Resource Recycling Systems
Materials and Managing Waste
By Tom Gibson
Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, J.D. Lindeberg may have hit on an ideal lifestyle that combines engineering with civic activity and sustainability. Away from his regular job, he serves on the board of the local library and works with a company that champions a progressive form of housing. His engineering work comes with Resource Recycling Systems (RRSI), an interdisciplinary consulting firm with a corporate mission of achieving greater material reuse and recovery for its clients.
“We could all go off and get jobs at other companies or other fields and get paid more. But at some point, you make a decision about your life that says ‘I want to do things I can be excited about when I get up in the morning, and I want to do something that’s part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” says Lindeberg, vice president of RRSI. “It all fits into a lifestyle that together earns me a decent living not only from a financial perspective but also from a community perspective.”
Operating throughout the Great Lakes region, RRSI deals in materials management, solid waste management, waste reduction, reuse, recycling, and composting. Clients include municipalities and public agencies such as solid waste authorities; institutions such as universities and hospitals; and industries such as pulp and paper and packaging manufacturers. Services range from facility and equipment engineering to operations management to education and training. To handle such a diverse spectrum, the firm has individuals with backgrounds in business, engineering, manufacturing, economics, policy development, industrial operations, environmental analysis, education, planning, material procurement, and finance.
RRSI was started in 1984 by James Frye and a couple others that had worked on setting up recycling operations in Ann Arbor. They realized the state offered grant money for towns to use in setting up recycling programs, but few people had the expertise for doing it. The first five or six years, they did mostly planning and evaluation. Lindeberg joined them in 1989 to start an engineering section because they were increasingly being asked to design and build facilities they had planned. Traditional engineering firms couldn’t always fill the bill because few engineers knew much about this new area. RRSI did extensive engineering work in the first half of the 1990s and built many facilities, establishing their reputation in Michigan and the Midwest.
Principals in RRSI include Frey, who has an MBA, and Lindeberg. As a co-owner and licensed engineer, Lindeberg manages consulting operations and serves as project director for engineering projects. He holds a master’s of public administration (MPA) from Princeton and an M.S. in civil engineering from Stanford.
Besides Lindeberg, RRSI’s engineering staff includes another civil and environmental engineer and one process engineer. Nicole Chardoul, serves as a project manager and ranks as a senior member of the RRSI engineering team. She has a background in environmental engineering and pollution prevention with skills in CAD drafting for facility and equipment layouts and operational troubleshooting. She specializes in managing the interface between construction and engineering issues and ongoing operations for clients. Peter Rudy, vice president of pulp and paper, has design and operational experience in pulp production, paper making, and packaging. He has led the development of the company's pulp, paper, and packaging practice area, with an emphasis on operations engineering and management, raw material procurement, process enhancement, and market development. Besides pulp and paper, his work involves food processing, plastics recycling, and cellulose insulation manufacturing industries.
The three engineers work with others in the firm so RRSI can offer a full spectrum of services related to optimizing the use of materials. They develop material recovery facilities, transfer stations, yard waste and biosolids composting systems, recycling dropoff centers, construction and demolition debris processing plants, process water management systems for paper and packaging mills, and waste management facilities.
On a typical project for a recycling program, the engineers research, design, and configure a system. This includes specifying and sizing machines and processes to use, which are built by manufacturers and offered as standard equipment. In designing a new building, they formulate the overall layout, size, and function, and then architects and other engineering consultants involved with the project handle details for the structural design and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.
According to Lindeberg, RRSI now numbers eight or nine employees, but they’ve had as many as 25 and as few as four in the past, indicating the cycles and fluctuations they go through. “At the end of the 1990s, it was tough times because nobody was doing new programs, and old programs were fairly mature.” The new century brought an upswing as old programs saw a need to retool.
But even with the recent surge in business, Lindeberg says, “We started branching out into new areas of work. One I would vaguely call sustainability, actually a catchall for different things. In a most basic sense, sustainability means doing more with less. For most of our clients, the first thing they need to more with less of is money.” In doing this, RRSI focuses more on the industrial sector, as Lindeberg points out that the industrial waste stream is 38 times larger than the residential waste stream. “If you really want to effect our resource consumption behaviors, the place to go is industry.”
