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SWAC talks MRFs

Thursday, October 15, 2009 by Mark Richardson

The City of Austin is looking to get back into the MRF (pronounced murph) business again after a not-so-graceful exit from the process just over a year ago. MRF stands for Materials Recycling Facility, and city officials reviewed and sought input on a request for proposal (RFP) for a public-private partnership to build and operate such a facility last night at the Solid Waste Advisory Commission.


In September 2008, the city cancelled a contract with R.W. Beck engineers to design a MRF for the city’s new Single Stream recycling program. However, with the program running late and over budget, Solid Waste Services pulled the plug on the project and contracted with Greenstar North America to pick up the city’s recycling and haul it to an out-of-town MRF for processing.


SWS officials have reported an increase in the volume of materials collected under the Single Stream Program and are projecting they will collect some 57,000 tons of recycling in 2012.


A MRF is an automated facility that separates collected recyclable materials into various commodities – such as paper, glass, and plastic – which can then be sold as raw materials to be recycled into products. The city’s contract with Greenstar has been called into question by several groups, particularly environmentalists, who point out that the city is losing money through the cost of hauling the materials out of town (Dallas, San Antonio) and say the rates Greenstar is paying for the recyclables is well below what they pay to other Texas cities for similar services.


At Wednesday’s SWAC meeting, David Smythe-Macauley with the Public Works Department told the commission that his presentation was a follow-up to a September presentation by R.W. Beck on the feasibility that a MRF could be built and operated through a public-private partnership. Such an arrangement was not a part of the city’s earlier plans that were scuttled last year. 


Smythe-Macauley said that in the RFP, the city is seeking a private processor who will “work collaboratively with the city to increase diversion rates from landfills, enhance the overall cost-effectiveness of the program, and enhance community awareness for recycling.”


“The city is looking for proposals that will meet certain criteria, but we are also looking for proposals that will outline some alternative ways to accomplish our goals,” he said. “That’s why we have written the RPF to be as broad as possible in terms of what we are looking for. We want to see a lot of creative ideas in these proposals.” 


Smythe-Macauley will also be making stops in the next few weeks at the Resource Management Commission, the Environmental Board, and the Sustainable Food Policy Board before it advertises the RFP on Nov. 9.


As originally written, the RFP contains six major areas of evaluation criteria, including:


  • Community values;
  • Cost considerations;
  • Proponent and personnel experience, and qualifications;
  • Implementation schedule considerations;
  • Operational, facility, and equipment considerations; and
  • Proponent financial considerations.

He said that once the applicants are evaluated and pared down to a short list of two or three, the finalists would be invited to make presentations to the City Council before it makes a final selection.


Commissioner Bob Schafer was concerned about the open-ended nature of the RFP, saying that there ought to be some performance-based incentives in the mix.


“We need to make sure that there are some criteria they have to meet in this process that address the scope of the work,” he said, adding that without those, “it might be difficult to assess the proposals.”


Co-chair Rick Cofer also suggested that the city devise a way for citizens to make comments on the finalists’ presentations and have their input count toward the final selection of a contractor.   


Smythe-Macauley said he would take that suggestion, along with the others, to the Public Works Department, which is handling the RFP, where they would be considered for inclusion.


After the city advertises the RPF, the pre-proposal meeting will be held Nov. 20, with proposals due Jan. 4, 2010. Short-list presentations to the Council will happen in March, with a council decision set for April and execution of a contract in May or June.


Greenstar’s hauling contract is set to expire in September 2010, with two one-year extension options available. City officials say the new facility could be up and running by late 2011 or early 2012.

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