF efficiency and productivity through technology while generating high-quality material at a lower cost. Moderated by Michael Timpace, Vice President of RRS, he began the discussion by talking about the evolution of packaging and paper—five years ago, the bulk of sorting had to do with 50 percent of the paper flow that was trying to be captured from the rest. Now, there are 30 different types of material. Evolving markets, mixed paper has devalued some of the high revenue assets, resin and aluminum cans, and had an impact on the financial performance of MRFs. The density of material in packaging has changed, COVID 19 accelerated some of the packaging material, contamination has risen from 7 percent to 25 percent—all of these things are sowing a need for more technology and we need to get MRFs up to date with changing conditions in real-time.

Brent Hildebrand, Vice President of Recycling at GFL Environmental, spoke about how the safety side of this business is very important, especially with evolving technology. Safety programs not only show people that an organization cares about their safety, it also shows the efficiency of MRFs. He also talked about the importance of having an outstanding maintenance program, pointing out that if you have safety and maintenance covered, you will make your business a little more predictable in how it is going to run. Knowing the inbound stream is extremely important because it tells you how the system is going to run and what kind of technology you need to use. GFL has the largest use of robotics and AI across the country. Hildebrand stressed that it is not just about new technology, it is also about evaluating your existing technology and using it better. He said that GFL is bullish on robotics; there are applications where it is perfect and others where they won’t work but he believes in the use of these machines in the right application. Robotics is a nice balance to the MRF process.

Rob Writz, Director of Business Development at AMP Robotics, discussed the company and their products, saying that there are robotic solutions for the labor substitute within the dual and single-stream sorting and scrap sorting. Robotics has matured in the marketplace with consistency and safety attributes as well. They create new opportunities for employees to work with robotics and learn a new skill set. Most robots that are deployed today are using AI software that uses a video camera to record video of material on conveyor belts in the MRF and use pattern recognition to infer what the objects are in real-time. They are very accurate on the core commodities: 10 to 20 picks per minute versus 70 to 80 picks. Several hundred robots are now deployed in North America—two to three times more than last year.

Finally, Will Herzog, Machinex’s Western Region Sales Manager talked about the company and its systems. He stated he had been in the MRF business for 50 years and had seen a lot of industry trends, including designing their systems for safety. There are more safety features integrated and they have updated ways they have handled the safety process continuously. He pointed out that a lot has changed in MRF design in the last 20/30 years as well and robots are part of that transition. They are good and efficient tools in the right situation. So much technology is driven by the level of contamination that we have to get out and manage the requirements of the quality of the markets on the end product side. All technology changes are based on what comes in and out.

The first day of the Summit wrapped up with a Q&A session that allowed the attendees to interact with the speakers and have a lively discussion on the session that they just heard.

MRF Summit Wraps Up with Great Second Day

After Tim Flanagan reflected on the success of the event’s first day and summarized some of the points that were made throughout the previous sessions, the second day of the MRF Summit kicked off with a talk on how industry leaders have cut contamination at the curb and in the MRF.

Contamination Issues

Moderated by Craig Wittig, Director of Community Programs at The Recycling Partnership and featuring Kanika Greenlee, Environmental Programs Director at the Atlanta Department of Public Works, Adam Ortiz. From the Montgomery County, MD Department of Environmental Protection, and Peter Keller, Vice President of Recycling Sustainability at Republic Services, the session covered programs that have been implemented by the three organizations and how they have worked.

Serving about 98,000 single-family households, Greenlee explained that the DPW’s main goal for the program’s implementation was to fight contamination. In September 2019, teams of two went to specific neighborhoods before collection and using an app developed by Rubicon, one would lift the lid and check and the other would note the address and contamination. An ‘Oops’ tag was placed on the cart and it would not be picked up until it was fixed. She said that customers found this very helpful and appreciated the curbside feedback. They also provided a service line for residents for any questions, and, prior to rollout, they sent out an info card, and a letter from the DPW commissioner to let them know they were coming. The Department made sure that they engaged the residents with social media strategies and bus shelter ads. In addition, when they were doing the ‘feet on the streets’ contamination program, the DPW developed an MRF scorecard, where someone from the MRF would score the routes that they were on to see if there was any improvement. Ultimately, this program resulted in a 20 percent reduction in contamination and a 9 percent increase in good recyclable materials. Moving forward, she pointed out that the future is in using technology to grow education and outreach strategies. We need to provide people with the tools to do the right thing.