For starters, RRSI can help a company improve its waste hauling scenario because, as Lindeberg says, people who buy services from the waste industry don’t always get treated well. “Simply by helping people figure out how to contract better for these services, we can get them situations where they spend less money on their waste hauling, and they get more services. And one of the services we aim to add to everything is recycling.” As an example Lindeberg cites, a big automobile manufacturer may have an assembly plant with four huge waste containers pulled five times a day year-round, based on running at peak capacity in the middle of summer and generating lots of garbage. Later in the year, they only need three containers pulled four times a day, but the waste company doesn’t tell them they’re pulling half-full containers.
As Lindeberg puts it, “That’s the down-in-the-dirt, grimy, greasy, muddy sort of sustainability story. On the other end, we work with people interested in doing green projects. Some have to do with building biomass power plants.” This may involve implementing quality control measures to make sure the biomass, actually organic matter that yields a fuel like methane gas or ethanol when it decomposes, isn’t contaminated with other material. They may help them find it for less money, set up the systems, or get grants to do it. “The development of those projects is complicated, and certain aspects are our expertise.”
Another area where RRSI has established a presence in recent years is the healthcare system. “One area that managed health has squeezed hard is waste management. It turns out, when you squeeze too hard, everything ends up in the red bag waste at $300 or $400 a ton for disposal instead of spreading it out to recycling containers, where you might net $50 a ton to regular garbage that only costs you $25 a ton,” Lindeberg reveals. “Frequently, people that think only about medical services forget they might be spending a million and a half extra dollars a year on their waste management because they made these draconian cuts in their support staff.”
In describing the pervasive attitude at RRSI, Lindeberg says he sees sustainability as more than an eight-hour-a-day job; it carries over into other areas of his life. He serves as president of the Ann Arbor Public Library’s board of trustees, which has embarked on a capital improvements program to replace many of the library’s branch buildings. The new Malletts Creek Branch is an example of sustainable design, as it incorporates solar heating, natural daylighting, convection cooling, and recyclable materials from renewable resources. The library’s site naturally captures and filters stormwater and features native plants and grasses.
In addition, Lindeberg is a partner and construction manager for Cohousing Development Company in Ann Arbor, founded in 2001 to help create new cohousing communities. These are housing developments that respond to the needs of today’s households with respect to child care, social contact, and economic efficiency by combining the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living. They focus on sustainability through energy-efficient designs, easy accessibility for handicapped residents, and floor plans that are comfortable, efficient, and affordable for a wide range of household sizes and incomes. “It fits in with the sustainability, public service take. We’re trying to follow the idea of doing well by doing good,” Lindeberg says.
Having found a good life through RRSI and various outside endeavors, Lundberg always seeks other engineers who can do likewise. “Every once in awhile, somebody comes through here that hooks up with that idea, and it changes their life. They know they’re not going to just spend the rest of the time working with calculators and trying to design a better door handle. But you’re going to go out and do something that’s going to make a difference.” Call it sharing the sustainable wealth.
Company: Resource Recycling Systems Inc.
Type: Engineering and consulting firm specializing in recycling and material and waste management
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan
information for submitting resumes:
Outlook for Hiring Engineers: J.D. Lindeberg describes RRSI’s engineer work force as “pretty stable, although I’m always on the lookout for the right one.” He adds, “It turns out that most engineers don’t fit very well here. Because of the way we do work, which tends to be very interdisciplinary, I can’t hire an engineer to do only engineering. I need engineers who can do other things like policy work, economics, spread sheets, and reports.” But nonetheless, Lindeberg says, “I definitely encourage people to submit resumes. Even if we didn’t need somebody, if we found a person I knew was going to be good, I would consider hiring them.”
RRSI advertises for engineers mostly in the Return Peace Corps Volunteer Job Hotline, as a number of people in the company are former Peace Corps volunteers. “With that, I don’t end up with people simply out to make a buck,” Lindeberg says. “We’re very mission oriented here. In many ways, we’re like a nonprofit in terms of our mission. And I also get people who function well in an ambiguous situation. Because of who we are and how we work, I need people that are mature that way.”