Chicago's curbside recycling program experienced a shakeup nearly two years ago when the city awarded a collection and processing contract to LRS. This year, LRS opened a long-awaited MRF in Chicago, in part to meet the additional demand for the large volumes of material that the city’s contract generates.
"As we started progressing towards the Chicago blue carts, we knew that we were going to need additional infrastructure and capacity. Now is the perfect time to do this," said John Sliwicki, executive vice president of the central region, during a recent tour of the MRF. "I think we've had the drawings for what we wanted to do here since 2014, so it's been a long time coming."
LRS has experienced significant growth over the last five years. Numerous acquisitions are fueling the growth, including LRS’s buyout of Roy Strom in 2021.
The $50 million facility took less than six months to build on the large land parcel that LRS already owned in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the city’s South Side, although some supply chain challenges delayed construction materials and drove up costs. The MRF became operational on Feb. 1 for dry runs with no material on the line to ensure the equipment works properly and to allow opportunities for tweaks. Test runs with material, running at 60% capacity, began the following week.
The goal is to get the facility to standard operating mode by the end of Q2 and maintain at least 80% diversion. The CP Manufacturing system will process about 28 tons of material per hour when it achieves standard operation, and it has the capacity to process 35 tons an hour.
About 90% of Chicago’s blue cart material goes to the new Chicago MRF, comprising about 70% of the total material processed there.
Both the city and the surrounding community — a mix of industrial and residential — welcomed the facility to the neighborhood because “they know what we’re doing is eliminating about 400 tons a day of material from going to landfills,” he said. LRS performed outreach with the community while planning the structure and installed a deodorizing system to control odors; the building is fully enclosed and the processing area is insulated to mitigate noise.
Minimizing labor, maximizing automation
LRS “invested on the front end to reduce labor” at this facility, Sliwicki said, citing difficulty the last few years with finding qualified employees to fill positions across the company, including equipment operators, mechanics and drivers. While the business is “pushing for a lot more internal training and development so that we don't have to go out to the street to find people — we try to find them within our ranks first,” it also built an automation-forward Chicago MRF to minimize labor needs.
Eleven employees work per shift, with two shifts per day, five to six days per week. The CP Manufacturing system currently processes about 25 tons per hour. Comparatively, LRS’s similarly sized MRF that opened about six years ago in the Chicago suburb of Forest View handles about 15 tons of material per hour and has about 20 employees per shift.
“That’s a difference in the increased optical [sorters], but also just time – this [MRF] is six years newer and technology improves pretty fast,” Sliwicki said.
Six optical sorters are configured to separate fiber and various plastics. LRS's new MRF was one of six that recently received grants from The Recycling Partnership's Polypropylene Recycling Coalition to fund equipment upgrades that support PP sorting and processing. LRS used the grant for an optical sorter that specifically targets PP.
This MRF has one cardboard screen, one newspaper screen, two balers and backup compressors to keep the plant running if one goes down. It also houses an auger screen, which reduces the amount of “tanglers” like hoses and film that wrap around other types of sorting equipment.
"A large chunk of the contamination we see is … plastics that you would think you could recycle but can't necessarily do it right now because there's not an end market — films being one of those," Sliwicki said. Still, contamination remains “in the anticipated range” and educational campaigns help keep it in check, he said.
Exploring additional opportunities
LRS is examining equipment, grants and end market options for processing film in the future, and this potentially could be an area suitable for robots at some point, Sliwicki said. This facility doesn’t yet use robots, but the Forest View facility has one. LRS will continue to experiment with the current system at the Chicago MRF and assess its quality control before crossing the bridge toward robots.
“With volumes like this, we just feel that the opticals are more efficient and more reliable right now,” Sliwicki said. “We’ll probably embrace [robots] at some point.”
He said that robot systems are “getting smarter,” but observation suggests that keeping them up and running consistently can be challenging. Plus, he said optical sorters use some of the same algorithms and machine learning technologies to gain understanding of the material stream and interface with mechanical pieces to achieve a higher pick rate.
The campus is wired to support the addition of electric vehicle chargers, if the company decides to pursue fleet electrification in the future. LRS purchased one EV so far to supplement its compressed natural gas vehicles.
Down the road, the facility might take on diversion for other items like C&D or source-separated materials.
“We are going to look at other optionality for what we can do with this because it is such a big footprint. But right now, the goal is just getting this [MRF] as efficient as possible,” Sliwicki said. “This is where, eventually, I think all of the city of Chicago material could come. We have the infrastructure now to handle it all, and then some — probably 30% capacity for growth.”