The engineer in Ryan Duckett tends to want to build the biggest, most top-of-the-line waste and recycling facilities whenever he can, but always what is practical for his clients. SCS’s mission states that employees adopt our clients’ environmental challenges as our own, and that includes their budgets and social goals as well.
“I appreciate that the waste management enterprises I work with are businesses and care about more than the engineering of a project. They care about the economics, and they look for guidance in both realms to get maximum value and efficiency,” says Duckett, who came to SCS Engineers as a new environmental engineering graduate. Then he went back to school for his MBA. He wanted to join both the technical and financial puzzle pieces.
“Everyone, especially local governments, is constrained by tight budgets. You have to think about the interplay between design and construction and financial feasibility,” he says.
That’s his job – to plan technically sound programs and facilities, whether new builds, upgrades, or changes in operations or services. Or it can be developing protocols for clients to tap into low-carbon fuel credits.
He’s learned to look through both developers’ and operators’ eyes to help clients accomplish what they want at budget levels they set while maximizing what they get from their programs, facilities, and systems.
“You need to make assessments and quantify details to answer questions like, what would an operator have to charge for a given service to break even? Is this service fee reasonable given market conditions? What are estimated operational costs and capital costs for an expansion? Financial analysts vet these questions, but very few of them are intimately involved in solid waste practices or engineering,” Duckett says.
A holistic approach in play
He calls the work he does integrated solid waste management, which involves understanding the entire operation and how one component affects the other, whether routing and collections, materials recovery facilities (MRFs), transfer stations, landfill gas systems, or others.
Duckett shows this holistic approach in play by explaining how grasping the way collections work helps design transfer stations. These major builds can run up to multimillions, even when project managers have the skill set and foresight to plan for efficiency and sustainability.
“You can better estimate how to design queuing space, how to design surge capacity, how to size facilities,” he explains.
“Adding, for example, an extra day’s storage capacity at a transfer station or MRF provides extra flexibility in the event of a disruption farther down the line. In an emergency, owners could potentially save significantly by having more time to identify or negotiate more economical alternatives.”
Some of the solutions he finds are simple but require thinking out of the box—literally in one situation where cardboard boxes were stockpiling at a convenience center because they didn’t fit through the slot in a single-stream receptacle. Simply creating an acceptance area only for boxes diverts multiple truckloads a week from landfills and generates thousands a year in revenue.
Then there are the major construction projects where Duckett digs deeper, such as one plan to site, design, and build a MRF. He conducted a feasibility study looking at different sites and calculated estimated operational costs and upfront capital costs for each identified site.
“We ultimately determined that by co-locating a facility at the existing landfill, the client would save over $200,000 in operating costs, with savings from scales/scale house reuse, the reduced distance of residual stream hauling, labor efficiencies, and other areas.”
In this same scenario, adding robotics for additional processing comes with anticipated savings of about $300,000 in manual sorting costs annually.
When do you recommend spending more upfront?
This question often comes up in Duckett’s world.
He finds that sometimes spending more upfront and on what’s built to last translates to substantial savings in the long run. He reflects on when a client had to replace a transfer station floor every couple of years.
“These floors take so much impact, so this is not an uncommon problem. But you can provide a huge ROI by reducing floor replacement frequency. They can run over half a million to replace properly, even for relatively small facilities,” Duckett says.
He ran budget numbers for different approaches and found in this scenario the higher-end approach, cement with additives such as fly ash, was the better deal.
“It might cost 50 percent more upfront, but the floor could last three times as long, breaking the cycle of frequent, costly replacement,” he says.
What do you recommend when budgets are so tight, there’s no cash reserve to invest?
Duckett and his team have found solutions in this scenario, too; often, the strategy is to figure out if a phased approach is possible.
“You could spend ten years waiting to generate enough funds to build infrastructure for a major project. Your citizens are missing out, so sometimes it’s best to build smaller, as soon as you need it. Then increase capacity as you can afford it.”