Ortiz went next, stressing that we need to be diverse and engaged. The industry talks about China’s effects on recycling a lot, but we also have to talk about the things that are within our power to do in America. He pointed out that we have been on cruise control on recycling for decades and we need to step up our game. He said that their contamination program was similar to the one Greenlee talked about in Atlanta. The Department has a team of six inspectors go out before trucks and target specific areas, open the lids and check for contamination. Starting with a contamination rate of 40 percent, after doing this for six weeks, it dropped to 20 percent. He said that because of that success, they were able to implement this program countywide. They have set the goal at 20 percent contamination and he thinks that they will be able to get it down in about four weeks. If they are able to get the contamination down, it will save about $1 million dollars. Their ultimate goal is to go through the whole county and then dig down even further and start looking into trash cans to see if there are recycling items in them. In addition, the county has set a zero-waste goal. Ortiz pointed out that zero waste is not necessarily the goal but a philosophy and trying to see everything as a resource. He said we have to think critically and have better business practices in the public sector, invest in infrastructure and better technologies in the facilities. The industry also needs to focus on producers, manufacturers, and the federal government, to make sure things are truly recyclable and that a specific amount of recycling material is used in packaging.

Finally, Keller talked about how contamination has been an increasing balance with the advent of single-stream with more carted programs and more ‘wishcycling’. Many people are putting more things in the bin because they think they are doing a better job for the environment; however, when you slow down and educate them, there are a lot of ‘aha’ moments. While the ruling from China did cause the quality of commodities to get better, it has also caused a structural change in the marketplace. In 2018, Republic representatives went to five metro service areas that surrounded their recycling assets and flipped lids, and performed route audits. There was also an investment in public relations, that included TV and radio spots, targeted digital and social campaigns. They designed an accredited K-12 curriculum and sent out direct to home notices. He said that this is something that Republic will continue to be focused on. They saw really good results, the best reduction being an 8 percent reduction in contamination in the markets where they went out and made these investments. Republic will continue to invest in public education as well, trying to go out and interact with every single house in the community. Contamination will continue to be a focus in a post-COVID world, and they have done a lot of incremental projects for improvements, including adding efficient systems (optical scanners and robotics) to existing facilities.

Recycling Commodities and Innovations

Next, the discussion centered around recovered materials markets, packaging choices, and the increasing demand for recycled materials, especially with regards to glass and paper. The session was Bob Cappadona from Casella and featured Curt Bucey, Executive Vice President at Strategic Materials, John Caturano, Senior Sustainability Manager Packaging at Nestle, and Kurt Schmitz, Pratt Industries’ Senior Vice President of the Southern Region.

After providing a brief history of Strategic Materials, Bucey dove into some of the myths associated with glass recycling, such as there are no end markets, it is unsafe, and it can’t recycle. He said in the case of one of the myths—glass can’t be recycled if it’s broken—at Strategic Materials, when colors are mixed or labels or organics are included, the company can still take that material, turn it into a finished product and sell it off. The value of glass is highly dependent on the level of contamination it contains. As contamination increases, value lowers. The main drivers of contamination, include curbside collection, flooding the MRF production line, lack of investment in glass clean up, inadequate maintenance at the MRF, weather events, etc. He pointed out that any SWANA, ISRI, or U.S. Bureau of labor statistics studies do not highlight glass as a major safety concern. In addition, the concern that glass contaminates paper and plastics and lowers value is a myth. Eighty-five percent of MRFS were contacted and asked about the number of rejects or downgrades due to glass contamination over the last year and even the last several years—responses came back as 0% for both. Another myth busted was that glass costs too much. However, the glass processing system per ton is one of the cheapest for MRFs to put in. Glass requires very low initial capital costs, little increase in building footprint, no direct labor, little to no incremental indirect labor, little incremental energy costs, little direct supplies, lower than average maintenance costs, little management time. Glass is profitable for most MRFs if the economics are analyzed accurately. Don’t confuse lack of MRF glass capability/desire from no end markets. End markets exist and most processors are looking for more recycling glass.

