Many factors should be considered when determining if your MRF requires an upgrade. ‘What are our needs?’ should be the first question in this process.
By Jeff Eriks

Upgrading your MRF is serious business and requires a lot of planning and thought prior to beginning the actual process of the upgrade.

Where to Begin
The first thing needed to begin any facility upgrade is a full evaluation of the need for the upgrade. Why do you need to upgrade? Has the volume increased? Have the materials the facility receives changed drastically and sorting needs changed? Has the end user (who accepts your commodities) changed their requirements? Has there been a territory expansion? Has the condition of, or maintenance to, the existing equipment become too large of a portion of the budget? There are any number of things that can trigger the need for an upgrade; however, identifying the reason(s) should be the first step in upgrading your MRF.

Once the high-level project performance goals have been laid out and agreed upon, the appropriate professionals should be contacted to assist with the evaluation. Oftentimes it is helpful to have a third-party help determine your goals. There are several industry experts who can work to evaluate the waste stream, client requirements, permit needs, and develop the means and methods to go from the current status of your business to where you need to go during this growth or change period. These experts will help analyze your current material and equipment sorting approach and determine where you need to be in order to adjust to the business changes; once that is conceptually defined, the next step would be to determine what, if any, building changes would need to be made to accommodate the proposed changes. Let’s not get too far ahead though; let’s get back to what needs to be figured out early in the process.

Back to the Basics!
So, a consultant has been brought on board to help evaluate the waste stream and help plan the changes you require. There are some items that will need to be thought about when going through this process that will affect you before and during the process of the upgrade.

Is it Major or Minor?
Identifying the specific changes needed will help determine if a major or minor upgrade will be required. In some cases, minor upgrades can occur while you are still in operation and changes can be made during down time or with limited down time. These can consist of updating certain pieces of equipment, adding newer technology to the line such as an optical sorter, replacing a baler or many other things. Minor upgrades are easier to plan with minimal impact on the operations.

Figure 1: Start with the basics.
Photo by Unknown Author and is licensed under CC BY.
Figure 2: Before and after equipment upgrade.
Photo courtesy of Cambridge Companies, Inc.

For the rest of this article, we will focus on major upgrades. Major upgrades typically require extensive planning because several pieces of equipment may be added to the system or the system will be replaced in its entirety, which could also require building modifications, leading to additional site changes and a complete shutdown of the facility for several months. Let’s dig into major upgrades some more.
Major upgrades will require a team of professionals to help with planning, budgeting, scheduling and execution. This team will consist of a recycling expert, equipment expert, Design/Build team, internal operations team, financing company (if required) and eventually an equipment supplier. As you go through the initial process of working on what the plan looks like, it will likely entail some or all of the following pieces:

• Equipment Upgrades: The first thing you need to identify is what equipment changes will be occurring in the building. This will be the epicenter and affect everything else we will talk about. The building design of an MRF is based around the needs of the system. The system needs to efficiently fit within the building so the operator can clearly access all pieces of the system for regular maintenance and cleaning. Therefore, the exact plan for the equipment, whether it is as minor as adding, replacing or removing some pieces or replacing the entire system, your team should pay special attention to whether you will design the equipment to fit your existing building, or design the equipment for efficiency, performance, and cost, and then modify the building accordingly. Sorting systems, especially screen packages, like to be taller to be as effective as possible and minimize unnecessary conveyors. Many facilities try to cram equipment into buildings that are too small or too short. While this can work, the equipment often does not perform ideally, and there are many “extra” conveyors to make this work. The added equipment drives the system and maintenance costs up. Many times, it is more cost-effective to modify the building through targeted interventions, additions, or wholesale replacement and install as efficient a system as possible. Working with your assembled team of professionals should allow you to properly vet the different approaches. Remember, your specific situation drives any and all needs for building modifications, so let’s touch on those here for a few minutes.

• Building modifications: These can consist of a lot of different factors—some that require a lot of work and some that do not. If additional volume is being added to your facility, it may require a larger tipping floor and bale storage area as well as more process area for recycling equipment. This would all likely lead to a full-on building expansion. A building expansion may lead to a complete shutdown of the facility for quite some time, but the Design/Build company can help create a phasing plan to minimize the shutdown timeframe. The expansion plan will depend heavily on the equipment plan. No matter what modifications are made to the building, safety must be first and foremost when planning the changes. This is another reason why partnering with a Design/Build contractor who understands the operations of an MRF is so important.

Another option for the building modifications is a simple alteration, which could include modifying the layout of the equipment, small additions, adding access points, etc. Alterations do not always lead to shutdowns, but may require you to do additional updates to an existing building if it is older and there are areas out of current code compliance. Assuming the Design/Build partner has MRF experience, they can help plan for these systems and building interventions and minimize the impact on ongoing operations.

• Other Building Needs: Many of these may be items that affect operations, but are minimal in nature such as concrete work, which could include modifying foundations or thickened slabs for new equipment or adding or removing pits for infeeds, repairing worn sections of tipping floors or other such items.
Other common building work can be more complicated such as electrical system modifications, which can be major or minor. If you are adding equipment and the current electrical service to the building will not be able to handle the additional load, brand new service may need to be brought into the facility, which is no minor task. New electrical services require changing out transformers, running new feeders and adding panels. This requires a shutdown at some point. If the existing service can handle the new equipment, then it may only require installing some new sub panels and routing electric to the point of connection to the new equipment. The electrical requirements should all be sorted out between the recycling equipment vendor and the Design/Build contractor.

