Hutchinson recycling plants add robots and increase reusable volume

2022-04-22 22:52:22 By : Ms. Kelly Li

A recycling center that’s operated in South Hutchinson for a quarter-century, helping the environment by diverting trash from the county landfill into markets for reuse, has managed to keep up with the times.

Earlier this year Stutzman Refuse Disposal added robotics to part of its sorting line in the Stuztman Recycling Center in response to industry demands for higher sorting purity.

Another local recycling plant with an even longer history in Hutchinson also continues expanding, taking in more paper and cardboard waste every year and turning out dozens of products.

But while plant upgrades have made it easier in many ways for residents to do their part in reducing trash and waste, continuous changes in packaging and some major shifts in recycling markets are offering their own challenges to consumers and suppliers alike in figuring out how to effectively recycle.

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The first step in helping the environment, said Keith Shaw, the manager of Stutzman Recycling, is to participate.

Stutzman offers curbside single-stream recycling at no additional cost to any resident using its trash service, which is billed through the city of Hutchinson utility department.

Reno County’s other primary trash service, Nisly Brothers, also offers recycling pickup.

Single-stream means all the materials go in a single cart picked up curbside, with no sorting required. In Hutchinson, recycling pick up is twice a month and in rural areas, monthly.

Stutzman Refuse has operated a recycling plant in South Hutchinson for 26 years. It was acquired by Waste Connections 12 years ago along with the local trash service.

Shaw, originally from Australia, has been the plant manager in South Hutchinson for eight years.

“When they bought it, they did a $3 million upgrade,” Shaw said. “We just completed another $2.4 million upgrade to go to robotics.”

"When I started, we were allowed 2% contamination," Shaw said. "It could be anything that was not paper. Now we're down half a percent. We had to upgrade to take out as much contamination as we can."

So, the best way to ensure successful recycling, Shaw said, is to “keep it as pure as you can.”

The two greatest contaminants to the system are single-use plastic sacks and trash bags, followed by shredded paper. Neither is recyclable at the plant, and both tend to jam up the equipment.

A group of “pickers” are required to stand on both sides of a conveyor belt where material first enters the process to pick out the trash, mostly those pesky plastic bags.

Trash bags filled with recyclables have to be manually ripped open and dumped on the line to process.

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However, pure doesn’t mean the recycled materials themselves need to be washed or cleaned.

In fact, Shaw said, you can even now toss those greasy pizza boxes into your bin.

While they were once considered a contaminant that could result in a whole shipment being discarded, processes have improved enough it’s no longer an issue, he said.

Another tip to ensuring the most success is to not crush containers that go into your recycle cart.

It’s OK to break down and flatten cardboard, but don’t smash those plastic bottles or aluminum cans.

That’s because it’s easier for both robots and human sorters to separate the materials into their proper bins if they are in their original shapes. Once in those bins, they are crushed and baled to be sent to their various markets.

Another recommendation that has changed with advancements in processing is to put caps back on those plastic jugs and bottles before tossed in the bin.

The lids, though often of different grades of plastic than the containers, can be recycled. By themselves, they are too small to be picked up by equipment and so fall out into the trash.

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At Stutzman’s, they accept most plastics, with resin identification numbers from 1 to 6.

PET 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE 2 (high-density polyethylene) have the most value and are marketed directly by the company.

PET, what most water bottles are made of, accounts for about 60 tons a month, Shaw said.

HDPE, which are milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles, account for 22 tons of “natural” or clear plastic and 15 tons of colored plastic.

“Milk jugs are the most valuable plastic,” Shaw said. “They can be reused or made into any other form. Milk jugs are pure.”

The color jugs are the second most valuable.

Plastics 4 through 6 generally are bundled together for shipment to other processors, Shaw said, and not marketed directly. There are significantly fewer markets for those higher number plastics, if at all. They ship them to wherever they are getting the best price on a given day, he said.

The book “Can I Recycle This?” by Jennie Romer explains that recycling facilities use optical scanners to sort out the different types of plastics.

Many don’t have enough scanners to sort out the higher numbered materials, such as PP 5 (polypropylene), which both yogurt cups and prescription bottles, for example, are made from.

And those containers often are too small to otherwise be sorted.

Among many ideas Romer shares, she suggests buying yogurt in bulk to eliminate the individual serve cups.

Those cups, she notes, often have plastic labels that make them unrecyclable even if they go to a processer that can handle PP 5. She suggests reusing prescription bottles to store small items or return the bottles to pharmacies.

