North-east-based independent operator J&B Recycling has recently made a series of investments in plant and fleet. This has included the roll-out of an £800,000 plant upgrade and an additional £500,000 investment into machinery and its vehicle fleet across its three sites.
The two-phase plant upgrade, completed in January, allows the company to take an additional 11,000 tonnes a year of waste, as well as continuing to comply with strict overseas regulations.
Vikki Jackson-Smith, managing director, says: “The significant investments we have made to our Hartlepool MRF have been key drivers in J&B’s strategy for continued growth and sustainability, allowing us to not only give comfort to our customers but to also increase our efficiency, flexibility and prepare for any future changes in the market.”
The new plant includes more advanced automated technology and a fibre recovery line.
Jackson-Smith explains: “We have made a number of upgrades to our plants during the past eight years, but this latest set of expansions have been the most prominent. In the waste management industry, upgrades are essential because operations need to reflect the changes in the market.
“Since our last major expansion back in 2009, the make-up of material we receive has changed dramatically, and the new plant has been designed to add flexibility to our operations. It allows for a variety of process configurations and can handle different input streams with ease.
“Whether it is fully commingled, commingled without glass, triple or dual stream, we can offer maximum recovery of the recyclable content.”
Paul Clements, commercial director at Scotland-based William Tracey Group, agrees that flexibility is important. “While difficult in such a dynamic and constantly evolving market, our primary consideration is always to ‘future proof ’ these plants as much as possible.
“Systems run with robotics and AI should deliver better reuse, recycling and recovery rates.”
Lee Phelan, general manager of waste, transport and recycling, R Collard
“Versatility is also very important when planning any upgrade or renewal. This allows us to process as many material streams as possible through one plant and ensure that we are running as close to capacity as possible.”
Having a ‘plan B’ to avoid having to shut down the plant is another consideration, adds Tim Croxford, group recycling operations manager at south-eastbased Cawleys.
“One of the biggest single factors is to ensure consistency. Most MRFs are designed with one point of feed to the plant, which can cause massive problems if that goes down and you cannot feed the plant. Consideration should be given to enable a second point of feed, so the plant can still operate in the event of a failure.”
Lee Phelan, general manager of waste, transport and recycling at R Collard, based in the south, adds: “Our priority is to operate safely for our employees and stakeholders. Then, of course, we need value which is key to success in any business.
“The balance between cost and quality is always a factor: much will much depend on what the application is, the life cycle of the project or contract and the effectiveness of the equipment.
“We always look to the latest, proven technologies. And because the waste and recycling industry is one of the fastest moving, innovation is key to staying ahead of the competition. Other considerations are space constraints, sustainability, power and lead time.”
The ability to produce quality outputs is also essential. Matt Tyrie, operations director at J&B, explains that maximising end product quality has always been a fundamental part of the company’s ethos: “Our recent upgrades were planned ahead of China’s revised quality standards for paper grades, and they enabled us to extract maximum quality and value from current material streams.
“It is quite right that offtake markets have strict quality specifications on the import of waste materials. So, by working to optimise our plant continually, we were already well prepared for the current changes in the market that hit the headlines recently. As a result, we are confident that we can continue to meet even tighter demand from our end markets.”
J&B worked with Stadler UK to design, manufacture and install its plant upgrade. Tyrie explains: “Stadler was able to pre-plan the installation at its project management department in Germany. By doing this, most of the installation could be carried out while the plant was in operation, minimising our downtime.”
He adds that its MRF dedicated to council kerbside contracts currently has a 98% efficiency rate but further investment this year will increase this to 99.5%. Tyrie believes that ‘waste’ plants need to change their mentality and adopt manufacturing process principles to produce quality products.
He believes this approach is the key to ensuring the industry continues to flourish five or 10 years from now – as well as continuous investment.
“Our last major plant upgrade happened nine years ago. Back in 2009 when it took place, more people bought newspapers and magazines so the plant was geared towards 35%-45% paper recovery. But now the paper content and available recovery is significantly less.
“People can read the news on phones and tablets, so the production of newspapers and magazines is decreasing. In line with this, our plant is now geared towards lower paper recovery.”
J&B is one year into a strategic two-year plan to become more automated to ensure that quality is maintained while achieving an increase in throughput and minimising residual waste output.
“We understand that this is an important step for us to take in ensuring the longevity of the business. But having a trained workforce alongside automation is vital for quality control,” Tyrie says.
He believes there is still some way to go before full automation: “Robotic technology that is around now may be good for certain jobs because it undoubtedly has the upper hand when it comes to speed. But it cannot beat the human eye for quality control.
“For me, to trust AI over the human controllers, the technology would have to be incredibly advanced. That may happen, but I’m not sure it’s going to be anytime soon.
“Plant equipment developers are always looking at how AI can be used to improve the quality of throughput. But they are missing the point that the best way to improve the end product quality is to invest in communicating with businesses and households to ensure that the waste entering the plant is correct in the first place. [This] can be just as effective as robots removing it, if not more.”
But Phelan from R Collard sounds a more positive note: “We are seeing a growth in the presence of completely automated technologies, where human intervention is very limited. Systems run with robotics and AI should deliver better reuse, recycling and recovery rates.
“Clearly this requires more investment, which is achievable for larger authority-led contracts. But for local and regional waste management companies with shorter term contracts, it could prove more of a challenge.
“As the robotic and AI technologies become more affordable and the economics start to work, we think that processes and plant will become more automated, resulting in a lesser need for human intervention. This could mean increased plant capacity, better safety and more efficient processes.”
Croxford agrees there are considerable benefits to further automation.
“Commercially, this is because of the reduction in labour but also the accuracy of the ‘pick’ being consistent and the missed elements reduced,” he says. “But it depends on the feed and the presentation of the waste to this automation. If the feed is heavily mixed and not spread evenly, it will not be able to see what it needs to capture.
“By working to optimise our plant continually, we were prepared for the current changes in the market that hit the headlines recently.”
Matt Tyrie, operations director, J&B Recycling
“This is an ever-present thought to ‘dirty’ commercial & industrial waste MRFs or commingled MRFs. Segregated MRFs are currently in a better position for this type of technology because of the way the recyclate is presented.”
William Tracey has recognised the role that increased automation will undoubtedly have to play in its business and is “continually working” to explore it further. The company believes further automation will enable the business to improve performance and provide it with the opportunity to generate more skilled jobs.
But Clements adds: “In the current market, certain tasks are best performed manually when trying to meet the high-quality standards of the materials commodity markets.”
As to other developments in the sector, both Croxford and Phelan believe there will – or should be – greater focus on the more ‘problematic’ waste streams such as coffee cups, mattresses, paints and ‘difficult’ polymers.
Time will tell.