“RAA is investing a pretty penny here,” says Pony-tailed CEO Bryan Ukena (above, with operations manager Sean Adams). “So we gotta make it work.”

Ann Arbor’s Material Recovery Facility is a lot cleaner than the last time I saw it. Back then, a private contractor called ReCommunity was running it for the city, and dirt and garbage were everywhere. 

At the time, that seemed like a minor detail. After all, in just five years, ReCommunity had paid the city almost $3 million from the sale of recyclables processed at the MRF (pronounced “murf”). 

In hindsight, though, the company was running it into the ground. ReCommunity was force-feeding the city-owned equipment. The pace eventually wore it out and threatened workers’ safety—so in 2016, the city fired the company. 

The MRF then sat idle for the next five years except as a recyclables transfer station while the city decided what to do. Though staff suggested other options, council resolutely stuck with RAA and signed a ten-year operating contract last summer. The city committed to paying the nonprofit $152 a ton or about $2 million a year to process its recyclables and RAA spent $7.3 million reequipping the MRF.

“RAA invested a pretty penny here,” says Ukena. “So we gotta make it work.” As importantly from the city’s point of view, RAA bears the risk and liability for accidents, injuries, and legal claims related to MRF operations.

On a March press tour, the results are obvious. Though the city still owns the building’s shell and the land it sits on, RAA replaced virtually all the old equipment with new equipment from Canada’s Machinex. Though it had been operating for three months by then, it showed little more than a light layer of dust.

I’d met RAA communications director Erica Bertram in the scale house office, and she took me upstairs past vintage David Zinn wall paintings to what was the education center for class trips but is now the control office. On hand were the MRF’s ramrod straight general manager Curt Curavo and Bryan Ukena,
who’s wearing a windbreaker with the word “Dude” printed on it and a rainbow-colored hardhat. Also present was Sean Adams, the MRF’s operations manager, a big man who does most of the talking.

We walked around the building and entered the plant itself through one of four huge bays where hulking trucks dump their loads on the tipping floor and forklifts shift the material and push it onto conveyor belts. Aside from the impressive cleanliness and the shiny new equipment, the most obvious change is much brighter lighting. 

The presort room fishes out bags and other “tanglers.”

Adams also points out new video cameras seemingly everywhere and says they’re linked to closely watched monitors in the control office. He also notes the Fire Rover fire suppressant system: a dozen dedicated cameras high up on the walls, plus sensors throughout the building to detect any temperature changes plus wall mounted water cannons that can strategically shoot 1,000 gallons of water or chemicals at a fire. 

“Fires are usually caused by lithium batteries spontaneously combusting,” explains Curavo. “That hasn’t happened here but it did in Columbus, Ohio and burned the plant down.” Like Ukena, Curavo wears a rainbow-colored hardhat. The workers wear different colored hardhats to indicate their jobs plus, goggles and radios with mics as safety measures.

We walk outside past the Fire Rover itself—a huge, red tank with an alert dog’s head painted on it—to two “push and bail” bays where OCC—“old corrugated cardboard”—is presorted and direct to the bailers. Past that are rows and rows of neatly baled and stacked materials for resale. “This is our product,” Adams explains. “This is where the money is.” 

While we climb metal ladders from the tipping floor to the sorting decks, I ask about the cat family that lived in the old MRF; Adams says they were rehomed. From the floor, the unsorted new material goes up two conveyors to the presort room where half a dozen folks pull off stuff that would tangle the sorting lines like textiles and soft plastics like bags, plus wires, cords and strings of lights. Glass is removed next because it’s hard and heavy.

Adams calls the two ballistic separators “the main frame of the system.” The first separates paper from containers while the second separates fiber from containers and sorts paper from non-paper. The plastics are later separated from aluminum cans and sorted by material type. The sorted materials are then held in bunkers before baling and stacking

“This plant can do thirty tons in a single shift,” says Curavo with pride. “We have sixteen sorters, which is pretty close to the number that was on their original installation. We have three equipment operators, two onsite managers, [and] two full-time maintenance folks.” 

Like Curavo, Adams and Ukena, they’ve all got one impossible mission: to get to the unattainable goal of zero waste. In time, Curavo says, “we want it to be a model for other plants.”

Plastics make up only about 5 percent of the recycling stream.

