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Man and machine

As new Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) come online, so plant technology evolves. The quest to find quicker and more effective equipment that separates, sorts, cleans and prepares the materials ready for delivery to reprocessors and end users is something of a holy grail for waste management folk.

At Bywaters our pursuit of the ultimate kit resulted in an extensive tour of the US before development of our Bow site. This commitment to provide a state-of-the-art system from the outset is what has set us apart. Remaining in a leading position, however, is often more difficult.

While new technology is all important, and we visit facilities worldwide in order to understand and put in place best practice and excellent processing speeds, it’s clear that automation alone cannot be responsible for meeting diversion targets. Nor can it be the sole means of meeting the quality requirements requested by reprocessors for all waste streams. The fact is that technology has not evolved so far that manual sort lines and visual quality inspections are a thing of the past.

We couldn’t achieve landfill diversion rates of 94% to 98% using automation alone

Our East London MRF is recognised as being one of the UK’s most technologically advanced, but we couldn’t achieve landfill diversion rates of 94% to 98% using automation alone. Automation is prevalent both before and after the sort line and we constantly run two conveyor belts, each with a minimum of 14 operatives and at a relatively low speed, to ensure consistently high quality checks and remove contaminants that may have been missed by the earlier interventions. Belt speed, volumes of materials throughput, operator training and number of operators are all critical to the efficiency of these sort lines and ultimately the quality of the output.

It remains true that productivity per square metre is less expensive and far greater for an automated process. At Bywaters our glass and fines separation is fully automated and we use magnetised belts for ferrous metals.  We also separate plastics using optical and ballistic machines to provide fast and accurate segregation of different materials such as PVC and PET. This level of technology (combined with manual sorting) enables us to segregate 15 different material streams for recycling. If market conditions developed further, the same technology could be programmed to separate further streams by simply adding sensors and altering speeds.

Where we find that machinery still doesn’t quite deliver the quality required is within the paper and card streams. In our process, card is one of the first items removed from the commingled dry waste stream. However, to ensure that it meets the quality needed by reprocessors, it is then put on the manual sort line to ensure that any remaining contaminants are removed. We find there is no substitute for this level of manual intervention – and it is one of the key reasons that demand for our material remains high.

We have now reached a point where we are looking for solutions to divert or manage the more difficult waste streams and this will be reflected in plant selection and subsequent investment choices

Plant improvement has continual potential, with constant research and development within our industry. But for waste management companies, putting these technological improvements into practice takes time and finance. The fact is that the quick wins have already been won. We have now reached a point where we are looking for solutions to divert or manage the more difficult waste streams and this will be reflected in plant selection and subsequent investment choices.

Activities are now geared towards refining what we’ve got and adding new streams to nudge us forwards towards the very latest holy grail of Zero Waste. We’re looking at enclosing our second site in Leyton – providing environmental improvements for our neighbours and resulting in better quality recyclates. A roof is probably more infrastructure than plant – but this winter made it clear that covered facilities could maintain supplier quality where our open counterparts struggled. We’re also introducing less obvious waste streams, providing enhanced collection services for our clients and (hopefully) assisting market development. Tetra Paks is one example.

Perhaps the biggest change ahead for waste management companies wanting to provide clients with a full service is not within the increase of MRF plant or technology but the additional elements that can be provided to help customers divert as much material as possible. Areas such as food waste diversion (composting, anaerobic digestion) and residual waste management (pyrolysis, Energy-from-Waste): new plant in new formats providing new streams and new products. The future of waste management is growing – the enduring question is: is it growing fast enough?

John Glover is managing director of Bywaters

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