Handling it differently

Features - Equipment Focus | Material Handlers

Many transfer stations and material recovery facilities throughout the U.S. are dropping traditional loading and sorting equipment for a material handler.

February 10, 2017

© Dejan Lazarevic | Dreamstime.com

In the typical transfer station or material recovery facility (MRF), pieces of equipment like skid steers and loaders are used to rummage through waste to retrieve recyclables or bigger items that may cause problems for a processing system. They can also be used to load waste onto trucks, hoppers or bins.

Recently, some transfer stations and MRFs are taking a different approach to loading applications by using material handlers. It is a decision that appears to be paying off.

“Loading the system with a material handler was one of the best things we ever did,” Riel Johnson, general manager of Athens Services’ Sun Valley MRF in Sun Valley, California, says. “The material handler sips fuel, doesn’t wear out the tires and does a phenomenal job preprocessing the waste for the system’s infeeds.”


Athens Services uses material handlers at two of its MRFs—located in City of Industry, California, and Sun Valley. At the City of Industry MRF, two Builtrite 2100 electric material handlers sort through waste, while one Caterpillar diesel-powered M322D does the job in Sun Valley.

The Sun Valley MRF separates 1,500 tons per day of municipal solid waste (MSW), including single family, multifamily and commercial waste streams in Southern California. Its custom system from Bulk Handling Systems (BHS), Eugene, Oregon, is housed in a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified facility with a solar-powered collection system.

The City of Industry MRF can process up to 5,000 tons of mixed materials per day and houses a dedicated food waste line to process and remove contaminants from organics before being delivered to the company’s composting facility, American Organics in Victorville, California.

The Builtrites at the City of Industry facility were installed when the facility first opened 20 years ago. That is because the tunnel is too deep for the loaders to distribute waste evenly within transfer trucks, says Johnson. Ten years ago, Athens Services rebuilt and replaced them and is currently assessing whether the units need to be replaced or rebuilt again.

At the City of Industry MRF, handlers are used to level out loads of material as the transfer trucks are top loaded in the tunnel, Johnson says. A loader pushes the material into the top of the trailer until the load reaches the desired weight as shown by digital axle scale readouts.

An operator then remotely runs the grizzly to get the maximum amount of allowable waste into each load while ensuring the axle weights meet California Department of Transportation specifications.

At the Sun Valley MRF, the Cat material handler is used to tamp and adjust the weights of the loads in the tunnel, as well as to feed waste into the mixed waste processing system at “a very even pace,” according to Johnson. “This makes for a smooth and level burden on the sorting conveyors, maximizing our potential recovery from the waste.”

Johnson recalls an incident when a concrete headstone that weighed hundreds of pounds accidentally made its way onto the conveyor. Employees had to use sledgehammers to break it down for processing.

“With the material handler, the operator will see that and pull it out,” Johnson says. “It also pulls out long, stringy items [that would increase downtime if processed], while the elevated cab allows operators to fluff and massage the material for a steady flow.”

At Athens Services, operators with more experience tend to fare better with using material handlers in this application than those who may be newer, according to Johnson.

“It takes a special operator to work these machines in tight spots and keep up with production,” he says. “The key is to get experienced hands to run these.”

It could take years for a less experienced operator to learn how to properly use a material handler in a MRF, but some of them are more adept than others and are able to change their habits with the changing technology, according to Johnson.

“Sometimes it’s easier to start at ground zero with a guy you can teach,” Johnson notes.


Ken Stewart, operations manager at Recology SF in San Francisco also uses Builtrites. Recology has three operating companies—two residential and commercial collection facilities and a transfer station.

The company also offers drop-off services for items that can’t be picked up at the curb, such as household hazardous waste, electronics, expired medications, cooking oil, paint and batteries.

At the transfer station, two Builtrite 3300s run 20 hours per day adjusting weight and loads on outbound materials to meet state specifications. The company uses a Cat D8 to topload trailers.

“It takes a special operator to work these machines in tight spots and keep up with production. The key is to get experienced hands to run these. Sometimes it’s easier to start at ground zero with a guy you can teach.” – Riel Johnson, Athens Services

According to Stewart, the material handlers help Recology maximize its weight per unit on everything that it trucks out.

Recology has used material handlers at its facility for more than 25 years. The company used a different handler in 1970, but with changing technology, went with Builtrite in 1984.

“We designed these handlers for our specific application,” Stewart says. “We took the time to look at specific pieces of equipment and technology.”

With swivel and torrent-mount designs and an elevated cab, the Builtrites provide extra visibility and flexibility, helping to decrease downtime.

“I didn’t just take any piece of equipment and stick it in there,” Stewart explains. “Someone may try to use a unit in two different applications and it may work better in one application than the other. These were specifically designed for us.”

Stewart brought in experienced operators to lend a hand with those who aren’t as experienced using a material handler in this applications, but much like Johnson’s case, ease of training an operator depends on the individual being trained.

“Some get it, some don’t,” Stewart says. “I’m not going to force someone to sit in that seat if they don’t want to.”

At Recology, training can last two to three weeks, or even a month, depending on how quickly an operator can get comfortable using the equipment.

Stewart says he is currently speaking with Builtrite to purchase more material handlers for more projects. He notes other than a broken hose from time to time, the handlers wear well in Recology’s transfer station.

“Builtrite makes a variety of different sizes that you can order specifically for your operation,” he says. “I’m happy with my applications.”


Ukian, California-based C&S Waste Solutions’ Lake County transfer station and its nearby scrap yard both use material handlers.

The transfer station accepts an assortment of materials, including MSW; wood and green waste; construction and demolition debris; appliances; tires; furniture; scrap metals; and standard recyclables such as cardboard; paper; glass; metal and plastic containers; motor oil and filters; batteries and electronics. The materials delivered to the tipping floor are sorted, and recyclables are extracted.

Bruce McCracken, partner at C&S Waste Solutions, uses two material handlers by Fuchs, Southaven, Mississippi. A 320D is used at the transfer station in Lake County, while a 350D is employed at the scrap yard.

“At the transfer station, we use the handlers to load garbage and recycling into the trucks,” McCracken says. “When not loading, operators are using the handlers to move the material into separate piles.”

A similar operation occurs at the scrap yard, according to McCracken. A truck comes in and dumps the material out. The operator sorts through the material, organizing it by type, such as copper or stainless, rather than grade.

Material handlers work the best for transfer stations on the West Coast because the transfer stations are either lifted through tunnels or built on top of tunnels, McCracken says.

For C&S Waste Solutions, digging down to the tunnels or filling the tunnels was too costly, so the company had to look for an alternative. “It saved us a lot of money,” McCracken says.

Operators can see more of the area with an elevated cab, a positive for both efficient sorting and safety. “If someone is walking by them or if there’s a vehicle, they can see it,” he says.

For operators to “do it right and correctly,” according to McCracken, training takes about two weeks.

“The operators came in from using wheel loaders and perhaps they were a little apprehensive at first, but they really grew to like them,” he says. “Material handlers are a versatile machine. You can use them in different applications, and the operators really like them. That’s important to us.”

The author is assistant editor of Waste Today and can be reached at hcrisan@gie.net.