Recology, which picks up garbage, recyclables and yard waste in parts of Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties, on Thursday gave its first look at $35 million in upgrades to its sorting facility in southwest Santa Rosa.
The new automated equipment now allows virtually the same team at the 80,000-square-foot materials recovery facility at 3417 Standish Ave. to move through 166% more waste picked up from blue curbside carts and bins and increase the discovery of waste that’s more valuable to sell than bury in a landfill, according to the San Francisco-based company.
The maker of the equipment, Machinex, called it one of the highest capacity recovery systems on the West Coast.
From being able to pick through 150 tons of mixed materials a day for the salable plastics, paper and metals, the 35 full-time sorters, mechanics and lift-equipment operators now can handle 400 tons daily.
And the amount of plastics, metals, paper and cardboard that have been recovered from the trash increased to 85%, from 75% before the new system first went into use in November after a 10-month installation.
“The value of the MeRF is in not having the material shipped to another MeRF,” said Logan Harvey, senior general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, referring to the common moniker for these facilities.
Other sorting facilities in the North Bay include C&S Waste Solutions in Ukiah and Recology’s Vallejo plant. The company has its largest sorting facility, at 200,000 square feet, on Pier 96 in San Francsico and a smaller facility in the South Bay.
What’s made the increases in sorting capacity and diversion from landfills possible at the Santa Rosa plant are a system of large machines that detect the type of material and sort it.
The trash first goes through a process that allows human sorters to pull out items that would damage the machines, namely “tanglers” such as hoses and plastic film, and large metal items such as brake pads.
But among the dangers lurking in the incoming recyclables are hypodermic needles, and each worker can stop the line to carefully remove and store these items.
“One thing people don’t realize is that recycling goes through human hands,” Harvey said.
The materials travel from machine to machine through the facility via 109 conveyor belts that total 1.58 miles in length. One device separates out two-dimensional products such as cardboard and paper. Seven optical sorting units employ infrared cameras to detect types of material, somewhat similar to optical sorters used to distinguish grapes from “material other than grape” during harvest at wineries.
The plant’s optical sorters even distinguish different kinds of plastic, and use specifically timed blasts of air to blow away contaminants such as plastic food films. A last pass by human sorters checks for valuable plastics that made it past the sorters.
Then the stream goes into units that use strong magnets and other electro-magnetic fields to pull out tin cans and aluminum items, the latter of which bring the highest value for sale to buyers of materials in bulk.
“Our goal is to get it as clean as possible,” Harvey said.
That’s because the fewer contaminants in the 200-plus large bales of materials the plant turns out daily, the more highly Recology is regarded by buyers of such materials, Harvey said.
“We’re selling the building blocks of the economy,” Harvey said.
Recology acquired the Santa Rosa facility when it purchased Ratto Group’s garbage operations in 2017. Ratto had undertaken $8 million in upgrades to the Standish facility and claimed it could achieve sorting of 500 tons a day.
Harvey said that goal wasn’t possible with the system before the latest upgrades.