Trash talk: Single stream, dirty MRFs, and redefining waste

Baled plastic bottles—many likely from Charlottesville curbside containers—await pickup at TFC Recycling in Chester. The single-stream plant can process 6,600 tons of recyclables a month. (Photo by Ash Daniel)

This pile of newsprint and ink cost you nothing, but there’s stiff competition for it all the same.

Recyclable materials—including the weekly in your hands—have been treated as valuable commodities for decades. But just how your recyclables go from waste to wanted is in flux. All over the country, there’s an ever greater focus on wringing more value from the waste stream, and even in a down economy, waste companies are pouring money into expensive new technology that lets them do it more efficiently. Locally, the competitors (two in particular) are battling it out over whose methods are best for the planet and for pocket-
books, and green-conscious Charlottesville would seem to be a captive audience.
But how much do you really know about the path your recyclables take once they leave your hands, and where they end up? Do you know what percentage of your trash makes it back into the system?

Tad Phillips, left, who oversees Allied Waste Service’s municipal contracts in Virginia, looks out on the tipping room floor at TFC Recycling’s Chester plant alongside plant manager Jeff Randazzo. (Photo by Ash Daniel)

Following the stream
Tad Phillips started in the recycling industry in 1979, when he went to work for Reynolds Aluminum. Extracting the virgin metal from ore was getting more expensive, and manufacturers were looking for cheaper source material.

“Recycling got started as a business,” said Phillips, a Richmond native who is now in charge of overseeing trash and recycling giant Allied Waste Service’s contracts in the Commonwealth, including its current five-year commitment to collect and process residential recyclables in Charlottesville.

Phillips can attest to the fact that recycling isn’t just business any more—it’s big business. As it became an industry in its own right, Phillips moved with it. He went to work for waste giant BFI for 10 years, left to start his own company, and eventually returned to the national corporation to manage contracts with municipal customers. At that point, a wave of corporate consolidation in the trash business was underway, and BFI had been bought by Allied Waste. Allied was acquired by Republic Services in 2008, making it part of the second-largest disposal company in the country after Waste Management.

These days, Phillips covers thousands of miles of highway each month in his SUV, keeping tabs on everyone. Last week, he traced a familiar route—the same one city residents’ cans and cardboard take once they leave the curb.

The first stop is the Fluvanna Transcyclery, a transfer station off Route 250 in Troy, where recyclables from Charlottesville homes and trash from local businesses gets piled up and shipped out on a daily basis, bound either for a landfill south of Richmond or a third-party recycling plant in nearby Chester.

As he puts the truck in park, he issues a warning: “It’s going to smell.”

Inside the warehouse-like structure, recyclables are corralled into several big stalls, while trash is piled by the truckload into a stinking mound. Vultures stalk the parking lot, waiting for a chance to snap up rotten scraps.

The permanent staff at the transfer station is small—just three full-timers—but there’s constant coming and going. Haulers deposit loads and head back out on the road as even larger trucks arrive to cart away garbage and recyclables for the next leg of the journey.
To understand why the company piles up waste just to move it again, it helps to picture the system as a wheel. The landfill and recycling center are the hub, said Phillips, and transfer facilities the spokes. You have to weigh the cost of hauling against the need for a hub that’s big enough to pay for itself. “It’s a balancing act,” he said. “It really is a volume operation.”
Those distance and volume constraints have kept Allied from investing in a recycling plant of its own in central Virginia. Instead, the company partners with Chesapeake-based Tidewater Fibre Corporation, which runs three plants in Virginia. Running two 10-hour shifts a day, five days a week, its Chester outpost can process 6,600 tons of material per month, including every bottle, can, and newspaper placed curbside in Charlottesville.

The corrugated metal factory building is as large as an airplane hangar. Full of motion and noise, it looks from afar like one giant, smooth-running machine. Over the churn and whir of the sorting apparatus and the cacophony of hundreds of bottles and cans smacking into metal bins, General Manager Jeff Randazzo points out the components: Screens—ramps of spinning toothed cylinders that look like so many rototiller blades—bounce the incoming mix of single-stream recyclables violently, allowing heavier plastic, metal, and glass to fall through. A magnetic belt grabs steel cans, workers pluck out plastic, aluminum is mechanically flung into its own bin, and glass of all colors is smashed into a glittering heap. Meanwhile, paper products are carried aloft to more conveyors, picked over, and emptied into piles. A baler periodically crushes huge hopper-loads of different materials into blocks the size of refrigerator boxes, which are stacked to form towering, colorful aisles of refuse.
In the mix are bales of more unusual items, from paper hospital gowns to the very containers TFC uses for curbside collection.

