500 tons and what do you get?
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Years of educating the public about recycling is paying off, judging from the mountain of trash taken from Metro East to Republic Services’ sorting facility in Hazelwood, Mo.
Some 500 tons a day of mixed material comes in to the plant, and nice, bundled, organized shipments of plastics, paper and aluminum go out. All of it is destined to be repurposed so it pops up again in consumers’ lives.
St. Louis General Manager Brent Batliner, the fourth generation of his family to work in the recycling trade, has seen a world of change in the way trash is recovered. Machines do most of the sorting, but a team of workers must coordinate the process, making sure to separate what machines fail to catch.
Making it easier to recycle has definitely improved participation, residentially and commercially, he said. Businesses that formerly had to devote room or dock space for separating their recyclables now find it a lot less cumbersome to toss them in the same outgoing bin. Many homeowners can now pitch everything into the same 95-gallon recycling cart and roll it to the curb.
“That’s allowed recycling to just explode,” Batliner said.
Republic says two-thirds of its business is residential, mostly under contract with individual municipalities.
Batliner oversees two local recycling plants. Northside is the larger of the two, located at 6025 Byassee Drive in Hazelwood, Mo.
The smaller, Southside plant, located on Bayless Avenue, is limited in what it recycles. It staffs one shift a day, separating only the paper goods and forwarding the rest to the Hazelwood plant, which has two sorting shifts and a specific container line to separate aluminum, steel, plastic and glass.
“We get both commercial and residential ‘single stream,’ meaning all mixed together,” Batliner said. “Commercial is coming from almost any kind of business you can imagine — restaurants, manufacturing, light industrial, retail, anyone who wants to recycle and put a can out. It’s very rich in cardboard, very rich in office paper, very small in containers.”
On the other hand, residential collection is “very rich in newspaper and becoming more rich in cardboard because of home delivery and things like Amazon.com. But 30 to 35 percent of it is containers from households,” he said.
The entire first shift at the Northside plant runs residential. “At night, we switch over and run commercial, and 50 percent of that product is brown — it’s cardboard. About 30 percent is fiber, meaning office paper, and then a small percentage of containers.”
The two plants have 120 workers, mostly Teamsters union members, and 32 people were on the line of the Northside plant the day Batliner took the Illinois Business Journal on a tour. Republic employs 600 people in Greater St. Louis.
Ninety percent of the material is sorted by machinery and the rest by the people on the line. They gather up to 50 “picks” a minute. Entry-level sorters get paid about $9 an hour and are encouraged to move into higher-paying roles, like forklift drivers and supervisors.
“Almost every person you see out here is a quality check person,” Batliner said. “They’re trying to sort what the machine misses.”
Trash comes from many miles around.
“Our area goes from here, up to Quincy, over to Bloomington including Springfield, down through Mount Vernon, Paducah, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn. It wraps up near the boot heel of Missouri, and then goes pretty much Interstate 55 up,” he said.
Almost every Southwestern Illinois town of any size is included. Many of the rural markets are not.
“About 80 percent of the material that we run through this plant was produced within a 50-mile radius of here. The other 20 we’re pulling in from other places,” he said.
Republic Services, Inc. was founded in 1996 and is the second-largest non-hazardous solid waste management company in the United States after Waste Management, Inc. Things have been that way since 2008, when Allied Waste was acquired by Republic Services.
Last year, Republic, a public company, saw $8.8 billion in revenue — $574 million in net income. Its second-largest market was metro St. Louis.
Republic’s plant in Hazelwood has been a work in progress since 2012 when it began conversion of the old QRS recycling plant where Batliner had been working.
“In 2012, we pretty much took these buildings to the ground and brought them back up with all this new equipment,” Batliner said. “This was built as the hub. And the (various service routes) are our spokes. We had a team that was building this facility and I was out developing the spokes — setting up a transfer station at Marion and the small plants in Union City, Tenn., and Cape Girardeau, Mo., to allow single stream to grow. In Marion and Carbondale, there had been drop-off bins for cardboard, but recycling just wasn’t much.”
Locally, Resource Management, an independent operator based in Earth City, Mo., is the closest thing to competition for Republic, but it’s limited in services. It has no hauling affiliate but it has a sorting facility for paper and sends the containers on to a larger Chicago plant.
“When it comes to doing it all, we’re it,” Batliner said of the collection, hauling, sorting and landfill services. “We’re the dominant player in this market.”
On the Illinois side, most of Republic’s trash is taken to the Roxana Landfill. The recyclables, though, all end up on the St. Louis side.
Some 60 percent of the recycling volume handled by Republic is single stream.
The rest is what is called “source-separated.” Batliner gave the example of a commercial printer that has offsets or trim.
“That’s a commodity that … I know I’m going to sell,” he said. “We’ll send out trucks to pick up more valuable, source-separated material. Most of that I’m paying a nice price to get because it’s source-separated, clean material that we’re taking to make into a new product.”
Republic runs four tractors, hundreds of trailers, and two, 28-foot box vans to pick up material from larger manufacturers.
Who is buying it?
Paper, plastics and cans are various “fuels” for the manufacturing process.
“When my aluminum leaves here it’s going to Alcoa to be melted into an ingot to be punched back into cans,” Batliner said. “When my cardboard leaves here it’s going to International Paper to be put into a vat to be broken down so the fibers can be remade into cardboard paper. We are kind of the raw supply to mills.”
