Meet Riel Johnson, Athens Services’ Zero Waste Pioneer

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In only 11 years, Riel Johnson has developed several innovative recycling technology “firsts”: Artificial intelligence and optical sorters at materials recovery facilities; Auger screening equipment to filter green waste for composting; Organic separation presses to squeeze liquids from waste for processing into fuel.

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In only 11 years, Riel Johnson has developed several innovative recycling technology “firsts”: 

  • Artificial intelligence and optical sorters at materials recovery facilities; 
  • Auger screening equipment to filter green waste for composting; 
  • Organic separation presses to squeeze liquids from waste for processing into fuel.

Each system has advanced the state of the art of recovering recyclable material, and more are on the way.

“Technology is the key to improving recovery of recyclables,” Riel said. “It helps to make us more efficient, improves operations, and improves safety. And it makes things easier for the customer.”

Riel is Director of Resource Recovery for Athens. His job is to recover as much recyclable material from waste as possible. 

The Genesis of a Pioneer

Riel holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in environmental science, both from California State University in Northridge. He started as an environmental technician analyzing data on greenhouse-gas emissions from landfills. 

In 2010, Riel joined Athens as manager of a construction and debris facility. He oversaw the construction of the Sun Valley Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) and the new American Organics composting facility in Victorville. 

Pushing Athens Excellence in Materials Recovery with Artificial Intelligence

His first major project was building the Sun Valley MRF. When it opened in 2014, the facility gained national attention and won many awards. It still draws inquiries and groups seeking tours of the facility. 

Riel is credited, through a partnership with Bulk Handling Systems, with pioneering the use of artificial intelligence in materials recovery.  “Sun Valley was the first to have a robot with artificial intelligence in a quality-control position. The robotics were designed to improve material sorting and recovery, along with providing workers with another layer of safety,” he said. 

Athens’ employees are its most valuable asset. Sorting through waste can be dangerous. “Using robotic equipment makes for a safer work environment, which is one of our main priorities at Athens,” Riel said. “We put safety first, always.”

Today, Riel is directing the design and construction of a new, faster MRF in Irwindale. It will be the largest in Los Angeles County. In additional to sorting recyclables from waste, the facility will have equipment to create clean fuel from plastics and paper waste. “Sorting systems have become much more accurate at separating plastics. We can use the plastics to create fuel. That will replace coal and reduce emissions,” he said. 

Maximizing Resource Recovery Efforts

Athens owns two other MRFs – Crown Recycling in Sun Valley and one in the City of Industry. Riel’s vision is that the four Athens facilities will form a “hub and spoke” network. “They will share technology, people, and resources, with Irwindale as the hub. All the facilities will work in unison,” he said. The production of fuel from plastics at the Irwindale MRF will be augmented with material sorted at Crown and Sun Valley.

The Next Level of Organic Waste Processing

Riel is developing new technology at existing facilities. Under his direction, the City of Industry MRF is the first to have an organic separation press (OSP). The OSP uses an auger (screw) press to squeeze liquids from waste. Once the liquid is recovered and diverted from landfills, it goes to a wastewater treatment plant to produce renewable natural gas. The OSP is capable of generating 20,000 tons of material annually for beneficial reuse.

In similar fashion, American Organics is pioneering the use of an auger screen to sort organic waste for processing into compost. The facility recently converted to a covered aerated static pile (CASP) composting method. It produces high-quality compost faster than traditional systems. It forces air through piles while the compost is breaking down.

At Crown Recycling, a second-generation organic separation press is in development. It will separate food from packaging containers in a process known as depackaging. “It can tear open containers and harvest food products from metal, plastic, or glass containers,” he said. The press will process organic material that can produce methane fuel for Athens’ vehicle fleet. 

According to Riel, these systems will help municipalities meet organic waste disposal standards. “Specifically, diverting food waste and creating compost will help meet SB 1383 mandates to reduce methane.”

Vision + Progress = Success

Over the past decade, Riel has established himself as a zero-waste pioneer. He credits the Athens team for turning his visions into reality. “I’ve been very fortunate at Athens to be surrounded by smart, talented, and hardworking people who are willing to step in and try new things. We’ve done some amazing things that others can’t or won’t. It can be hard work sometimes, but doing the right thing often is.” 

Learn more about the technologies Athens employs to divert recyclable material from landfills at athensservices.com.