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When paper recycler SCA went into the unknown world of MRFs

SCA Recycling caused a ripple of excitement when it chose to build a MRF, becoming the first of the paper recyclers to do this. When the rest of the paper industry seemed against MRF-quality paper, why did the company decide to build it?

“We were seeing in the traditional [feedstock] stream for us, of pre-consumer paper from industry and commerce, that the volumes generated were and are in decline and there is no evidence of a reversal,” explains director of SCA Recycling Steve Smith.

“The material we were getting from our sources was declining. The growth that is going to be seen in material arisings is in post-consumer streams. So in order to capture that material we really had to take other materials like plastics and commingled recyclables too.”

Traditionally, SCA had always worked with paper, recycling newspapers and magazines that were unsold by retailers. However, due to the decline in pre-consumer paper, last year it opened up a large MRF in Southampton in order to capture as much paper for its operations as possible, this time post-consumer, collecting all recyclables including glass.

“We didn’t have established relationships with reprocessors for all the different materials because we never had to before”

“Paper volumes dropped from 2008,” says Smith. “Volume dropped by 10-12% and completely disconnected itself from GDP. Our European colleagues believe paper volumes have gone up but they are still way off the peaks of 2007 and I doubt it will ever get to that level again. But prices are as high as they have ever been in the past 10 years.”

The necessity to diversify into a different type of material sector was clear to SCA. “Paper makes up well-over the 50% share in commingled collections, which we can use. Running this plant has been had it challenges but in terms of the way we’ve operated as a company it is still the same. The difficulty was in learning to use the new equipment and how to operate it, which is all a part of a learning curve.

“In terms of mindset I think it came very easily to us. The difficulty was, we didn’t have established relationships with reprocessors for all the different materials because we never had to before. At first, we started off using a broker and we learnt what kind of quality standards people expected from us but now we’ve built up those relationships and can do it ourselves.

“I would say we are generating paper that is of the same high quality as we’ve always produced and we’ve had no complaints about our materials.”

SCA seemed to lead the way of several paper reprocessors moving into the multi-material market in a bid to secure their own feedstock while also gaining revenue from other materials. Global paper reprocessor UPM is shortly due to open its new MRF on the site of its newsprint mill and paper merchant Ideal Waste Paper also announced plans to build a MRF earlier this year.

SCA’s plant is capable of sorting up to 120,000 tonnes a year from municipal and commercial streams and can sort all standard dry mixed materials, including all plastics and films with the only real exception being textiles. The company’s pre-consumer paper feedstock is loaded into the same area as its MRF paper.

“What makes a human sorting it better than machinery? I personally feel we need standards for materials going in and coming out of the facilities”

Smith is very proud of the MRF’s ability to take glass, something which most MRFs cannot currently do, as it can damage the machinery and may affect the quality of the other materials. “For us, glass is a part of the process because householders want to put everything in one box.”

Sorting glass in SCA’s MRF works because it is completely segregated from the rest of the material at the beginning of the sorting process. As the waste materials go across a screen at front end, the glass falls down because it is heavier. This is then broken by mechanised discs into smaller pieces and a magnet then takes out any ferrous metals.

The sorted glass then goes into aggregate, however, SCA hopes to eventually get this material it into remelt, once it has found a way to take out any ceramic material which gets caught up with the glass stream.

For those involved in the quality debate surrounding MRFs and commingled versus source segregated collections, there was a time when paper reprocessing and MRFs didn’t seem to mix, especially if you were to add in glass, but Smith disagrees. 

“There is nothing that says source separated is going to give you better quality than a commingled collection that has been sorted at a MRF,” he says.

“What makes a human sorting it better than machinery? I personally feel we need standards for materials going in and coming out of the facilities to keep standards consistent across facilities.”

Computerised equipment at SCA’s MRF allows it to control the speeds of the picking lines, adjusting it depending on the cleanliness of the waste stream according to its source. The company now knows the different sources and quality of waste streams so well now, that it can adjust the speeds and number of employees on the picking line accordingly, therefore keeping the output consistent and working more efficiently.

Indeed, to improve MRF feedstock, SCA wants to see more local authorities educating the public about recycling and what materials are put in which box. It is not necessarily a question of what collection system to use for SCA but one of public understanding.

“For councils, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution over whether they should have source segregated or commingled collections. You need to look at specific factors. Councils should choose what’s best for them. Logic would suggest that more local authorities will now convert to commingled, because it is less expensive and with budget cuts would make more financial sense.“

Smith mentions that some local authorities he is in contact with that have had a source segregated system in place have had to swap to commingled systems because their recycling rates had plateaued but they still needed to keep increasing the recycling rates in order to meet their targets.

SCA business development manager Kevin Thomas adds: “Particularly for urban authorities this is true. In rural areas they can add green waste to increase recycling rates but in urban areas they are stuck with dry waste. One local authority said they would never go to commingled but they have had to because they just couldn’t bridge that gap.

“We’ve found that with single-stream you get an uplift in collections but it seems to be limited to 40-50% recycling. For commingled it’s possible to get up to 70-80% recycling rates.”

Smith adds: “The Environment Agency is trying to find better ways of trying to check the quality of material being exported. Because it can’t check every container at the port, it has decided to check the facilities, giving a lighter touch to the better performing MRFs like ours and then concentrating on those lower down the chain.”

For the time being it looks as though the paper sector may take a long time to fully recover and SCA seems to have been quick off the mark to recognise this fact, expanding into a completely different territory. With the success of this MRF, the company is now looking to create more similar facilities, and it seems likely we will see more paper recyclers following SCA’s lead.

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