Recycling waste wood into valuable products made easy

Recycling waste wood  into valuable products  made easy

The recycling of wood in its many forms produces enormous environmental and commercial benefits for businesses and society as a whole. Wood recyclers vary in the ranges of products they make from waste wood — with the most common being feedstock for panel board, animal beddings (from clean wood) and biomass fuel. Wood waste itself falls into many categories, and must be treated differently depending on its size and previous use, but one of the major uses of recycled wood is in the making of compost. Composters especially prize wood as a good source of carbon-rich material that will aerate their piles and provide food for the healthy bacteria that break down organic matter. 

The recycling of wood is becoming increasingly an accepted practice. In many parts of the U.S., many communities now offer waste collection services. For instance, one such scheme in North Carolina involves waste wood being placed in bins or in biodegradable yard waste bags, or tied in bundles and left sitting at the curb. In Arkansas, tree limbs no larger than 6 feet long and 6 inches in diameter are placed besides refuse bins containing leaves, weeds and twigs. Some cities have special collection days for wood instead of regular yard waste collection, with Houston residents placing branches and stumps beside the curb during odd-numbered months. 

As well as these public authority initiatives, many private companies are now operating viable businesses turning waste wood into valuable new products. No matter how the wood arrives at the processing plant and no matter its end use, it first has to be recycled. Scrap lumber from home improvement projects and other untreated wood has a number of uses for recycling.

Many private companies (and sometimes specialist recyclers) use the wood to create home and garden products taking in untreated lumber.  Treated or painted wood, however, is another matter, as chemicals used in production means it cannot enter the food chain or be used where chemicals can cause harm. Unfortunately, this means that the only solution is often landfilling, since even burning as a fuel source releases chemicals into the atmosphere. 

As the case stories in this article illustrate, with the right know-how and the right equipment, even building-rubble wood can be recycled. The first part of any wood recycling initiative is to break down the wood so it can be processed. This is usually done using a heavy duty primary shredder, although if the wood is of a small size this step can skipped. Following the initial shredding where the wood is broken down into manageable “lumps”, it is then either processed by a secondary shredder and/or a wood chipper.  From then a screener (often a circular rotation trommel) is used to sort out fractions and sizes. What happens next is very dependent on the use the sized material is put to — with tub grinders and windrow turners often being used to process the wood further.


Recycling and forestry

Leading the way in the emerging US composting market are tree care and recycling contractors who have expanded their operations to give their customers more. For these organizations, breaking into the composting market has led to substantial growth through hard work, education and adding the right equipment to produce high-quality materials. Seeing growth in the emerging composting market in the Midwest are three businesses based in Illinois. While none of them started in the wood recycling business or composting market, all have experienced success, showing the way forward.

From nursery to composting

Illinois based Garden Prairie Organics (GPO) is a family business founded in 2009. The company started off using compost in its tree nursery and seeing the benefits, they decided to begin processing compost for themselves and the tree care customers they work with. According to Mike Dimucci, manager of GPO, the Midwest compost market is still at its embryonic stages. “There are still some stigmas out there about composting; a lot of customers still think it smells because they used it 15 years ago, and they got a bad batch or used something that was not completely processed. Compost — as long as it’s been processed properly — is a viable alternative for waste disposal and organic material use.”

Waste recycling process

GPO employs a multi-step, closely monitored composting process with measured inputs of water, air and carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. The organic decomposition process is aided by grinding plant matter, adding water when needed and ensuring proper aeration by regularly turning the mixture.  GPO receives organic materials for composting in many shapes and sizes and now operate a Vermeer ® TG7000 tub grinder, a Vermeer CT718 compost turner and two Vermeer trommel screens (a 521 unit and a 626 model) to handle all the material.

“We use our Vermeer tub grinder to process material as it comes into our facility. We then mix it the way we want it, put it out in the windrows and take the temperature, as well as check the oxygen and moisture levels. Then, we run our CT718 compost turner through it and process it up. Once it’s finished material, we’ll cure it, and then run it through one of our two screeners, and finish with a premium compost.” 

The type and size of the finished product depends on GPO’s customer needs. For example, the compost a golf course needs is finer, a landscape contractor needs a medium product and the material can be coarser for agricultural uses.

Giving customers more

Down the road in Elgin, IL, another company found that expanding its operations into composting and mulch has led to long-term success.  Midwest Compost, LLC started in 2000 when Charlie Murphy (and now his son Pat) opened a yard waste transfer station in West Chicago, IL, collecting and recycling waste.  The father and son team now have a second transfer station and have seen many landscapers in those early years dropping off yard waste and leaving with empty trucks. That single observation would eventually lead to what Midwest Compost is today: a manufacturer of mulch and compost that sells and distributes landscaping material to professional contractors as well as homeowners around the greater Chicago area.