“If somebody has a lot of something, we try to find it a home,” Randazzo said.
Fifteen miles away on the outskirts of Richmond is the final resting place for the non-recyclable materials Allied picks up: the Old Dominion Landfill, a grass-topped mountain 170′ high that’s still growing laterally as truckloads of waste are dumped and covered there daily. Even under the ground, the trash is put to use, as a Republic worker points out on a drive around the base of the 99-acre site: Pipes extending deep into the hidden, rotting garbage lead to a brand new 6-megawatt landfill gas facility run by a company called Fortistar, delivering gas—about half of it methane—to roaring turbines. They convert it into electricity, which goes straight into the grid via a connecting power line.

It’s not hard to understand why a formerly trash-based company is funnelling so much capital into ways to siphon off energy and materials from the waste stream, Phillips said. If they don’t, they’re leaving money on the table. He finds it satisfying to see the operation working smoothly from start to finish, but he likes sitting outside the process, keeping up the flow of material toward the hub at the center by forging partnerships with communities around the state.

“I’d rather be a hunter than a farmer,” he said.

Local recycling goes beyond paper and plastic. At van der Linde Recycling in Troy, construction and demolition waste finds new life as gravel, mulch, and more. (Photo by John Robinson)

One man’s trash
While Phillips stalks new markets, Peter van der Linde is tending to his crop: recyclables salvaged from waste at his materials recovery facility, or MRF, next door to the Allied transfer station in Troy. Per city contract, it’s where Charlottesville residents’ bagged trash ends up after it’s collected by Waste Management.

Recycling is a second career for van der Linde, a lifelong area resident who now lives in Albemarle County. He was a successful developer, but was bothered by how much construction waste he saw hauled off to the landfill.

“After doing a lot of dumpster diving and soul searching, he decided it was time to do something,” said Michael Ledford, president and CEO of van der Linde Recycling. In late 2008, the company started accepting construction and demolition waste. They expanded to take municipal solid waste less than a year later.

Van der Linde runs what’s called a “dirty MRF,” a facility that extracts recyclables from mixed waste, including garbage, as opposed to sifting through a pre-sorted stream. Give us everything, the company says, and we’ll take it from here.

“If it’s man-made, we can more than likely recycle it,” Ledford said.

They attract local waste haulers by offering the lowest tipping fees in the area, said van der Linde and Ledford, and then their people and machines salvage every piece of recyclable material possible. It’s more labor-intensive than other approaches to recycling, they acknowledge, and thus can be more expensive up front. But they contend it’s the most environmentally friendly recycling method, said Ledford, because they can keep expanding to snatch more of the waste stream before it heads to landfills.

“Is it not in our best interests to attempt to keep everything we can out of the ground?” he said.

The VDL Recycling facility dwarfs the Allied transfer station it sits adjacent to. Surrounding the processing buildings are mounds of mulch and gravel, end products the company sells on site. A drive further into the facility reveals the source: a hulking pile of rubble more than 30′ high that looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster—splintered wood, twisted metal, chunks of concrete, insulation. From the back seat of an extended cab pickup, van der Linde explains his setup with the enthusiasm of a safari guide.

The debris is loaded onto vibrating conveyors that sift objects by size before they’re picked over and sorted. Concrete is crushed by heavy machinery and screened to produce different sizes of gravel, and four powerful electromagnets are used to extract metal pieces big and small.

Nearby, employees wearing ventilators work feverishly around the margins of another giant pile, this one a mix of household trash, electronics, glass, aluminum, paper, and other recyclables. Much of the diverted materials will be picked out by hand—at least for now. New equipment, including a bag-ripping toothed cylinder called a trommel and air knives for mechanized sorting will soon be installed and the 100,000-square-foot building used to sort municipal waste will double, van der Linde said, and the new investment will vastly increase their ability to pull valuable recyclables.

Ledford talks about the process with obvious satisfaction. Born into a family of North Carolina landfill operators, he has owned his own waste companies and run others, including one of Republic’s. He was floored by his new boss’ response when he asked van der Linde to draft a budget for their new venture back in 2008.

“He said, ‘Your budget is not profit. Your budget is keeping it out of a landfill,’” said Ledford. It was a powerful concept for somebody who’s watched dumps fill up with all manner of materials over the years. “This has been my life,” he said. “When you’ve seen plastics and everything else we’ve put into landfills going into them for years, and you have the opportunity to take those products out, you know without a doubt you’re making an environmental difference.”