There may be only three or four major corporations that buy paper “but they probably have 30 paper mills that we can sell to,” he said. “And it’s regional. Most of our office paper that goes out of here from the commercial side goes by van truck to Kimberly-Clark’s mill in Owensboro, Ky. But every once in a while they’ll call and say, ‘Hey, our Mobile, Ala., plant is running low, can you load a couple of rail cars?’”
Recyclable plastic, of course, has many uses but you can walk on one of the most common: Mohawk Carpet is one of the biggest buyers.
“The carpet you’re standing on is from Mohawk Carpet, and the majority of it is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) from plastic bottles. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the carpet is in a recycling center. Probably the carpet in your home is made from plastic fibers,” Batliner said.
PET plastic bottles — “No. 1s” in recycling jargon — are sorted and baled separately from No. 2s, which are known as HDPEs (high density polyethelene). The latter includes milk jugs, which go to non-consumable, future uses, such as detergent bottles or drain tiles.
Collected bottles with any kind of color are generally melted down and dyed into a black plastic for a more consistent color, he said. The more that clear plastic can be kept separate from colored plastic, the better in terms of its value.
Locally, Republic deals with dozens of buyers, but it has standard contracts with fewer.
“The majority of the material you see here is under contract, meaning I can move it, all the time. No matter what the market conditions are I have a contract to keep it moving. I have to. I do 500 tons a day here,” the GM said.
Paper, while it is less volatile in terms of pricing, is the most consistent in terms of supply.
Paper is average to below average in value, he said. Cardboard is $75 per ton, slightly below average, Newspaper is $50, below average, Office paper (made into tissue products) is $125, also below average.
International Paper, by contract, pretty much gets all of the cardboard. But, per that company’s discretion, Republic may end up sending it to one of multiple paper mills.
“They tell us on a weekly basis,” Batliner said.
Plastics, with currently depressed oil prices, are more volatile in price.
“With oil prices where they are at and with China in disarray, we see much more volatility in their pricing. That opaque milk jug: A year ago I was selling it for 56 cents a pound. Today, I’m selling it for 27,” he said.
The “can market” also fluctuates greatly — and it now takes more cans to equal a pound because the cans are thinner.
“Aluminum was as high as 90 cents a pound; it’s down in the 50s right now. It’s as low as I’ve seen it in a very long time. And most of it is because there’s no exporting going on. If anything, cheap aluminum is being dumped in the U.S. right now,” he said.
Batliner is the fourth generation of his family in the recycling business. His great-grandfather started things by collecting cotton rags in the late 1800s.
“In the late ‘20s, when paper became something to send back to recycling mills, he got into that. My grandfather stayed in the business as did my uncle, my father and myself. Now, my son and my nephew are working in it so we’re five generations into it now.” Most of that was in Kansas City.
Batliner got out of the family business — but stayed in recycling — when he was offered the opportunity to run a Browning-Ferris Industries plant on Hall Street in St. Louis in 1992. He was working for a private company, QRS, when Republic bought it in 2011.
Batliner’s job is to keep things on schedule and per contract — and to control expenses.
“I can’t control the commodity market. But I can control the quality coming in and the maintenance of this facility to keep it running,” he said. Quality issues are addressed with individual customers to keep them abreast of what’s allowed in recyclable loads.
Batliner estimated that 8 percent to 10 percent of the material brought in actually goes to a landfill.
“We get things we do not ask for,” he said. Wood is one of those. So is something as simple as garden hose.
“When you see our equipment and the amount of screens and spinning disks, you’ll realize that something long (in shape) can shut us down. If a garden hose made it all the way into our system, somewhere along the line it would wrap up and shut us down. And in the spring, we see hundreds of them.”
How the system works
A “pre-sort room” is set up so that workers can find such material before the recyclables are dumped into a hopper and sent along hundreds of yards of conveyors — 78 of them in all.
“We get in brake drums, we get in shelving. None of which is on our list. We got a lead tub in a load. If that would have gone all the way to our equipment, it would have destroyed it,” Batliner said.
Chains, jeans, plastic bags — anything that can wrap around turning parts — keeps workers busy. Republic’s Northside plant works around the clock, with the third shift devoted exclusively to maintenance.
The machinery portion of the sorting lines is an amalgam of magnets, air jets and optical technology.
Once the presorted goods begin their run, they first go through a “paper screen,” a set of rubber disks set on an angle. As the material hits it, anything flat goes up along the top of the disks. Anything rigid or three-dimensional is going to bounce up and away from remaining materials.
“That is our separation of paper from containers. The paper goes off that screen and onto a belt, and there will be three or four people looking for plastic or trash that they’ve missed,” Batliner said.
Later in the process, “eddy currents” create a negative magnetic force field that repels aluminum cans, sending them sailing away from plastics.
Optical sorters with infrared technology take care of plastics by reading the chemical makeup of a bottle. Anything, for instance, that’s read as a No. 1 PET water or soda bottle is blown off the line by air jets.
A second optical scan reads heavier plastic bottles and blows that off the line next.
A third optical scan reads and sorts the remaining plastics and any leftover paper.
Along the way, sorted materials drop into various bunkers for holding.
“It’s a $9-million-dollar investment in all this equipment, and probably $7 million is the container side,” Batliner said. “That’s where all the high-tech stuff is.”
A few years ago, when Republic first began using the same trucks to haul off both recycling and trash, some people immediately figured that the recycling must be going straight to a landfill.
“I can show them 9 million reasons it’s not,” Batliner said, pointing to the technology.