It Takes a Special Breed

Forklifts encounter many different harsh environments, both indoors and out. One of the toughest is recycling. Dust, debris, uneven surfaces and difficult weather are common and any one of these factors is difficult. Combine two, three or more and they can cripple the performance of a forklift and bring the recycling operation to a halt.

The right forklift solution can help mitigate these factors and boost uptime in this tough environment. This article can help fleet managers understand the factors that should be considered when choosing the right forklifts for use in recycling.

Not a typical forklift environment

Most forklifts are destined to spend their working lives in the aisles of warehouses or in dock areas where they are loading and unloading trailers. These environments can present their own unique challenges. However, if forklifts could talk, most would say that life in these applications is pretty good. Temperatures are moderate, the floors are smooth, and the air is clean.

If you could ask a forklift how it feels about a recycling environment, you’d probably get very different answers. The recycling process typically generates a lot of airborne dust that your forklift breathes in all day. Operators must be on constant lookout for additional debris, such as metal scrap, baling wire and strapping, that could damage the underside of the forklift but invariably they don’t see everything. Paper and plastic scrap, along with a buildup of the dust mentioned earlier, can clog radiators and lead to overheating of the engine, transmission or both.

Even worse, all of the hazards just listed are always present on a good day. Many recycling operations are outdoors so they are also subjected to the unpredictable nature of the weather. Extreme heat, freezing temperatures, heavy snow and pounding rain add their own set of challenges for forklifts. Instead of smooth warehouse aisles and the occasional bump of the dock plate, forklifts working in outdoor recycling operations deal with dirt and gravel on good days and potholes and mud on worse days.

It’s easy to see why the forklift working in a recycling operation might be envious of its warehouse counterparts. Managers working in the recycling industry that are aware of its unique challenges can choose forklifts that not only are comfortable in this environment but excel at what they do.


One of the most insidious hazards of any recycling operation is airborne dust and debris. In most cases, it is ever present in a recycling environment, so the forklift is pulling this content into its radiator continuously throughout its shift. This can clog the radiator and lead to overheating, reduced performance and, eventually, downtime if it is not corrected.

A heavy-duty cooling system is essential for working in these dusty environments and not all cooling systems perform equally. Some systems have automotive-style radiators, with thin, aluminum fins and plastic coolant and transmission fluid tanks. Lift trucks used in recycling operations are better equipped with a separate radiator for the engine and transmission. Radiators with large spaces between the cooling fins can also help deter clogging.

For some companies, the solution to radiator clogging is to blow out the radiators, which requires the operator to drive the forklift to the maintenance bay and take it offline for up to 20 minutes. Even if this is completed only once per shift, the hours can add up throughout the workweek. Other companies have resorted to regular cleanings with brushes and high-pressure water, which not only results in similar downtime but may also cause damage to the radiator over time.

A simple solution to the problem is to have the forklift’s cooling fan function independently of the engine speed. This enables the forklift’s control system to reverse the fan direction each time an operator starts the forklift, blowing air in the opposite direction and clearing the radiator of dust and debris. This type of “self-cleaning forklift” saves operators and maintenance technicians hours of time every month.


Working in a tough environment requires tough components. The key to surviving the rough, uneven surfaces often found in recycling environments is to choose a forklift designed and built with industrial components. Otherwise, the forklift’s power train, axles, and tires are subject to damage.

Here are some key components that are important in a recycling operation:

  • An industrial engine with a cast iron head and more robust components
  • Fully-enclosed brakes that are protected from wire and strapping and have fewer moving parts to wear or replace
  • Pneumatic (super-elastic) tires designed to handle rough surfaces
  • Transmission and axle with a cast iron housing for added protection
  • Undercarriage protection to prevent scrap metal damage

Operator safety and comfort

Except for occasional personal breaks and maintenance stops, operators spend their entire day in constant movement on their lift truck. Ergonomics – and the way in which the operator interacts with the forklift – play important roles in the level of productivity, operator comfort and, ultimately, fatigue at the end of the shift. With the additional challenges presented by recycling environments, forklifts in this application must be designed to keep operators safe, comfortable and productive.

A hard cabin, offering a quieter, more comfortable environment, can be important when operators are working in extreme weather conditions that compromise visibility and hearing. Additional features such as shock-absorbing floorboards, adjustable seats with replaceable components and stability features, can improve operator comfort and confidence in rough terrain. In addition, a forklift with an open mast design can improve visibility, leading to safer, more productive operation.

Maintenance and service

Selecting a robust, industrial forklift for a recycling application is just the beginning. Even the toughest forklift will still require maintenance and wear and tear will still occur. A good maintenance program is essential to keeping the fleet in top condition and minimizing unexpected downtime.

In a recycling application, managing service intervals can mean the difference between profit and loss. Any recommended service interval should be strictly followed, with careful consideration given to the parts most subjected to wear. Trying to extend a service interval an extra few days or weeks can ultimately cost more in downtime and unplanned expense.

When considering service intervals, it’s important to remember that industrial engines are typically designed with greater oil capacity and are sometimes equipped with external oil coolers that help maintain oil viscosity. This can extend engine life and may extend oil change intervals as well. Engines with gear-driven camshafts and valve trains may also have longer service intervals compared to engines that use automotive-style timing belts and chains that require replacement or service.

Documenting and tracking service intervals can also be challenging. An operator and fleet management system can be helpful in monitoring the health and performance of the forklift and ensuring a routine maintenance is completed as scheduled. These systems also provide the added benefits of guiding operators more thoroughly through pre-shift checklists, as well as monitoring impacts and sending notifications for service.

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