Peter van der Linde, left, owner of van der Linde Recycling in Troy, stands with his company’s president and CEO, Michael Ledford. Their so-called “dirty MRF” plant challenges conventional recycling guidelines, and they’ve found themselves in a PR battle with competitors. (Photo by Ash Daniel)

Waste wars
So which system works better? According to the numbers the companies have been reporting to the Department of Environmental Quality, the two methods are about tied for effectiveness.

The city carted away about 6,700 tons of trash from Charlottesville homes in 2011. Allied said it processed 3,700 tons of city recyclables over the same time period. (The company also collects tens of thousands of tons of trash yearly from city businesses with which it contracts, all of which is dumped.)

That means that through its curbside pickup program, Allied captured about 36 percent of what city residents tossed. That’s better than the average recycling rate for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, which reported a rate of 29.2 percent to the DEQ in 2010—the most recent data available. It falls short, however, of the 40.5 percent rate Virginia achieved statewide that year. It also doesn’t take into account the relatively small percentage of single-stream material ultimately deemed unrecyclable. Allied puts that at about 4 percent of what’s shipped to the recycling plant, according to its ad campaigns.

At 32.3 percent, van der Linde’s 2011 rate also beats out the district average. But there’s no question that VDL is capturing more of the local market. DEQ reports show 68,307 tons of municipal waste material went through the company’s site last year, with more than 22,033 tons ultimately recycled. And they’re growing. The company reported a 60 percent increase in tonnage processed from 2010 to 2011. As the volume has increased, van der Linde’s rate of recovery has gone up slightly, too.

And then there’s the construction and demolition waste. Van der Linde took in more than 68,000 tons of C and D in 2010, and recycled 81 percent it. Allied brought in 1,824 tons at its Fluvanna site, and all of it went to a landfill.

Complicating an easy efficacy comparison is the fact that some of what comes into the van der Linde facility—including the city’s trash—has already had most of the recyclable materials diverted from it.

But as the two companies jostle with each other and competitors for bigger pieces of the refuse pie—in van der Linde’s case, more deals with haulers; in Allied’s, more local collection contracts—they’re fighting more than a numbers battle.

Earlier this year, Allied unveiled a marketing campaign directed by Charlottesville public relations firm Payne Ross & Associates aimed squarely at discrediting van der Linde’s approach. The “separate, don’t contaminate” argument goes like this: Mixing household waste and recyclables dirties the recoverable materials, particularly paper-based ones, making them unfit for processing.

The company says the best way to ensure recyclable items stay out of the landfill is to keep the collection streams separate. That means calling on waste producers—us—to pitch in. And encouraging people to make conscious decisions about where waste ends up is important, said Payne, Ross & Associates PR director Anne Hooff.

“You have to have goals citizens can buy into,” she said.

Peter van der Linde doesn’t buy it. Participation has been a major barrier to success in curbside recycling programs, he pointed out. No amount of education will guarantee total compliance, he said, so why not give the job of sorting to a company whose success depends on it?

“Even if we hated the environment, if we’re going to survive financially, we have to be obsessed with recovery,” van der Linde said. “The beauty of this business model is that the environment is the inescapable beneficiary.”

And the alarm raised over mixing trash and recyclables is a red herring, he said. Soaking wet paper products do have to be dried out before being baled for recycling, said van der Linde, or they grow mold. But food smears, dirt, and grease stains are no more of a challenge for the paper mills that accept recyclables than the colored inks, staples, and tape that come along with any load of cardboard.

“We recycle dirty boxes all the time,” he said. “We can show you pizza boxes in our bales of cardboard. And we have never had a bale of cardboard rejected, ever.”

Van der Linde contends that Allied is pushing back because it’s feeling the pinch from a challenger whose methods it can’t replicate locally. Allied and parent company Republic Services are heavily invested in the single stream model and in their many landfills—which van der Linde wants to starve.

“We’re taking food off a dog’s plate while it’s eating,” he said.

Jeff Crate, Vice President of Solid Waste Services for Draper Aden Associates, a Charlottesville civil engineering firm, said he sees technological advancements on the horizon that will encourage more traditional recyclers to go dumpster diving. But that doesn’t mean MRFs like van der Linde’s will be the only way to go.

