L.A. recycling program benefits from planning, team work, equipment choices

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Few major metropolitan areas generate and recycle the volumes of yard trimmings as the City of Los Angeles. On any given day, an average of 1500 tons of yard trimmings are collected and - as a result of a comprehensive program, a commitment by those involved in the program and solid equipment choices made to carry it out - more than 300 tons of that daily total are diverted and processed for use in and around the LA Basin. The program responsible for this impressive accomplishment, 'the Van Norman Yard Trimmings Recycling Project,' has significantly reduced the city's green waste recycling cost and has played a key role in helping the city meet state mandated recycling targets.

Building on a Good Idea

Because the City spends more than $40 million annually to dispose of refuse - $16 million of which is targeted for green waste disposal alone - the Van Norman project was somewhat born out of a desire to cut costs through innovation, according to Antoine Raphael, Program Manager for L.A.'s Solid Resources Collection Division.

'Municipalities must not be afraid to shed old ideas in favor of innovative ones,' he says. 'Just because you've been doing things one way for a long time does not mean you are locked into doing it that way forever.'

'We obviously wanted a way to bring those disposal costs down,' adds John de la Rosa, Manager of the Bureau of Sanitation Solid Resources Collection Division, 'and we had some ideas from which to pull. Since late 1993, the Street Tree Division of the Bureau of Street Services (Street Services) had been operating a program which took tree trimmings and brush collected by City crews and created a spread-ready mulch for use as a weed abatement and moisture retention agent at a site owned by the Department of Water and Power (DWP). It was simple in design, but it nevertheless saved the City $300,000 the first year and paved the way for us to develop the program further.'

That initial step was a joint venture between Street Services and the DWP. As a part of that agreement, Street Services agreed to process the DWP's tree trimmings in exchange for land at their Van Norman Reservoir on which the recycling program could be better implemented. As a result of that agreement, DWP was able to save better than $275,000 a year in disposal costs. The final piece which made the project what it is today involved yet another venture, this time with the Bureau of Sanitation which collects yard trimmings from approximately 720,000 homes in the metropolitan area.

Explains Raphael: 'At that time, in 1997, we were paying commercial contractors anywhere from $30 to $40 per ton to take the material off our hands so that seemed a very good place to improve the system. So, in January of 1998 we set the Project into motion, though in its infancy it looked very little like what we have in place today.'

Tools to Do it Right

While Raphael is extremely proud of the effort put forth by everyone involved in the Van Norman project - management and onsite personnel alike - he is equally quick to point out that the program's success is also due in large part to the ability of the onsite equipment to generate the volumes of mulch needed.

'When we started in earnest in 1998, we were taking in material, laying it on the ground and picking and sorting through it by hand. It's important to note that, at this point, there was no money or budget allocated for an operation such as this. That was when we contacted grinder manufacturer Morbark, Inc. (Winn, MI). We negotiated an agreement that was perfectly suited to our situation at the time. We discussed our processing needs and the equipment needed to make it happen and Morbark was willing to give us the equipment on a cost-free, trial basis for six months. The agreement simply stated that if the project panned out as we anticipated, we would purchase the equipment - if not, there was no commitment on the part of the city to buy the equipment. It was a win win situation for us.'

The equipment in question included a Morbark 1300 tub grinder, a Morbark Model 737 trommel screen and a Morbark picking station. 'There's little doubt that being able to start out in that manner played a key role in getting us off the ground,' says Raphael. 'There is also little doubt that the equipment made all the difference either. Just adding the picking station alone, I feel, took us from 100 tons per day (tpd) to 240 tpd. You simply cannot get anywhere near the same level of efficiency by spreading material on the ground and having people go through it. That facet of the operation is so thorough that we are removing about 99% of the contaminants from the stream per month. We had people sorting through piles of unseparated material which is, itself, a hazard. However, you add to that loaders driving in between the workers trying to spread the material and it is literally an accident waiting to happen. What we have in place now is safe, it's efficient and, as we are finding out from year to year, it is increasingly cost-effective.'

A Site for Sore Eyes

Each day, more than 240 tons of yard trimmings from Sanitation enters the Van Norman site in Bureau of Sanitation automated side-loader trucks and is dumped in a staging area adjacent to the trommel screen. Additionally, Street Services and DWP crews deliver about 100 per day of brush and tree trimmings which are taken directly to a Morbark Model 1300 tub grinder located onsite. The Sanitation yard trimmings are picked up by loader and placed in a trough feeding the trommel screen, The Van Norman operation's trommel is currently used strictly for separating out fines in preparation for hand-sorting/picking, but that is being looked at as well, says Matt Wood, Site Superintendent at Van Norman.

'The trommel is set to screen out material in the 1 1/2-inch size and smaller,' he says. 'That instantly removes about half the material from the stream, thereby easing the burden on the hand-sorting operation. However, we are in the process of awarding a contract for the purchase of the second trommel which, we feel, would allow us to produce a different mesh size to increase our tonnages and, more importantly, produce different product and material to broaden our markets.'

Material exits the picking station onto the ground and moved by loader to the grinding area. There, the Morbark tub grinder equipped with a 29-foot knuckleboom loader and 360 degrees rotating grapple, feeds material in for grinding. According to Wood, the Model 1300 has proven a real workhorse in the operation and has repeatedly processed material in excess of three-feet in diameter, without so much as slowing down. Ground material is moved by loader to a ramp area from which trailers are loaded to a maximum of 20 tons and dispatched to spread the newly-created mulch.

To Market, To Market

While the project allows use of 20% to 30% of the mulch at the immediate reservoir site, the remainder of the 350 tons of material generated at Van Norman on a daily basis is hauled to a number of locations throughout the metropolitan area, says Raphael.

'The mulch is welcomed by other departments such as Recreation and Parks, at the Los Angeles Zoo, at the Hyperion Water Treatment Facility, by the Los Angeles School District, and by farmers in Ventura County who find its ability to retain moisture extremely valuable in reducing their water usage. We try to reach that market and generate interest by giving presentations at farming and agricultural associations and so far it seems to be working. In addition, we are also starting to branch out to other areas such as Palmdale and some of the other desert regions.'

Mulch generated by the Van Norman project is given away, rather than sold, even to customers outside of the department. Raphael feels the savings the Bureau is realizing from within are sufficient without the need for an income-generating product.

'Since the start of the project, we have been operating on a tight budget. For example, with the exception of the capital equipment which is amortized over seven to ten years through bond money, most of the staff we have onsite came from within the Bureau. So we didn't have to hire anyone other than a few sorters - the drivers, the equipment operators, the supervisors and so on all came from within. Even many of the trucks we now use to haul the material were vehicles that we were slated for salvage. All these things allowed us to start up and continue to run as cost-effectively as possible.

'Really, however, the difference has been in being able to put a successful team together. Matt Wood and I have seen this operation grow from one with a goal to do 150 tons a day of just Sanitation material to one in which we regularly exceed 240 tons. That is testimony to the outstanding level of performance from everyone involved in the project. There is genuine level of commitment on the part of every worker and that, coupled with the performance of the equipment onsite has allowed us to make the gains we have - including winning the 1999 Productivity Improvement Award presented by the Mayor's office.'

According to Drew Scones, Director of the Bureau of Sanitation, The Bureau has already expanded the scope of the operation.

'We've set a similar project in place at the Harbor District through the purchase of a trommel and picking station which will support a Morbark grinder we have at that site. We are very confident we can have the same success there we've enjoyed at Van Norman.

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