Expert advice from his colleagues
A very positive thing about his holistic approach is that Duckett can reach out to his colleagues who specialize in long-term financial management plans for utilities such as solid waste. This team, led by Vita Quinn, specializes in helping clients build sustainable financing models and plans.
The models help communities manage financial impacts such as COVID disruptions; make investments without burdening community budgets, and help take advantage of commodity market swings such as in the value of recycled paper. Models are useful to show community leaders and citizens the different options and what-if scenarios that make sense based on current and future conditions.
Going back to the drawing board to improve a system
Not long ago, Duckett’s team had to figure out what to do about a decal-based, pay-as-you-throw system that wasn’t working. The operator’s initial plan seemed logical and simple: residents purchase decals and place them on their bins for pick up. But some of them let their subscriptions expire. The city was losing money servicing outstanding accounts. It hired enforcement officers to check every decal for validity, which soon proved too labor-intensive.
“We found an alternative: adding fees for trash and recycling to the water and sewer bill. It’s bringing in more revenue. And the city is saving on hours spent checking thousands of decals, freeing the enforcement officers for other jobs, like bulky and yard waste enforcement,” Duckett says.
Duckett’s greatest lessons learned?
“In my seven years on the job, I have learned that the solid waste industry is complicated with a lot of intricate, moving parts that interconnect. Who would have thought trash was so complex?”
He’s also learned it’s critical to have comprehensive teams with diverse backgrounds to gather different perspectives.
“It goes back to the concept that you need more than engineering expertise to deliver that value add. That value add is important to our customers, so we strive to understand the business challenge along with the technical and social goals.”
Speaking as a young professional to other young professionals and students thinking about careers in waste management, he says: Check it out. Give it serious thought.
“I do not know of another industry that involves so many interesting disciplines: biology, hydrology, geology, engineering … even data and computer scientists.”
He shares this proposition for the young and ambitious:
“As technology advances and regulatory requirements heighten, our teams learn a lot on the job. But we appreciate our sharp graduates who bring the latest knowledge from academic settings. We depend on them to share new ways of thinking and help us solve challenging and intriguing problems.”
His motivation to get into environmental engineering evolved from his passion for the outdoors.
“I grew to appreciate conservation, which centers on doing more with less to preserve resources. Nothing is wasted in nature; everything is cyclical and gets used,” Duckett says.
“That’s what our waste system could emulate, and as a nation, we’re moving in that direction. It’s not just about reducing trash. It’s about reducing wasted effort and money spent beyond what’s necessary. It goes back to the idea of efficiency and getting the most out of something – instead of a using-disposing-buying new mentality.”
Learn more about comprehensive MRF and Transfer Station infrastructure
Optical sorters and robotic sorters may work in two different areas of an MRF. For heavy volumes of a few related commodities (i.e., plastic containers) the optical sorters would be located closer to the front end of the MRF, potentially following an initial separation of light materials versus heavy materials or two-dimensional items such as fiber and paper from three-dimensional items (i.e., containers) by other equipment such as a screen or drum.
In general, a robotic sorter would likely perform better anywhere in the MRF where there is some presorting to spread material evenly across the belt and remove oversize and bulky material, or two-dimensional material like paper and foil, that can obscure the targeted materials. An MRF’s control systems are typically upgraded when optics or robotics are installed to provide the operator more local control of all sorting equipment on the line, more flexibility to address waste stream changes, and simpler control interfaces.
Read up on system information via trade publications; inquire about system performance with other operators; and talk with experienced consultants and vendors. These options will help you narrow down the best option for a facility’s needs. This same information can then be used as a resource when vetting providers.
Allow companies to come into your facility and make an initial assessment, review data you may have on material volume, material changes, and percent recovery and residue. Then request a written report. That report should include: feasibility of employing the machine(s); expected tangible improvements (i.e., rate of recovery, reduction of residue, removal of additional targeted material(s), etc.; any other modifications needed to your system to allow the new equipment to perform properly, a budget cost estimate or range, and estimated operating costs.