Ukena says their zero-waste ethic distinguishes Recycle Ann Arbor’s MRF from the one run by ReCommunity. Ukena describes that as “an integrated waste management MRF” which he says means their modus operandi was “push more tons through to try to get the shareholder profits up.” 

“I was very dismayed with what ReCommunity did,” says Curavo. “I started off as a plant manager here in 2002 and spent thirteen years here” which means he left just before ReCommunity came in. Curavo’s says he came back for his fourth MRF rebuild, including one here a decade ago, because “I have a vested interest or a lot of sweat equity in this plant. Ann Arbor was looked at as a leading presence in recycling, and to have the MRF shut down for four or five years, it kind of hit home.”

The ethic is in their heads, not their contract. That’s very clear about how the income from recyclable sales is divided (as volume increases, so does the city’s  revenue). But there are no mandates for how much or little can be landfilled.

“When people think zero waste, they take it literally like it means no more waste,” says Ukena. “First of all, recycling is kind of a waste material. It gets repurposed and made to do stuff, but it still gets consumed. And what zero waste talks about is everything: the way you think about the product before you design it and put it on the market, the way it goes to market, how does it get handled to lessen the carbon footprint, and what do you make that product into so that it can be recycled again and again and again. 

“We don’t have to prove ourselves that we can recycle more tons than anybody else because we won’t. We never will. That’s not what a community-based MRF is about. It’s about how we treat those tons.”

In a follow-up email, Ukena explains that “as a zero-waste organization, we are more focused on ensuring credible authentic recycling aiming for circular recycling whenever possible and always seeking the best markets for materials. An example of this is how we handle our glass; we opt to transport our glass to Rumpke’s glass beneficiation plant in Dayton OH to be recycled back into glass containers or fiberglass, instead of using it as road base or landfill cover. We accept the additional transportation costs so that the material can be recycled to its highest value and best use. The gains of recycling glass over and over again far outweigh the transportation emissions since virgin glass production uses a lot of natural resources and emits far more emissions.” 

All that said, they’re currently seeing an average of 10 percent contamination in the material that comes in the door—all of which gets landfilled. While far from zero, that’s also far below the 25 percent national average.

Often, a recycler’s contamination is a resident’s excessive optimism about what can be recycled. Garden hoses, for example, cannot—they end up in the trash. Not long ago, someone sent them a water heater. More frequent mistakes, Ukena writes in a follow-up email, include “bagged recyclables or loose bags (bags cause many problems at the recycling facility), small electrical appliances (the cords wrap up in the equipment), other scrap metal i.e. pots and pans, poles, metal fencing etc. These items cause safety hazards to our workers. All these items can be safely recycled at the Drop Off Station” on Ellsworth. 

The Fire Rover keeps watch with cameras and temperature sensors and can blast hots spots with water or chemicals.

The new MRF’s equipment sorts recyclables faster and more cleanly than the old ones. It also can handle more of them.

It’s processing Ann Arbor’s 14,000-ton annual output right now, plus 600 tons annually from the city of Ypsilanti and another 10,000 tons brought in from the rest of the county by Republic and Waste Management. “We cover our costs at 14,000,” emails Ukena. “But then each incremental ton doesn’t bring in additional money necessarily because all the revenue from the sale of material that goes back to the city.”

RAA is looking for more tonnage. “We’re working through the county and the WWRA [Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority],” says Ukena. “We’ve done a couple presentations, [and] if they decide they wanna use this facility, man, we’re here and we want ’em to come. There are a lot of small communities that could really benefit from all working together so it lowers the cost for everybody. And that’s what we’re after.”

They’ve also been talking with the University of Michigan since the start of the year. “We did a composition analysis of their material [and] it came out with a different composition than what they originally thought,” Ukena reports. “So we went back to ’em and said, we can still honor what we said we could do, but under these certain conditions. And so they’re looking at that to see if that works for them.” Ukena has no idea when the university will reply. 

Longer term, they’re hoping to persuade the city to invest in educating households in how to minimize waste—particularly, he writes, “multi-family housing, transient student populations, language barriers, and local businesses.”

Because ultimately, he says, “we’re not gonna be able to recycle our way out of this solid waste problem. You can recycle till the cows come home, man, but you still got the same problem. You’re just recycling some more stuff. 

“So what we have to do is work on truly getting to zero waste and you can’t ever ultimately get to absolute zero where there’s actually no waste caused from beginning to end. But you can strive for zero waste!”