“I do think that we’re in the midst of another evolution of the solid waste field,” he said. “The competition is good. There’s certainly room for multiple approaches,” especially in lower-density areas where it just doesn’t make sense for municipalities themselves to invest in the expensive equipment and labor a sophisticated recycling operation requires.
Bob Brickner agreed. The executive vice president of nationally recognized Fairfax-based waste consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Brickner has worked in and studied waste management for nearly 40 years.

“The little guy’s always going to try to peel materials and business from the big guy,” he said. “It forces the big guys to be as financially honest as possible.”

The fact that deal-with-it-on-site operations like van der Linde’s are cropping up within established markets makes sense, he said. If there’s enough waste flowing through transfer facilities in an area, eventually somebody’s going to see the value in extracting the good stuff before it leaves town.

Brickner said what decides success or failure is usually whether a facility can find enough loyal customers to buy their bales. “The issue becomes what the available markets for recyclables are,” he said.

As it happens, the confidence in the market is one of the few things competitors seem to have in common. The eastern U.S. and Virginia in particular are rich end markets for certain “legacy” materials, like paper, cardboard, and aluminum, according to recyclers. That’s a boon for business, and for the environment, they said.

The further recyclable commodities have to travel before they can start their next useful life, the more fuel is required to move them, and the more negative environmental baggage they pick up along the way. It’s costlier for all involved, too. However, experts say foreign buyers do tug hard on the market; China and other east Asian countries are particularly hungry for American recyclables.

“Depending on what’s going on with the economy, it’s up or down,” said Brickner. “But they have been a significant importer of recyclable materials,” especially cardboard and plastic bottles.

The fluctuating influence of the foreign market makes it hard to find out just where your recyclables end up in any given month. The fact that brokers often act as middlemen by purchasing recyclables from plants and shopping around the world for the best price complicates matters more.

But both van der Linde and TFC Recycling’s Jeff Randazzo said there’s strong, steady local demand for their outputs, which lends stability to their operations. The paper mills that dot the state are particularly good customers. Van der Linde said 100 percent of his company’s cardboard goes factory direct to Richmond-area mills, while Randazzo said that last month, 93 percent of TFC’s cardboard stayed domestic.

TFC has netted some major national buyers, too. Nearly all the aluminum it processes goes to Anheuser-Busch, which runs more than one East Coast can manufacturing plant.
“We’re very lucky in this area to have lots of secondary markets, many of which are factory direct,” said van der Linde.

Then, now, next
The other point everybody can agree on? We’ve come a long way in a short time.
Judy Mueller, head of Charlottesville’s Public Works Department, has seen the shift firsthand. Since she was hired by the city in 1985, “the entire industry has changed dramatically,” she said. From no recycling at all to the first city-run curbside recycling programs in the early ’90s to the shutting down of the local Ivy Landfill and the outsourcing of pickup to private companies, what’s happened close to home largely reflects nationwide trends.

Better technology in the private sector has thrown up some hurdles for municipal services, however.

Mark Graham, Director of Community Development for Albemarle County, said the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority has seen yields at its McIntire Road recycling center plummet 40 percent over the last five years—most likely due to the popularity of single-stream curbside pickup in the city and the convenient all-in-one option of van der Linde for county residents. The RSWA has relied on the city and county to prop it up with extra funding, “but the city just backed themselves out of that,” Graham said, “so the county is looking at other programs to support itself.”

As they push ahead, both van der Linde and Phillips believe their companies are investing in the model of the future. Van der Linde pointed out that Allied is championing its new MRF facilities, built to extract recyclables from trash just like his, and that indicates that even the big players are starting to see opportunity where they used to see landfill fodder.
“We’re playing a very small part in the evolution of this thing,” he said.

But Phillips said there’s a key difference: Allied is still pushing separating at the source. Trash is processed separately at the new “clean” MRFs, and any extra recyclables caught are a bonus. In short: The model stands.

In the meantime, he said, there are more efforts to make single-stream recycling easier, like the new 96-gallon carts Allied is testing in a few Charlottesville neighborhoods—they offer greater capacity, fewer trips to the curb, and a lid to keep things dry.

In Chesapeake, a city that generates about 60,000 tons of waste a year, “they were recycling 4,400 tons per year with the smaller bins,” Phillips said—not a great rate. “When they switched to the big covered bins like they’re introducing in Charlottesville now, they jumped to 16,000 tons a year.”

From simple shifts to total technological overhauls, the big waste and recycling companies and the small ones are fighting to stay at the head of the pack. As long as there are Coke cans and kitchen scraps, that’s likely to continue, said Brickner, the Fairfax consultant.
“Where there’s solid waste generated, there is opportunity for somebody,” he said.

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