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Feature: The future for MRFs

Materials recycling facilities (MRFs) are recycling's middlemen. They take the recyclables collected by local authorities, sort them out into their various materials groups (paper, plastic, glass), and then pass the materials on to end-users, which magically turn the materials into valuable products.

However, adverts are forever telling us that we can "cut out the middle man". They tell us that these bloodsuckers take our money unnecessarily and that we have the power to bypass them.

Unfortunately, in the words of Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock: "Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it."

In the real world, any kind of progression, from buying a house to signing a lucrative contract, absolutely needs the involvement of the loathed middleman, be it lawyer, accountant or even estate agent. That's why the future looks bright for MRFs - they are needed, an integral part of the recycling loop.

According to Community Waste director Richard Cutts, the importance of MRFs will escalate in coming years. Community Waste runs a MRF in Milton Keynes (pictured), and Cutts believes that co-mingled collections, the collections most dependent on MRFs, will become more and more popular as local authorities look for the simplest way to increase tonnages.

A Friends of the Earth survey carried out last year showed that co-mingled schemes accounted for only 32% of kerbside collections in England.

However, the successes of schemes such as that run by National Recycling Awards 2004 nominee Canterbury City Council show the possibilities of mixed material collections.

Canterbury City Council provided a fortnightly recycling collection service that used clear sacks to collect paper, cardboard, cans and plastic bottles. Extensive promotion of the scheme led to the recycling rate jumping from 15.1% in 2002/3 to 30.2% in 2003/4.

Cutts says that in terms of cost of set up, cost of collection and long-term effectiveness, co-mingled collections are the most efficient. Bring sites and blue box collections do generate cleaner materials, but the cost of set up and collection can be prohibitive.

"We take material from Milton Keynes Council, which operates a co-mingled scheme. The material is still quite clean, collection costs are dramatically reduced, there are cheaper set-up costs, material can be collected simultaneously with refuse and it is suitable for high rise housing," he says.

And unlike bring sites and blue box collections, co-mingled schemes require the hi-tech sorting facilities of a MRF. Ever-driven by cost, Cutts predicts that, whether using sacks or twin bins, local authorities will favour a co-mingled approach, ensuring a prosperous future for MRFs.

He is also optimistic that as technology advances, the importance of MRFs will be cemented as they increase the number of materials they can sort.

But does this mean more MRFs, or simply that existing ones will have to increase their capacity?

Cutts continues: "When Community Waste took over the Milton Keynes MRF in October 2004, the tonnage throughput was only 21,000 tonnes. However in 2005 we are looking to be operating at 95,000 tonnes."

This may require some negotiation with the Environment Agency, as the MRF's licensed capacity currently stands at only 93,000 tonnes.

MRF supplier Bollegraaf UK managing

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