Improve Your Camera Systems
A facility upgrade is a great time to introduce or improve your camera system. These systems can be set up at critical areas in the sorting system to allow the facility manager to monitor how the system is running. In addition, the camera coverage should include employee work areas. They can be used as a way to help train staff as a part of a continuous improvement program. The cameras can be mounted high at the scales as a way to help the scale operator monitor inbound materials. The cameras can also be used in the tipping building and the bale storage areas to help ensure safe operations are being practiced. Cameras can serve several different functions in different areas of your facility, and they should be a part of your planning when working on facility improvements.

Figure 3: Employees processing materials
Photo by Unknown Author and is licensed under CC BY-SA.

Interior Improvements
There are several other building improvements that you may want to consider when you are planning a facility upgrade. If you are shutting down the line for a period of time and removing the equipment, this is a good time to clean and paint the building interior. Over time, the surfaces can darken, and with the equipment removed, painting is much easier. Another improvement for older buildings, that can make a big difference, is an LED lighting upgrade. Newer LED high bay lights can provide a much higher level of lighting at much lower energy use and costs. Pay special attention to what your current lights are, as keeping them in their current locations can help keep the cost to replace them low.

An additional item, that would generally be classified as a major change and may require closing down your facility, is the fire sprinkler system. Depending on the changes to your sorting equipment, and the building envelope, the automatic sprinkler system may need to be modified. Based on the changes needed, the sprinkler system may be rendered out of service for a period of time, which could result in a temporary shutdown; other times, a “fire watch” team or crew can be hired to stay onsite 24 hours per day so you can stay operational. These options all depend on what you are doing at the time. Outside of these modifications, you will likely run into plumbing system modifications, exterior access point changes and various other changes based on the new equipment.

The Overall Site
After you get the building modifications deciphered, the evaluation of how it affects the overall site will need to be completed. There are a lot of variables here so we will touch on a few of the ones we see most commonly.

Figure 4: Permitting.
Photo by Unknown Author and is licensed under CC BY-SA.

Expansions vs. Alterations
If the building is expanded, a fair amount of site changes will be encountered to accommodate the expansion. These could include storm water management changes, additional parking areas, drives for truck traffic, relocation of entrances to the site, changes in the location of the scale house and scales, trailer staging areas and even offsite improvements depending on municipality requirements.
If the building is just an alteration, changes may be more minor in nature such as adding additional drives to new access points, providing more exterior paved areas for outside storage or parking, adding new site lighting and the like. Site modifications are not cheap, so you will want to closely evaluate the effects of the building expansion on the site to help keep it all within budget.

Staff and Materials
Once the major changes to the building, equipment and site have been determined, you should have a much better understanding of how it affects the overall operation. The next step is to understand how all these changes affects your employees and in-bound material. Depending on the shutdown duration, a portion or all of your staff may need to either be laid off or given temporary roles while the facility is shutdown. This is greatly affected by the length of the shutdown time, if any. If your staff consists of temp workers, it may not impact operations that much, but onsite management would still be needed, and this cost should be included in the budget as part of the proforma.

Figure 5: Budgeting.
Photo by Unknown Author and is licensed under CC BY.

In terms of the inbound material, during shut down the facility will not be able to process it, so a plan will need to be put in place to send it somewhere else. This is often dependent on the contracts that are in place for the handling of the material and their requirements. A third-party will need to take the material, or it will need to be shipped to another of your locations, which will result in more costs to be added to the budget.

Typically, depending on the state you are in, an operating permit may be required for the facility. All factors above are typically discussed as a part of the operating permit. Depending on what needs to happen, the permit may need to be updated before starting the design process. A permitting consultant should be brought on and this should be handled upfront to understand what changes may be easier and what may make it more difficult, allowing for the best decisions to be made during the planning process.

The last item is budgeting for the improvements. As an organization, it is necessary to go into this process completely understanding the short- and long-term financial situations. This will allow you to build a proforma that leads to a successful long-term facility. Identify goals, building projected revenue, and using this to determine the equipment and building budget the company can afford, allows you to set a solid financial foundation. Too often the “wants” out-weighs the need, causing decisions to be made based on feelings rather than facts. Understanding the numbers allows good decisions to be made early in the process so the time of your team and consultants are used wisely. Ultimately, not understanding the numbers will end up costing more money. Gathering the complete list of costs at the onset of the planning process will help understand what questions to ask and make you a better project leader and decision maker.

Upgrading a facility, especially an MRF, is a large project to undertake. By understanding the entire process and what challenges may arise, even during the planning phase, will allow you to better interview your potential project partners so that you can build a team of knowledgeable consultants, Design/Build, internal members and others. Build a team that will help you through all of the items discussed, leading you to a successful MRF upgrade project. | WA

Jeff Eriks is a Vice President of Business Development and Marketing at Cambridge Companies (Griffith, IN), a design-build firm, working with the waste industry for more than 20 years. During this time, more than 100 solid waste design-build projects have been completed including new build, repairs, upgrades and/or modifications at transfer stations, recycling centers/MRFs, hauling companies, landfill facilities, office buildings and more. Cambridge continually monitors the industry to determine any new needs, changes or improvements that will benefit their clients and improve their design-build solutions. Jeff can be reached at (219) 972-1155, via e-mail at [email protected] or visit

You may also like:

Planning and Implementing a Facility Expansion

Facilities: Planning and Design The Power of a Team