Other plastic food containers are made from a variety of plastics. Again, the lower the number, the more recyclable.

Clamshell containers may be PET 1, PP 5, or PS 6 (polystyrene.) The latter, known as thermoforms, are often not accepted at recycling centers even though they carry the “chasing arrows” recycle symbol with its plastic number designation, so consumers need to check the box and perhaps opt for unpackaged produce.

At Stutzman’s Recycling, they installed three robotic arms that use optical scanners to sort the plastics in January.

“They are highly lit, and there are cameras that watch a video feed,” Shaw explained. “In a two-foot space, they take an image six times before they pick an item up, to make sure it’s real. It figures out what grade of plastic, where they want it (which bin to toss it into), and what size is required.”

The three robots are linked and self-learn, so if one figures out a positive target, it teaches the others, Shaw said.

“They are constantly getting quicker and quicker,” he said.

All three robots are lined up in about a six-foot space on a second-story conveyor line. The bots have suction cups on the end of their arms, making it easier to pick items up, but they just as often just swing across and knock an item from the moving line into the appropriate bin.

One robot is programmed to identify PET, one HPDE, and the third both.

Watching material move through the line, it’s clear the crushed bottles are harder to identify, and thermoform generally is ignored.

Black plastic containers are also universally rejected, Shaw said, because the optical scanners can’t read them.

At the Stutzman facility, which employs 12 people full time and operates from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, the process starts with loads brought in by collection trucks dumped in a corner of the building. A massive loader then scoops up a load and dumps it on the conveyor belt.

After passing by the human pickers, the system sorts out cardboard and paper, dropping them into bins.

“Paper products, cardboard and paper, are 60% of our volume,” Shaw said.

The facility takes in about 564 tons of mixed paper and 400 tons of cardboard per month. Father’s Day and Christmas are their highest volumes of cardboard, though the level of increased shipping, in recent years, has pushed numbers up year-round.

It’s also the product that takes the shortest trip to its processing destination, to Sonoco, 100 N. Halstead St., on the east side of Hutchinson.

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The Sonoco Hutchinson Paper Mill, which creates 100% recycled products, opened in 1909. It’s been through several owners and was most recently purchased by Sonoco from Republic Paperboard in 2001.

The plant takes in about 320 tons of paper and cardboard every day, of which about 295 tons a day become products, and about 10% is waste, said plant manager Terry Dixon.

The paper is turned into a slurry, which goes into paper machines that roll out the product in various thicknesses.

 “I can’t give you an exact number (of products manufactured there) but there are dozens of grades of paper,” said Dixon, who is relatively new to the plant, moving here from Ohio. “It’s all called paperboard and is brown, not like office copy paper. It’s anywhere from 12-point to 25 or 30 mils.”

Most of Sonoco's product goes into industrial packaging, from cardboard for boxes to food-grade tubes, used for biscuits and orange juice, and into cardboard cores for wrapping paper and other rolled products.

At the Stutzman operation, after the plastic-sorting robots, the conveyor moves past some high-powered magnets, which cause the passing aluminum cans to be ejected and thrown into a tube at the end of the conveyor before it makes a turn with the remaining materials.

The factory processes about 20 tons of aluminum a month.

Besides paper and plastic, the plant receives about 40 to 60 tons of tin cans per month, with higher amounts in winter when more people eat soup and cook at home, and about 200 tons of glass.

Like paper, glass has a local market, Shaw said. It's shipped to Johns Manville in McPherson, where it's turned into fiberglass insulation. There are no limits on glass they can take except for windshields or similar glass with plastic film between its layers.

On average, said plant operator Brian Devlin, they create four bales of PTE per day, three each of tin and aluminum.

When material not sorted out by the workers or machines reaches the end of the line, a backhoe operator carries it back around for a second run through the machinery. What’s left then goes to the county landfill.

Only about 10% of the materials processed in Hutchinson, or about 133 tons a month, are from local collections. The plant also receives recyclables from Wichita and several surrounding counties.

While neither Shaw nor the city utility department could say what percentage of residents recycle, since the service isn't billed, Shaw said Hutchinson residents who do recycle “are loyal to it.”

“It fluctuates from season to season,” he said, with glass up in winter and aluminum down and vice versa in summer, but overall recycle levels “are pretty stable.

If you live in Hutchinson and you would like to sign up for recycling, you will need to visit the City of Hutchinson utility billing office or call 620-694-2621. Otherwise, you can call Stutzman's at 620-662-2559 or Nisly Brothers at 620-6626561.