Ask any recycling truck driver what their favourite season is and odds are they will say either spring or fall. And MRF operators would likely agree. The seasonal extremes of summer and winter in Ontario can impact material quantity, quality, movement and can have a significant financial impact on programs.
Summer months pose fewer challenges for collection and processing of recyclables. While extreme heat can impact staff health and safety and potentially decrease productivity, the biggest issue during the summer months would likely be found in areas that have a large seasonal population where waste volumes and residue can increase dramatically. Some popular cottage areas see seasonal population growth of over 75%. At the same time, large urban centres have increased tourism that can impact their inbound recyclable tonnages and quality as well.
In 2015, 237 individual Blue Box recycling programs reported into the WDO (now RPRA) Municipal Datacall from across the Province. Each program is somewhat unique in that the materials accepted, how they are collected and how they are processed can all be slightly different. This results in seasonal residents and visitors sorting incorrectly or engaging in what the industry calls “wishful recycling”, where residents put out things they hope can be recycled.
Depending on the material and current market conditions, if residue levels are too high, loads can be rejected or the sale value downgraded. It is important to note that when market conditions are such that commodity supply exceeds demand, a municipality or MRF operator may not get a downgrade or rejection on a contaminated load. Instead, the mill or broker may simply stop purchasing from that facility. Most brokers, mills and re-processors keep track of which facility produces the best quality material, and future pricing and amounts purchased could be affected.
The true challenges of collection/processing residential recyclables occur in winter. Just getting the entire fleet on the road each morning can be a costly, demanding effort. At the MRF, snow and ice can make it extremely difficult for both mechanical and human sorters to effectively separate the different materials. This results in either recyclables ending up in the residue, or more residue ending up in the materials to be marketed. The ice and snow that accumulates on the inbound fibre can also impact the quality of the material shipped to the end markets. Fibre mills do not want to pay for the unwanted moisture soaked into the loads. Moisture is also a big issue for aluminum buyers, so a good practice is to store loads inside if possible. Overall, it is important to know and meet the allowable tolerances of the broker/mill you are working with to ensure your load is not downgraded or rejected.
What can Municipalities do?
Ensure that clear and concise promotion and education (P&E) materials are available to all residents, including those who visit seasonally;
Time P&E distribution and messaging to match seasonal residents’ arrival and target winter conditions;
Recommend that residents put their recycling out early on the morning of collection to reduce weather contamination; and
During winter months, adjust P&E to remind residents to place their box/cart in a location easily accessible by the driver, but out of the way of snowplows/traffic.
What can MRF operators do?
Modify internal processes:
Slow intake feed belts to reduce burden depth;
Clear snow and ice from screens and trommels regularly;
Slow down belt speeds if sorters are absent or fatigued;
Remove chunks of ice and snow at the pre-sort (adding sorters if necessary); and
Clean optical units and eddy current systems frequently.
Improve load planning and preparation:
Schedule outbound loads in advance and bring them inside the MRF to thaw prior to loading;
Store as much material as possible indoors to avoid weather impacts;
If additional space is required, empty truck trailers can be rented/purchased at reasonable prices to store material;
If material must be stored outside, tarp it and clear the snow/ice off the bales prior to loading to reduce moisture downgrades at the mill;
Always clean bale sides and tails of any contamination. Visible non-conforming material on the outside of bales is a signal to the end-market that the MRF has little regard for material quality which can affect future loads.
It is very important to keep good communication with your material broker and/or end-processors. Issues will arise from time to time at MRFs, with haulers and at the mills; working through these issues together will ensure that future loads move smoothly, and receive the best possible revenue.