A mechanical future

Recon Services is turning to robotics to stay ahead of the technology curve and keep up with Austin, Texas’ new C&D recycling regulations.

When the first phase of the city of Austin, Texas’ Construction & Demolition Recycling Ordinance took effect in October 2016, Austin-based waste and recycling hauler Recon Services, which also owns construction and demolition (C&D) recycling facility 973 Materials in Del Valle, Texas, knew it needed to be ready.

The first phase of the ordinance requires general contractors to divert at least 50 percent of its C&D debris and dispose a maximum of 25 pounds of materials per square foot of floor area in landfill on projects with more than 5,000 square feet of new, added or remodeled floor. Contractors also must report the numbers of landfilled, reused and recycled materials.

To become a qualified processor, Recon Services had its diversion rates validated by the Recycling Certification Institute (RCI)—a Sacramento, California-based national certification program for C&D recycling, and approved by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Recon Services opened in 2005. Since then, its accomplishments have been ongoing. Walter Biel, owner of Recon Services, purchased 973 Materials in 2009. Recon brings its hauled materials to the concrete, asphalt, brick and cinder block recycler for processing. Since then, both Recon and 973 Materials have stayed ahead of the game.

“We are city of Austin and TexDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) approved,” Owner Walter Biel says. “Recon Services is the city of Austin’s only qualified C&D processors and the first and only RCI certified processors.”

To stay up-to-date on these certifications and on top of his recycling game, Biel decided his current processing system needed a change.

“We’re not replacing the system, we’re enhancing our system,” he says. “We’re adding a new line to the one we already have [at 973 Materials].”

The current line includes a nine-bay elevated picking line and a one-inch trommel that takes out 1-inch fines. Materials then go through an additional picking line to take out nonrecyclables, paper, aggregates and metals. The wood is negative-sorted, ground up and used at a kiln as alternative fuel.

The nonrecyclables are sent to a local landfill while cardboard, paper and metals are sent to local recyclers.

The new line’s process is the same, but Biel is adding a ZenRobotics sorting system, a triple screen and an air knife from Sparta Manufacturing, Notre Dame, New Brunswick.

973 Materials will also use conveyers it manufactures in its new line.


Biel and Will Hancock, vice president of operations at Plexus Recycling Technologies, the U.S. distributor of Helsinki, Finland-based ZenRobotics headquartered in Westminster, Colorado, met at Waste360’s Recycling Summit last September in Austin.

“They became interested in the video I had playing at the booth. That started the conversation,” Hancock says.

Hancock took Walter and his son, Ross Biel, operations manager at Recon, to a test facility in Denver that shows how the system works. Then the Biels went international, flying to Helsinki and The Netherlands to see the system operate in real time at a C&D recycling facility.

“Once we went over to Finland, it validated what we wanted to do in our facility,” Biel says. “We came back and made the final decision that we wanted to move forward and put these arms in our system.”

Customers don’t purchase ZenRobotics’ systems. Rather, they lease the equipment from the company. “We don’t like to sell the system because the technology is changing and evolving,” Hancock explains. “This way the customer can get the newest improvements, mechanical upgrades and software upgrades without additional charge.”

The cost of the ZenRobotics ZRR 2, the piece of equipment Biel has leased from Plexus, is determined on a case-by-case basis. Hancock says that the cost of Biel’s installation—building a new line from scratch—would be different from a company that would retrofit a sorter into its existing system.

The ZRR 2 will make 4,000 picks per hour, a vast increase over the 800 picks per hour done by a hand-sorter, according to Hancock. And since the sorter is mechanical, it can run 24 hours without breaks or time off.

Each robot arm has up to eight different applications it can perform, and while Biel is installing arms for a certain set of applications that fit his material, “we’ve changed Walter’s outlook at what he can pull out of his line,” according to Hancock.

“We are the first in the U.S. to have these arms, and it’s going to do wonders for our business,” Biel says.


Biel says he made the decision to replace his hand-sorting line with robotic arms for two reasons: safety and quality.

“It’s a safer operation to have our existing employees work with, and we saw an opportunity for better quality and better sorting,” he says.

The material stream doesn’t change much in day-to-day operations for Recon, but with robotic sorters, employees also will have more opportunity to expand into other areas of the business.

“It’s not a glorious job. It’s not sought after,” Hancock says. “Recon is very forward thinking and was looking at the next chapter of where they can move. It allows them to free up employees and use them in better ways.”

The new system is scheduled to be running between sometime between mid-March and April 1. Construction on the line began in early February.

Biel is looking forward to adding the credential of first C&D processor in the U.S. to use robotic sorting arms in its system among his many others.

“I really think it’s the next best step for us and our company,” Biel says. “Everyone that works here is on board with adding these arms. Workers on the floor are just as excited as we are in the offices.”

The author is assistant editor of Construction & Demolition Recycling and can be contacted at hcrisan@gie.net

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