Integrated system: Mulch and topsoil fit the bill in Florida

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Company offers a recycled alternative to cypress mulch and processes fines for soil blends. As the owner of a civil engineering firm and partner in a development company in Florida, Tim Jelus has plenty of experience with organic residuals generated by land clearing and construction and demolition (C&D) projects. A few years ago, he saw this material as an opportunity for a recycling business, especially since a county operation was the only game in town for C&D debris recovery. “In Florida, the dominant landscaping material is cypress mulch,” says Jelus, who named his company Florida Recyclers of Brevard, Inc. “That requires a slow growth tree to make an annually decaying product. We thought that we could take waste currently going to the landfill and generate a similarly performing or superior product at less cost. The idea was to generate a profit on the incoming and outgoing sides.”
Located in Melbourne, Florida Recyclers monthly receives and processes 10,000 cubic yards (cy) of land clearing material, 2,000 tons of construction and demolition debris, and 9,000 tons of yard trimmings from a county contract. Materials at the company’s 40-acre site are received for tipping fees of no more than $25/cy for C&D debris, $20/cy for yard trimmings, and $5/cy for land clearing material.

Sorting Loads

 Construction and demolition debris is unloaded at the site by roll-off trucks, then spread out with a loader. Several workers separate contaminants, metal, cardboard and wood by hand. “We find all sorts of things — mattresses, shopping carts, paint buckets,” says Jelus. “It’s a difficult thing to police the hauler. The real point of policing is at the construction site, where subcontractors often are not versed in solid waste law. Then there are the drive-by violators who throw their trash in the nearest dumpster.” Florida Recyclers does not expect haulers to be able to keep unauthorized materials out of the roll-off boxes, which is why it employs the painstaking method of manual sorting. Contaminants are placed in roll-offs and disposed at the county’s landfill.

The loads contain an estimated 60 percent wood by weight. Recovered metal brings in revenue as scrap, but cardboard is a break-even situation due to the depressed market for it. “There’s a family-run business able to stockpile cardboard and wait for the price to go up,” says Jelus. “We extract that for him as a courtesy. It’s kind of silly to landfill it; my labor is out there every day anyway.”

Wood comprises about 80 percent of the land clearing loads, which consist mainly of oak, heavy pine and palmetto. Only about 20 percent of the yard trimmings volume is wood. After customers drop off materials, a loader takes them to stockpiles, with some shuffling required. Heavy woods and stumps from land clearing projects, for example, are moved for grinding with the kiln-dried C&D wood. “If you have nothing but land clearing debris, it’s not aged wood and doesn’t accept the mulch dye well,” says Jelus. “If you have only kiln-dried wood, it accepts too much dye and the product is a lot lighter and decomposes more quickly. Using a blend gives longevity and color.”

When enough materials have accumulated, they are processed continually until the supply dwindles down. A track loader with a grappling hook feeds material into an integrated array of Morbark equipment that runs about eight hours daily, five days/week. Material is loaded into the grinder’s 14-foot tub, then directed into a trommel screen by an attached conveyer deck. The trommel continuously feeds chips between two and three-eighths inches to a coloring machine, which produces red and brown mulch. Overs from the screen are sold as less expensive mulch for heavy users who don’t need a fine product, or run back through the process. The fines are mixed with yard trimmings fines to make topsoil. A loader stockpiles the colored chips or loads them for delivery. Three or four times each week, trucks take mulch to a bagging plant.

The dominant product in the market, cypress mulch, typically loses its color in six months, according to Jelus, whereas the iron oxide dye in the colored mulch adheres to the wood longer. “I tell the customers two years to be safe, although the manufacturers say three to five,” he says. Mulch is sold wholesale at $15 to $18/cy for the high-end product and $9 to $11/cy for the larger mulch.

After all mulch is processed, the coloring machine is detached so yard trimmings piles can be ground. “There are a lot of palm fronds and plants high in water,” says Jelus. “Since there’s not a lot of wood to them and plenty of leaves mixed in, there are more fines. The blending of this more nitrogen-based material with the fines from the carbon-based C&D allows for more natural decomposition in our topsoil product.”

The topsoil materials are placed in static piles about eight feet high, ten feet wide and 40 feet long. The piles are watered occasionally, although most moisture is provided by the humid environment. After three months, the materials are screened in preparation for sale at $5 to $7/cy.

The greatest challenge of the entire operation, says Jelus, is dealing with differences in products and lack of uniform standards. “We do a lot of tinkering with equipment and blending of incoming material to get a uniform, consistent final product,” he explains, citing adjustments made in areas such as equipment speed, screen size in the grinder and trommel, proportions of kiln-dried wood mixed with land clearing wood, pounds of coloring agent per batch, etc. “When you bite into Nestle Crunch bar, it tastes the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. I would like my people and machines to generate recycled products that are the same in every batch. Due to the matrix of variables and very few constants, achieving that is a challenge. But if you generate it, buyers will come. We had to slow the process down and say we’re not ready to sell yet, because I don’t want to put stuff on the streets that I’m not happy with. You only have one shot at your reputation.”

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