Send a representative waste stream sample to potential vendors and have the sample run through the vendor’s test facilities to gauge the equipment’s effectiveness. Operators should visit facilities currently running the equipment under consideration for purchase to see how it operates in person. If visiting a site isn’t possible, review a site’s system layout and analyze its efficiency results.
A fire at your transfer station or MRF can cause significant downtime, lost revenue, and added cost to restore the damaged equipment and building components. The fire department can tear a metal building apart just fighting the fire. Fires can also trigger negative publicity and could result in injury or even loss of life. Even with automatic sprinkler systems in place, fires can spread quickly. Traditional fire sprinklers are designed to protect the building from completely burning down. However, in most solid waste processing facilities, they are mounted relatively high in the building. Placement can result in significantly delayed response times to react to a fire which has time to grow and propagate. The delay can result in significant damage to structural elements, insulation, lighting, electrical, roof, and wall panels.
International Fire Protection recently published an article by Ryan Fogelman suggesting an investment in more effective fire technology safety systems to prevent fire incidents rather than mitigating the damage. The author’s solution is using automated detection of excessive heat using military grade thermal detection to pinpoint the exact location, with automated emergency alerts, remote human verification, and remotely controlled coolants to contain the threat of fire. These are all innovative solutions and certainly seem logical to help MRFs, transfer stations, and composting operations minimize the chance of an expensive emergency that could shut down operations.
Now we face the dilemma of how public agencies and businesses can afford the new or improved technology.
SCS Engineers believes that preventative strategies and designs are superior and in the long term are safer and less costly. For example, system costs typically include the monthly 24/7 monitoring and operation and set up for multi-year periods (e.g., ten years). At one MRF that experienced a fire, SCS Engineers estimated the cost to install, monitor, and maintain a 24/7 fire suppression system for the 10-year period was less than the cost of the single fire incident. Operators and owners are challenged with a business problem that requires integrating specialized engineering and technology expertise with financial expertise to create operational efficiencies.
When estimating the cost of new technologies to mitigate emergencies and increase safety, the financial considerations are paramount. Elected officials, public works directors, private sector waste management decision-makers and public utilities must operate efficiently while providing critical community services, and maintain existing service levels. They must do so while keeping rates, fees, taxes, and assessments as low as possible for the residents of a community.
Environmentally sustainable solutions must be economically feasible to achieve consensus by constituents and shareholders.
SCS Management Services™ supports a comprehensive approach to environmental solutions as described in International Fire Protection, by providing financial experts who work in combination with our engineering and technology consultants to design solutions that support MRFs, transfer stations, and composting operations planning for long-term economic and financial sustainability.
Material recovery facilities (MRFs) are seeing many challenges that directly impact operations. Some of these challenges include: new recycled material quality standards from China, the ratcheting up of voluntary and mandatory local and state recycling goals, lower tolerance for worker injury, increasing volumes and a changing waste stream, disposal bans on organics in landfills, and high demand from emerging energy
markets for organics.
MRFs equipped with the latest technologies are able to meet tightening standards for traditional quality recycled materials and some are also starting to provide a separate, clean organics stream for downstream alternative energy projects. Many MRF operators are now benefitting from these new technologies, with increased throughput and quality of end product.
The article by Bruce Clark and Mike Kalish of SCS, provides an overview of the latest developments in MRF processing equipment systems that are helping owners and operators meet these challenges and at the same time helping maintain a healthy bottom line.
Taken as a whole, mixed MRFs have operated well since their reincarnation in the early 1990s and continued refinement through today. The sorting technology, which has been evolving for the last 25 years, has been proven to work and is reliable. Complete, pre-engineered integrated systems have been available now for years from a growing selection of established companies dedicated to the solid waste industry that can provide planning, engineering, manufacturing, controls, and startup, whether for new facilities, or retrofits of existing older facilities.
With that said, the following conclusions are offered for consideration: