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I Want a Pony: Recycling Logistics, Part 1

Wanting to divert something is very different than being able to viably do so. Without an understanding of logistics, you run the risk that your recycling/solid waste/sustainable materials management master plan has little more viability than a condo-dwelling child’s “I want a pony” wish list to Santa.

Hopefully if you have been reading this blog for a while, you recognize that for recycling to happen, you need at least two parties involved. On one end you need someone discarding an item that is willing to divert the item somewhere other than the trash. On the other end, you need a mill that is willing to use the discarded material to manufacture a new product. But for recycling to be viable, there are a lot of steps in between. Those steps are logistics. Logistics involves transportation, storage, processing and all of the other little considerations in between the waste generator and the mill. Understanding a little bit about those logistics can go a long way toward developing successful programs or assessing the viability of systems proposed to you by a salesperson.

Shipping Logistics

Just because a mill wants something and you want to give it to them doesn’t mean that you can viably do so. You have to figure out how to get it to them. To begin to understand these shipping logistics, start at the mill and work backwards.

If you are fortunate enough to live near a mill, you might be able to deliver stuff to the mill in any vehicle. Otherwise, you are probably looking at shipping material to the mill via tractor trailer. That means that you are going to need to have enough stuff to fill a tractor trailer, or you are going to need to work with a broker who can aggregate your smaller loads with someone else’s to get a full tractor trailer load.

If you are going to work in tractor trailer load quantities, one of the first things to consider is the length and maneuvering room required for a truck. Tractor trailers come in a variety of sizes, but the two most common are 48’ trailers or 53’ trailers. Combined with the length of the truck pulling the trailer, you are looking at a maximum length of up to 80 feet. That means that wherever you are going to have your trucker pick up from, you are going to need an area large enough for that up-to-80-foot-long tractor trailer to maneuver. I have seen truckers do amazing things, but if you’re looking at an access area that is essentially a paved donkey path that you can barely fit a box van into, there is a significant likelihood that you are not getting a truck with a 53’ trailer into that space.

Another thing that you have to consider is how you are going to load the trailer. Trailers come in several different heights and configurations. However, none of those is level with the ground. Thus, you are going to have to get stuff off the ground to get it into your trailer. How you do so may depend on what type of trailer you are loading. To over-generalize, there are three main types:

Box trailers are essentially that; a big long rectangular box on wheels. These typically load from the rear. To load a box trailer, you are going to need to not just lift stuff onto the trailer you are going to need to move it from the rear of the trailer to the front. Some truckers will have their own pallet jack inside their trailer to move materials from the rear of the truck to the front. Others will expect you to do that for them. Be sure to communicate clearly with your shipping company to make sure you know which – it will avoid a LOT of headaches, frustration, and confusion when they get there. Box trailers work best when they pick up from a loading dock. Such loading docks are designed to be already-level with the height of the trailer so that materials can be easily loaded from the loading dock right up to the front of the trailer. At least roughly level. However keep in mind that there is a gap between your loading dock and the trailer, and often at least some small height difference between the loading dock and the trailer. As a result, you will need to have something to cover that gap and let you load stuff directly into the trailer, either a hydraulic dock leveler or a dock plate that is put in place manually.

If you do not have a loading dock, there are essentially two other options to loading a box trailer. One is to have a ramp that is sufficiently heavy duty and with a mild enough slope to support whatever sort of forklift or other mechanism you are using to load the trailer. And remember that you will still need some sort of plate or dock leveler to bridge the gap between the end of your ramp and the beginning of the trailer. The other option if you don’t have a loading dock or ramp is a 2-stage loading process in which one person (or crew if you are loading manually) lifts stuff from the ground to the back of the trailer and another person or crew staged inside the trailer moves stuff from the back of the trailer to the front.

A flatbed trailer is essentially a long flat platform on wheels. The advantage of a flatbed trailer is that because it does not have side walls, it can be loaded from the side. If you don’t have a loading dock, that can be an advantage because you can use a forklift to evenly load the trailer without needing a supplemental person with a pallet jack on the trailer to move stuff from the back to the front. However, because a flatbed trailer does not have side walls, it requires a lot of extra strapping to keep your cargo in place and may not be a viable option for shipping looser materials.

A third option is a dump trailer. This is essentially an oversized dump truck and may be your best option for hauling loose materials. Dump trailers often load from the top (like a dump truck or roll-off container). As such, they are most effective in areas where you have a significant grade separation and can build a retaining wall that lets you dump material from a higher elevation down into the dump trailer.

The other big consideration with shipping is weight. Shipping is an entire industry with a lot of variations, but as a general rule, your maximum gross vehicle weight (the weight of the truck and all its cargo) allowed in most areas of the U.S. without special permits is 80,000 lbs or 40 tons. From that, you have to deduct the weight of the truck and the empty trailer. That means from that 40 tons, you are going to lose somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 tons for the weight of the truck and about 6 tons for the weight of the trailer. Thus, your maximum weight available for cargo is somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 tons.If you have a baler that can produce a “mill-direct” 1,000 lb bale, you are looking at about 40-50 bales per truckload, depending on the size of your trailer.

Thus, to ship stuff to a mill, you are looking at needing to have accumulated 20-25 tons of something. That may impact your ability to actually recycle something even if there is a market to do so. Take something like plastic bags which have a viable end-market in the plastic lumber industry. Given that each bag weights only about 4-5 grams, you need a LOT of plastic bags to get to 20 tons (somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million bags). In all likelihood, that means that you are going to need to work with others if you want to get your bags recycled.

The other thing to keep in mind is the cost of shipping. If your total cargo is in the neighborhood of 20-25 tons, every $100 in shipping cost will add $4-5/ton. If you have something with a really low density (e.g. Styrofoam) or something that you couldn’t bale such that you have a lot of wasted airspace in your cargo, your cost per ton can go up accordingly. As a result, another school that is in closer proximity to a mill may be able to recycle something that you viably cannot. That is not an issue of lack of standardization or green-washing or cosmic conspiracy or any of the other theories I have heard over the years. It is a simple matter of logistics. If you want a pony in a condo, you might have to settle for a toy one.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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