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How the right baler can maximize the value of your recyclable materials

By Todd Wondrow, Contributor

Horizontal balers pack more material into every bale, resulting in high bale densities that maximize baling, storage and shipping efficiency.

Looking back over years of business, one thing that stands out is how much things have changed. It may sound cliché but it’s happening whether we welcome it or not.

If you operate a distribution or manufacturing facility generating cardboard, plastic or related byproduct, you likely have experienced some unwelcome changes recently getting rid of this material. For years you’d gotten used to seeing compactor load after load hauled away and expecting a check paying you for this material. Then one day your AP department calls and says, “we used to get a credit on our trash bill for our cardboard, and now they are charging us for each load.”

“I’m on it,” you say. And after a phone call with your hauler discussing things like Yellow Sheet, Operation Green Fence and Operation National Sword you reluctantly watch this revenue center evaporate like a mirage, replaced with a cost center that you now must answer for. Yes, material prices have seen wild fluctuation and even historic lows over the last few years and all signs indicate that it will remain a buyer’s market.

Even if this was not your scenario and you are already baling your byproducts, depending on your equipment you may still be experiencing the same financial impact of these market changes. Regardless of the material markets, improperly applied vertical or horizontal balers and compactors will manifest in high labor costs, lost time & injuries, employee turnover, maintenance costs and wasted floor space.

Finding a Solution

So, what’s the answer? One important factor to avoid disposal costs and even maximize revenue recovery is to give your customer what they want. The customer in this case is the receiving mill and maximizing value for them means supplying bales that meet mill spec sizes, weights and cleanliness standards. Some horizontal balers, most vertical balers and all compactors compress materials into a form that most pulp or plastic mills cannot accept. Materials processed in these machines don’t command full commodity prices because they require reprocessing by a third-party recycler who gets paid for that service. Processing your own materials in a baler making mill spec bales will maximize the value of your recyclable materials.

Other important factors include reducing operating cost through the elimination of waste. This is not the waste the recycling industry is typically known for. The kind of waste I am referring to is value stream waste, and most distribution and manufacturing operations are already applying lean principles to their business to eliminate it. Elimination of wasted labor/motion, processing, waiting, transportation, etc. is what we are after. The good news is that some of the equipment capable of meeting the mill specs referenced earlier also reduces the wastes we’re rooting out.

Balers are too complex to boil down into a two page “Five steps to selecting the right baler” article, but let’s look at some characteristics to help accomplish the above goals. We will concentrate on characteristics of your business and leave the specific baler type and model options for discussions with your sales consultant.

Choosing the Right Baler

To make sure your new baler is truly an asset to your business there must be a series of questions and answers to ensure your baler supplier understands your operation. The right questions bring to light opportunities you may not have considered. At Maren Engineering we err on the side of too many questions, but in the end, this helps hit the mark with a system that performs. Examples like a national consumer products retailer who went from a combination of compacting and baling over three shifts with 15 employees, to baling mill spec bales with three employees. Or a fiber processor who increased bale weights and throughput while also reducing horsepower, wire usage and energy consumption.

  • Cardboard is not cardboard! Make sure you represent your material accurately. A distribution center processing empty whole boxes from a pick/pack line can have input density 10x less than a general recycler feeding flattened corrugated into the same model baler. This means that brochures and contacted references may claim throughputs of X tons per hour, while D.C.s may achieve only 10% of that throughput. This makes baler cycle time a critical factor in whole box processing. Ask your supplier to present the data showing how their baler will perform.
  • Density can be a double-edged sword. You’ve selected a baler fast enough to process the low-density stream of boxes, but is it always whole boxes? If work areas accumulate flattened and stacked cardboard in carts or boxes, this requires that your baler have the shearing power to cut through charges of high-density stacked cardboard. This is one of the common equipment miss-applications we encounter. Value-priced “DC balers” without shear blades are unable to shear through material that is an occasional but regular part of the recycling stream. This ultimately creates significant waste and downtime to lockout-tagout for operators and staff to access the baling chamber and clear jams.
  • How big is big? Know your box or product sizes and don’t fail to account for the large stuff you “don’t get very often.” Too often a baler is sized for the average size product but won’t accept the larger spectrum of product. If the larger product you don’t get often is only once per hour this still leads to eight chances every shift that the baler will likely experience a jam and again require lockout-tagout, and operator intervention.
  • Compare efficiency. Ask your sales consultant to help you understand efficiency difference between any baler they propose vs. your current baler and others you’re considering. Efficiency should consider the compressing force, speed, energy consumption, operator labor requirements, etc.
  • Sweat the small stuff! Some of the most significant benefits of a great baler vs. a good baler are how well it is designed for safety and the occasional (but required) tasks like cleanout, lubrication, wire changes and maintenance access.
  • Don’t forget about shipping. An important part of the consultant’s role is to show you how the baler will make proper mill weights, but also supply loading schemes for filling a trailer. Efficient bale loading schemes not only eliminate wasted time but can also eliminate equipment damage and accidents.

Taking the above items into account is just the start of the baler selection process. Today when it’s common to do your own research and click “buy it now,” capital equipment is still an avenue best traveled with some expert guidance. Lean on and seek advice from your factory and dealer representatives, and the references they supply. WMHS

Todd Wondrow is President of Maren Engineering, an Illinois-based manufacturer of recycling balers for a variety of materials, including commercial by-products and post-consumer recyclables. Maren Engineering’s balers handle high volumes of material with low labor inputs, creating high quality and quantity recycled materials (

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