Back to Top

Maximize your retrofit

Published: May 14, 2020


This article appeared in the April 2020 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.

Facility upgrades are practically a cost of doing business in today’s recycling industry. MRF operators, industry groups and legislators are continuing to look for ways to cut waste, improve environmental sustainability, and remain profitable amid this period of change.

Common structural changes at facilities include adding new lines to handle different types of material, upgrading to more modern machinery to improve efficiency, investing in robots to support sorting and baling, and consolidating two or more MRFs into a single operation to reduce costs.

The goal for any plant investing in technology and machinery enhancements is to produce marketable material at a quality and volume that achieves a net positive cost per ton. What can happen, however, is that MRFs get the same results as they did previously.

Why? Not because equipment is faulty, or plants are ill-equipped. It’s because the human side of process improvement isn’t accounted for.

Know the labor realities

Thoughtful planning about people starts before new equipment arrives and the transition or shutdown period begins.

Start with a plan for handling your current employees – those who leave and those who stay while you close or slow down during installation or reworking of the floor.

It’s common for operators to lose around half of their workforce when there’s significant change or when there’s downtime that lasts longer than two days. How can you ensure that your employees will be there for you after the change? Or are you OK with 80-100% turnover?

Communication is key. Keep people in the loop so they are part of the change process and let them know the plan. When employees feel like they’re part of the process, their engagement and commitment will increase through the lead-up to a change and afterward.

Also, consider the labor cost of change. Will you pay a “stay bonus” or furlough all or some of your employees? Perhaps you can repurpose or relocate these people to other tasks or locations. What’s your budget for retaining top performers?

If your MRF relies on “day labor,” it’s tempting to think you can let the current crew go and simply bring in a new group of temps when you need them. This may seem efficient, but 100% turnover means you’ll lose whatever training and experience you’ve invested in.

There’s also a reputational risk whenever you let an entire team of people go, even if they are temps. Word gets out among job seekers that you’re not a reliable employer, which can damage future recruiting efforts.

That said, it’s wise to build a recruiting plan ahead of time to ensure you have the people you need on day one of the new operation. Whether you’re hiring direct, working with a day labor company, or partnering with a full-time workforce provider, advance preparation is key.

Employee training: During and after change

Short periods of downtime create an ideal opportunity for training that prepares employees for success in a new environment.

Remember, people only know how it used to work, not how the new system or process will operate.

Equipment vendors can be valuable training partners, helping the team get to know new machines and achieve the system’s quality and production goals.

Encourage cross-functional training, including members of the management team. It supports problem-solving and allows for quick deployment of people to different assignments when needed.

Most important is the fact that training must help employees understand the big picture about their task. Commodity education, for instance, is often overlooked. If people know what they are sorting and why, productivity and revenue will improve as a result.

At the same time, speed and efficiency improvements can’t come at the expense of basic safety.

New equipment generally requires new safety training for every employee, including temps, especially around lock-out-tag-out (LOTO), emergency evacuations and walking-working surfaces.

Use periods of change to review and refresh all safety compliance topics.

For major retrofits, don’t overlook how new equipment and processes change the way employees work and move in and around the plant. Consider these areas for an in-depth safety evaluation:

  • Are there enough emergency egress routes? Are they compliant?
  • Have pedestrian routes changed? Do they conflict with forklift traffic, tip floor, or loading dock activity?
  • Have you reviewed machine guarding requirements before start-up?
  • Ensure you understand how to effectively LOTO all energy sources. Know which disconnects control what sources.
  • Consider whether your confined-space program needs updating along with changes to the plant.

Finally, sites should use this time to evaluate and update their fall protection program and conduct a new industrial hygiene survey, with special attention to noise.

Maintenance and downtime

New equipment and robotics generally work perfectly the day they’re installed – that’s the expertise and experience you’re expecting and for which you’re paying.

Then comes day two. Your team needs to know how to clean the new system’s screens and optics daily. They must be able to identify wear points on belts, shafts and bearings and know how to report potential issues.

Remember to think through how your workers will access the areas they need to maintain. Ask yourself, “Did we install maintenance platforms? Do we have adequate tie-off points for fall protection?”

Cleaning, preventive maintenance and consistent assessment are critical to the performance of a new system, and to the safety and productivity of the team. Early identification of issues and maintenance needs will reduce operational and mechanical downtime that can reduce your new system’s performance.

Small adjustments, big effects

Amid periods of structural change, MRF leaders must understand how to achieve the promised efficiencies from their new equipment or machinery.

The cost of change is always greater than the base cost of equipment, robotics or facility construction.

Getting the most out of new equipment or upgrades requires that managers, sorters and other MRF personnel are thoroughly trained. Additionally, performance needs to be measured and maintenance done on schedule. Anything short of that would be like buying an expensive sports car but not knowing how to drive.

Subtle adjustments on the people side of the equation will dramatically improve production and reduce processing time.

Bring a sense of urgency about the workforce to changes in your MRF to get the best results. It sounds simple, but if the machines aren’t running, you’re not making money.

Patrick Hudson is vice president of sales and marketing at Leadpoint Business Services. Since 2000, Leadpoint has helped recycling companies maximize their workforce and improve the productivity, efficiency and profitability of their operation with full-time employees embedded at MRFs nationwide. Find more at

Subscribe today for weekly updates

  • In addition to our e-newsletters, Resource Recycling, Inc. will occasionally send emails related to the specific recycling industry sectors you've selected. As a subscriber, your information will not be sold. You may opt-out at any time with links at the bottom of our e-mails. You may review our privacy policy at any time.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.