After more than 20 years working for “big waste,” Jim Hiltner had mastered the ability to recover value from disposed material. And after 20 years of doing that for someone else, he decided it was time to make the jump and go into the non-publicly traded private sector. So in 2004, he left his position at Casella Waste Systems and together with his partner, purchased … a paving company. “They were dabbling in recycling, but they didn’t own their own natural resources,” explained Jim. “They tried to diversify a bit, and were using some of their recycled aggregates in their paving products but not with much success.”
Jim recognized their potential was two-fold. “They had a good base of equipment that was perfect for overlapping applications,” he continued. “And they had some very industrious folks who were experts at migrating through regulations to obtain necessary permitting.” But Jim also recognized that they were not maximizing the capability of that equipment, and the permits they were pursuing were not the best use for the space and resources of the business. “They were getting the permits that allowed the company to do the work but were struggling to make the full turn and get those products back out again. That was my initial interest.”
So over the course of the next decade, Jim worked to transform that paving company into Scarborough, Maine-based CPRC Group, a diversified waste and debris conversion firm that renews both aggregate and organic waste into road base, paving, landscaping and resurfacing products.
“From my experience on the solid waste side, I understood both the ‘in’ part and the ‘out’ part too,” detailed Jim. “So we set out to adjust our permits, focused on creating links to third parties who could profit from the value we were creating, and migrated away from the ‘low-hanging fruit’ to pursue higher value materials.” Those new waste streams included asphalt shingles, yard and leaf debris, and food waste. “For example, when we acquired the business, they were doing some asphalt shingle recycling, but 100% was being put into aggregate. We changed that strategy and worked hard with paving companies and the various DOTs in the greater New England market and now almost 100% of our RAS gets added to hot mix, a much more valuable application for that material.”
The biggest area of potential that CPRC is pursuing is in food waste and organics recycling, a material stream that only recently has been on their radar. Not only is it a natural fit given the capacity of their facility, but the regulatory environment in Maine and throughout New England is clearly creating a need to handle the coming demand. “Massachusetts has already banned food waste in the landfills,” Jim emphasized. “New Hampshire and Vermont are considering it next. It not only makes good economic sense since food waste is now the biggest component of our waste stream.” Indeed, some estimates place food waste at nearly 35–40% of all material being landfilled. “But it’s also people just wanting to do the right thing. There is good energy toward pulling this out of the waste stream.”
Diversifying their material streams and building new value from their conversion were not the only areas of the company that Jim and his team improved. The equipment itself, and the conversion processes being employed to transform that material were also scrutinized for efficiency. And a big opportunity for improvement was discovered somewhat recently. “We were a company that owned a lot of grinders, and we spent a lot of energy and money on grinding, especially in the last 5–7 years,” Jim chuckled. “What we recognized is that it is far more expensive to grind than to screen, and we were grinding a lot of material that we could have simply screened out.”
As CPRC began to implement a strategy for screening prior to grinding, Jim was evaluating screen options as well. In addition to their trommels, he recognized the advantage of also having a star screen in their yard. After testing numerous options on site, CPRC settled for a Backers 2-ta star screen for the significant value it offered. “We reviewed a handful of brands and models, and the Backers was easily as good as everything we tested, but at a significantly less cost,” shared Jim. “Darren Finlay from Ecoverse was great to work with. We ended up purchasing a demo model, and he stood by us after the sale as well, taking care of our needs and getting some parts we needed to keep us up and running.”
Backers star screens work through a process of agitation to break up material and separate fractions by size. After being fed to the hopper, material is transported via rotating stars over the screening shafts and across the screening deck. Fine material passes through the stars to the fines belt below and discharges off the side. Oversized particles that make it across the screening deck are discharged off the fines belt out the end. Backers screens are available in two and three deck models, allowing the separation of three distinct fractions in a single pass.
Jim does not advocate an either/or strategy to screening; rather, he recognizes the value in both a trommel and a star screen. “A trommel is a tad more precise in how you can control the finished product. Making a product that requires a tight spec is likely better produced from a trommel screen,” he added. “But a star screen is far more efficient. Finishing compost or pulling fines from shingles through our Backers nets us far more volume for the time and fuel. It just makes much more sense to use our Backers as the workhorse of the operation.”
According to their own assessment, CPRC is still a relatively small but quickly growing company. Still, processing thousands of yards of food waste each year, and tens of thousands of tons each of shingles, loam and other wood wastes, is not an insignificant operation. And Jim sees much more potential throughout the New England market.
But for all the material conversion strategies, equipment evaluation, process implementation and other technical demands, Jim still boils his love of the business down to the people he gets to meet and the mindset behind the entire industry. “Personally, my partner and I are just hard workers. And that’s pretty typical in this industry. You meet lots of people that are very passionate about this like we are,” he pondered. “It’s [this business] taken us to some interesting places with some interesting challenges. But I’m not cut from a ‘just throw it away’ fabric. Call me crazy, but I always think there is a better solution than to just put things in a dumpster and landfill them.”
Business aside, that is a fundamental mindset that everyone would benefit by adopting.