Caturano talked about the innovative packaging and recycling technologies that Nestle uses. They have ramped up their strategies since 2010 and want plastic to be recognized as a renewable, valuable domestic resource. They want to inspire change in behavior by the power of brands. He talked about a circular solution and reshaping the journey of a plastic bottle. It is important to get the packaging back and they are looking for different types of procurement arrangements where they are more involved in the recovery process. They are also looking for alternative packaging solutions by vertically recycled PET into their packaging Their goal is using 100 percent recycled plastic in their bottles by 2022 across the Poland Spring portfolio and this year they started distributing 100 percent recycled bottles across the U.S.

Schmitz went over the history of Pratt Industries and talked about its growth over the last 25 years, investing in robots/MRF upgrades, fiber analysis, and paper quality/composition.  He stressed that 100 percent of what comes into the mills is recycled and they continue to need to recover paper and fiber material.

Opportunities and Challenges

The final session of the day, presented by Adina Renee Adler, Vice President of Advocacy at ISRI covered what to expect in 2021 with respect to the global markets in four key areas—the Basel Convention, China, other key markets, and the EU Green Deal/Circular Economy.  She first spoke on the Basel Convention. This past January, they ruled restrictions on certain kinds of plastics, beginning on January 1, we will see those restrictions implemented. There will be trade restrictions on non-hazardous plastics that are contaminated and mixed. Implications are that the definition for contaminates or mixtures is not well-defined. The U.S. as a non-party prohibits trade in controlled items except under special arrangements; the unknown scope creates questions about trade in goods with plastic components as well as ongoing negotiations to redefine recycling. The silver lining is that article 11 says the party may negotiate or arrangements with non-party to allow trade provided they are no less strict as the convention. U.S. and Canada concluded an arrangement that preserves the status quo for trade-in non-hazardous EOL plastics. With regards to China, they still do not take plastic scrap, but she pointed out to be prepared in 2021 as they will no longer take paper of any grade, however, they will still allow imports of pulp. The Chinese government is developing recycling raw material standards. The government is recognizing that scrap is not waste and developing standards for mill-ready recycled commodities. Nonferrous metal standards were implemented on November 1. In other markets:

  • India – COVID lockdowns impacted trade purchasing, some recovery but not stable, close look at paper imports, intent to ban plastics hovers on the horizon
  • Indonesia – Key consumer of paper, regulations to control quality and supply, implementing Basel plastics
  • Malaysia – Key consumer but intent to control imports, implementing Basel restrictions on plastics.

Finally, with regards to the EU Green Deal, the intent is to keep resources in the EU, so they are self-reliant. Other policymaking includes a ban on the export of recycling commodities, which will have ramifications for global prices. They are also contemplating zero imports. Trade does not appear to have a role, but what will that mean for supply and demand. Partner organizations in the EU are lobbying about manufacturing’s central role and how trade is a critical component for recycling. ISRI is watching all of these developments very closely.

Wrap Up

Flanagan wrapped up the Summit by thanking the hardworking people behind the scenes at SWANA and ISRI who made this event possible. Wiener thanked Flanagan and the attendees, speakers, sponsors, staff and moderators, and stressed that ISRI would like to continue the dialogue, sharing best practices and addressing contamination safety and all issues talked about the last couple of days. Safety is a core value for the industry whether it is on the public or private side.

Biderman not only gave a special shout-out to SWANA and ISRI staff who worked tirelessly to produce the MRF Summit, but also stressed that the EPA just issued recycling goals and strategies this week and that its goals and focuses tied right into what was discussed at the summit. He encouraged attendees to look for opportunities to work together and continue the conversation throughout the industry, as well as look out for other upcoming events by SWANA, including the Safety Summit, WASTECON, and SOAR (date changes).

Overall, this informative, two-day event provided a great discussion on some of the most important concerns in the industry and gave attendees a chance to interact with industry leaders and learn from their experiences. We look forward to the next discussion.

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