At first, Midwest Compost relied on other manufacturers to bring in materials to their facilities, and then they would sell it to the landscapers who were dumping off yard debris. “The idea was to help our customers be more efficient with their time,” explains Pat Murphy, operations manager for Midwest Compost. “It didn’t take long for us to determine that selling mulch and compost would be a good idea for our businesses.”

The Murphys decided it didn’t make sense to rely on others to supply them with the material when they had access to the raw materials needed to produce their products. They turned to their local Vermeer dealer to look at their options for grinding their own material. “When we started recycling our wood waste, we would rent a tub grinder from Vermeer Midwest for a few days at a time,” explains Pat. “That option worked well for a while, but we needed to increase the amount of grinding we were doing to keep up with demand, which is why we subcontracted the work out to another company that owned a Vermeer TG9000 tub grinder. We eventually grew the business to a point where it made more sense for us to purchase our own machine: a Vermeer TG7000 tub grinder.” Now, during the peak working season, the company employees up to 12 people to manufacture mulch and compost, mainly from waste wood.

Branching out with land clearing and much more

Homer Companies planted its roots in 1950, when Joseph Reposh began offering local Lockport, IL, residents and businesses reasonably priced tree care services. Known then as Homer Tree Service, the little family-owned company slowly grew over three decades before Ronald Reposh purchased it from his father in 1985. Under his watchful eye, the company continued to grow steadily until the business really took off in 1997 when it expanded into land clearing services. This led to the creation of a mulch and grinding division — Homer Industries — in 2003. The company expanded again in 2013, creating an environmental division committed to re-establishing natural native habitats around the Midwest.

Grinding out profits

Today, Homer Companies employs more than 200 people across its four different divisions and operates a fleet of 400 pieces of equipment. According to Todd Hahn, chief executive of Homer Industries, the division he works for was established to make use of all the raw material the tree service division was producing. “The business went from having one to two loads of chips per day to producing 20 plus loads every day,” he explained. “By adding a few more pieces of equipment, we were able to create a new service for current customers and establish several new partnerships.”

Homer Industries receives most of its raw material from its land-clearing operations but has also opened its yard up to other tree care professionals, municipalities and landscapers for wood waste disposal. The material is then turned into a variety of mulch products including playground surfacing, color enriched mulch and hardwood mulch. According to Haun, around 80 percent of products are sold in bulk, by the truckload. The rest is bagged and sold locally. “Wholesalers, landscapers and cities make up the largest percentage of our customer base,” he explained. “We also sell to do-it-yourself homeowners in the area who need a small truckload of mulch from time to time.”

With all the competition in the mulch industry, Homer Industries believes it’s the quality of its end product that makes them stand out. “There are a lot of variables involved with making high end mulch products. To ensure customers are getting exactly what they want, we have invested in the right equipment. It is those machines that help us control the material size consistency and sort material.”

Heart of the operation

Homer Industries uses Vermeer tub grinders to process most of the raw material it receives. The company runs a Vermeer TG7000 tub grinder and three Vermeer TG9000 tub grinders.  “While we do use chippers and some horizontal grinders in our land clearing operations, back at our yard we use all tub grinders,” Todd explained. “They are fast, efficient and can handle the variety of material.” Homer Industries purchased its first Vermeer TG7000 tub grinder shortly after expanding into mulch and grinding. As business increased, so did the amount of raw material that needed to be processed, which led them to investing in two TG9000 tub grinders over the course of the next several years.

In the fall of 2017, Homer Industries determined it was time to further increase its processing capabilities again and purchased a third TG9000. The TG9000 is the most powerful tub grinder Vermeer produces. It features a large diameter opening with an inside diameter of 11 feet (3.4 m). For Homer Industries, that means they can process large pieces of wood and regrind material processed on jobsites quickly. Also, the Vermeer patented thrown object restraint system (TORS) helps limit the amount of thrown debris while working. “It’s a great safety feature in the yard and when we have one of our grinders working in the field,” added Haun. 

The reason Homer Industries chose Vermeer tub grinders was because of the quality of the machine build, as well as the support they receive from Vermeer Midwest, the local dealer.

“When Homer Industries started, it was a constant struggle to keep up with demand, so we didn’t have room for downtime,” explained Haun. “Vermeer Midwest’s Aurora location is just 20 minutes from our facility, and I really could at times get a mechanic from there to the yard quicker than I could get one of our guys. So, service has been over-the-top.”

