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Time to embrace MRFs

The waste industry faces many debates and challenges in the coming years - the impact of the recession and how the coalition Government will shape waste policy being two of them. Both are creating uncertainty at a time when there is a need for direction and consistency.

But there is one debate that should no longer require discussion: the one about which collection system is best, single stream or source separated. Why are we still discussing this when it is clear that the emphasis should be on how to develop and improve both systems?

When the revised Waste Framework Directive was published in July, discussion about the validity of the two systems was reignited. But I think it is time to concentrate on how the sector can deliver high-quality material using the right technology and processes by extending collaboration through the supply chain.

Given that logistical, political, demographic and geographic differences, all of which add variety to waste infrastructure needs, are currently plentiful in the UK, I would argue that there is a place for both types of collection system in the waste landscape.

With more than 50% of dry recyclable collections now being mixed in one form or another, it is hard not to conclude that they are here to stay. Given the success of mixed collections in improving participation and involvement in recycling among householders -
who, incidentally, do really enjoy the convenience of putting all materials into one bin - and the resultant increase that local authorities are achieving in higher recycling rates, a shift away from mixed collections would indeed be seismic.

The debate is therefore wrongly placed. It is time to start having a more informed discussion, to challenge all stakeholders to see how all recycling systems can be improved. The debate needs to go deeper, to discuss packaging design issues in the context of material recyclability, product requirements and consumer use of recycling schemes, and it needs to include every part of the supply chain, including local authorities and operators of materials recycling facilities (MRFs), who have often been left out of crucial discussions in the past.

Moving the debate forward requires greater joined-up thinking, with all parties approaching the issue from the same perspective: how do we comprehensively improve the UK’s recycling rate?

All too often, sectoral interests have campaigned on certain issues to the detriment of the wider debate and waste industry overall. Representative bodies, whether governmental or otherwise, need to take a stronger hold of the debate to create an environment where the outcomes are progressive and the commitment to improve is shared by all stakeholders.

Undoubtedly, there has been huge success and significant improvement in the recycling industry during the past decade. Paper recycling, for example, achieves 70% recovery, which is a great success story. But there are issues surrounding quality, and MRF operators need to establish a balance between high-quality in and high-quality out.

The technology adopted by today’s MRFs ensures that the highest quality standards can be met. The volume changes in the sector and competitor pressures make this currently difficult, but it remains vitally important.

“Current market and system flaws result in too much emphasis being placed on chasing volume at the detriment of quality”

Producing end product material that meets reprocessor requirements is the minimum requirement of MRFs. But with the increasing variability and poor quality of materials received at the front end of MRFs, this is increasingly challenging. Customers and local authorities demand the inclusion of a wider range of materials, with recently received requests to include batteries, ink cartridges and CDs, while most local authorities want the fullest possible range of plastics to be recovered, including, of course, the perennial MRF nightmare material, plastic film.

While EU directives on waste electrical and electronic equipment and batteries are clearly having an effect, it is not always a simple case of agreeing to these additional items. Of course, it is tempting to say “yes” because in the current competitive climate, you wish to offer the widest possible solution to customers. But these different materials affect high quality, and each has to be carefully considered in relation to the overall process and MRF system design. Consequently, today’s MRF operator has to increasingly balance the ‘more for less’ desire of its customers with the pressure of lowered volume and depressed gate fees.

So MRF operators are finding that they need to work their processes much harder to get anywhere near to a satisfactory end quality product. With technology advances and the adoption of a high-quality manufacturing ethos, along with the right input material, it is possible to produce high-quality output. But customers need to take greater responsibility for the input material: it is not enough simply to collect it. There is a real need for proper understanding and the cascading of information down to consumers.

The materials being delivered to MRFs pose many challenges. For example, compaction routines and the current trend of lightweighting means that material streams easily lose their characteristics. Today’s 3D plastic bottle can very easily become a 2D item, almost inevitably meaning that it will travel in the wrong direction through the MRF process.

More local authorities are requiring the recovery of mixed plastics, and the high variability, both in shape and size, of this stream results in it being harder to extract, despite investment in technology. For example, optical sorting units do not detect black-coloured food trays or the heavily coloured sleeves and labels on some PET bottles, meaning that these materials can have a high non-recovery rate. To resolve these anomalies requires greater collaboration between the entire chain, including packaging suppliers, retailers, local authorities, recyclers, reprocessors and, of course, consumers.

Given the high degree of variability, the best MRFs manage the dynamics between each processing element and control the competition for space. It is also essential for continued investment in making systems better. This not only includes ongoing investment in new technology, but ‘softer’ investment in the entire process. This comprises incoming material storage, loading and metering of the system, how staff are working throughout the system, maintenance routines, in-process material storage and end product material management.

Tackling these challenges will provide every chance for the MRF operator to produce quality material outputs. But MRF customers must recognise that producing high-quality materials either comes at a responsible and sustainable price or they must work harder in resolving the input quality issues presented by their own customers.

These current market and system flaws result in too much emphasis being placed on chasing volume at the detriment of quality, resulting in some MRF operators inevitably cutting corners or running beyond their design capacity to balance the books.

I believe there is a role for MRFs to play in the future. Operated properly, they can produce high- quality output. MRF technology will continue to advance, and the development of new facilities is in tune with the need to develop a green economy. At SCA Recycling’s Southampton MRF, for example, around 50 jobs have been created, proving that the economic value that a MRF provides to the wider economy is both significant and important.

If the UK is to continue meeting EU targets, much more recycling infrastructure will be required in the next decade, including new MRFs. Those companies that are able to invest in evolving technologies will clearly stay ahead of the game. The MRF sector has a lot to offer, but it needs to realign the debate and ensure everyone throughout the chain is collaborating to improve the depth, performance and quality of all recycling systems in the UK, not just those in MRFs.
Kevin Thomas is business development director at SCA Recycling

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