Land clearing

Homer Companies’ land clearing customers include private development companies, municipalities and state highway departments. Its crews have been involved with several of the largest Illinois and Indiana highway expansion projects over the last two decades. They are usually the first contractor on a job preparing the land for development.  Homer Tree Service was a part of the recent I-69 expansion project from Bloomington to Indian Creek, IN. Crews cleared 21 miles of right-of-way so the road could be expanded from two lanes to four. According to Hahn, the terrain was rough on most of that project and Homer Tree Service crews processed a lot of big timber.

On jobs like this, the smaller material is processed onsite using chippers, with feller bunchers being used to clear large trees. Eventually, all the material is transported back to the yard in Lockport for additional processing. Large material is cut and fed through the TG9000 and blended with other material. Then, everything gets reground, sorted and either prepared for bulk shipping or bagged.

Working together

In addition to clearing land for development, the Homer Companies team is also extremely knowledgeable about restoring land back to its natural state. Homer Environmental specializes in restoring, replenishing and replanting sites where old abandoned infrastructures once stood. Of course, before restoration can begin, overburden needs to be removed. Homer Tree Service’s land clearing crews are again often the first on the scene to give the environmental team a fresh slate to work with.  

The two divisions worked together recently to help transform the old Joliet Arsenal in Will County, IL, into Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the first national tallgrass prairie in the country and one of the newest units of the National Forest System. Homer Tree Service cleared several acres of land and then Homer Environmental restored the area with native plants. The site is now home to around 60 bison. “The Midewin project is just one example of how our different divisions work together to provide a single sourced solution for our customers,” Hahn said. “We also work with the tree care division after major storms hit local communities. They are often the first ones on site and we’ll follow with a tub grinder so a community can clean up as quickly as possible.”  

Cleaning up after Hurricane Irma

Following Hurricane Irma, municipalities and private contractors started the long process of cleaning up after the flood waters has subsided. This involved processing all of the wood waste created by the storm. Fort Myers was one of the communities left in disarray and according to local resident and owner of MW Horticulture Recycling Facility, Inc., Denise Houghtaling, trees in the area suffered the most. “By the time Hurricane Irma reached Fort Myers, the winds weren’t as strong, hence we didn’t suffer as much structural damage as they did on the east coast of Florida,” she explained. “However, we had already been dealing with flooding, so the roots of the trees were unstable. Hurricane Irma’s strong winds and additional rainfall created a bad situation and trees toppled.”

The day after Hurricane Irma struck, Fort Myers municipality crews and independent contractors began removing all of the debris from the city’s streets, residencies and commons. 

At the height of the clean-up effort, county officials estimated that more than 60,000 cubic yards (45,873 cbm) of waste were being moved every day. A majority of Fort Myers’ tree and yard waste found its way to MW Horticulture Recycling Facility, a family owned organic compost producer serving Fort Myers and the surrounding area. The MW Horticulture Recycling Facility began operation in 2013 when Denise and her husband Mark purchased a bankrupt mulch company and turned it into a successful operation. Today, MW Horticulture Recycling Facility operates with 22 employees, has two facilities and recently opened a landscape and garden supply depot. 

Time to grind

Houghtaling stated that in the first nine days after Hurricane Irma, her team took in approximately two months’ worth of vegetation and wood at its primary location. “We affectionately refer to that huge pile of unprocessed material as ‘Mount Irma,’” she joked. “We already owned a pretty sizable fleet before Hurricane Irma, but in order to get through it all, we brought in several more machines.” Before the hurricane, MW Horticulture Recycling Facility’s primary grinder was a Vermeer TG7000 tub grinder, and the company used Vermeer TR521 and TR626 trommel screens to separate its various compost, dirt and mulch mixtures. Now the company has added a Vermeer HG8000 horizontal grinder.

“We are extremely diligent about our composting process; it takes a full eight months for us to ensure the end product is up to our standards,” Houghtaling said. “The Vermeer HG8000 horizontal grinder has been a lifesaver for us. The thing is unbelievable; the amount of material that it pushes through. Any time someone stops by, they are just amazed.”  The combination of MW Horticulture Recycling Facility’s new horizontal grinder and tub grinder has helped the local business make a heavy dent in “Mount Irma”.

Turning waste wood into quality compost

There is no waste at MW Horticulture Recycling Facility; the team now recycles 100 percent of the material it takes in and have perfected the waste wood composting process. “We don’t add any bio solids, manure, pre-treated wood or any other foreign objects to our compost, topsoil or mulch,” commented Houghtaling. “All of our products are produced from yard debris only.” After grinding is complete, the facility processes its compost for eight months with diligent watering, aerating and heating. “It’s like an aged wine; something good like our compost takes time. The outcome of the process is a certified organic compost that is Organic Material Review Institute (OMRI) listed. And the University of Florida Soiling Testing Laboratory has said our nutrient values are well above average.”

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