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An MRF upgrade: is it worth it?

Modern mrf

The past few years have seen a surge in the number of MRF upgrade projects. A considerable number of UK MRFs were designed more than 10 years ago and are, understandably, reaching the point where they either need to be replaced or require a sub­stantial upgrade.

It is hard to believe, but a small number have no automated equipment at all, instead relying heavily on manual labour. These facilities simply cannot compete with modern plants when it comes to operational efficiencies.

Whether a MRF needs an upgrade will depend on when it was designed and what it was designed for. Take, for example, the MRFs funded under PFI deals, which were designed for a 25-year operational life. They gen­erally require an upgrade around the 12-year mark.

But if the facility has been prop­erly maintained, there is no reason why small upgrades cannot be undertaken over time – an up-grade should not necessarily require a full plant shutdown.

But it’s not just age that dictates when a MRF is in need of an upgrade; the three main reasons for upgrades are quality, cost and legislation.


As with all industrial equipment, the older the MRF equipment is, the less efficient it becomes, which affects the operator’s ability to guarantee high-quality, high-purity recovered material.

Material quality is also affected by changes to the infeed stock. As an example, Tomra has seen situations where, due to local authorities introducing alternate weekly collections, the same refuse vehicles are being used to collect general waste and recycling waste.

This increases the risk of cross-contamination in the infeed material, which then may not meet the infeed quality levels required and consequently the MRF cannot perform efficiently.


The introduction of the living wage in April this year has in-creased labour costs for MRF owners. Wage bills have risen by 15% for all staff over the age of 25, so owners are having to look at ways of reducing their reliance on manual labour in order to remain competitive.

Maintenance costs are often another reason behind the need to upgrade. Older equipment will naturally require more mainte­nance because of wear and tear and may not be capable of work­ing to full capacity. Operators need to review their key equipment and identify any inefficiencies or areas where significant maintenance costs are being incurred.

It is also essential to factor in the market value of recovered materials. Operators will of course be affected by changes in the reve­nue they receive for their output material.

Market prices could determine that a plant needs to recover more material. But this may not be achieved easily if the facility is not operating efficiently or does not have the right equipment in place to allow for increased throughput.

If a plant is not capable of achieving the quality required by end customers, the operator will not receive the agreed revenue or may be subject to a market claim. For example, if an end customer specifies 97% paper purity and receives material at 95% purity, then the operator is open to a 2% claim. This can be a costly error and may ultimately lead to the loss of contracts.

Rising disposal costs are another potential challenge. Tomra knows of cases where an MRF is asked to accept a new type of material within the infeed, a good example being liquid carton board such as Tetrapak. If the MRF is not designed to recover this material, it will not be recov­ered and will incur higher disposal costs. Additional labour costs may also be incurred from having to bring in labour to sort and recover the material or, in some cases, the contract may just not be won.


A MRF must meet required industry standards and, if it can­not, an upgrade is required.

Since October 2014, operators that process more than 1,000 tonnes of material a year have had to adhere to the MRF Regula­tions. But these do not appear to have had as much of an impact on standards as expected, so per­haps the threat of a visit from the Environment Agency is not strong enough to force operators into upgrading their plants.

Nevertheless, it is important for operators to keep up to date with regulations, particularly now that the ‘grace’ period has passed.

Ultimately, whether a MRF undergoes an upgrade will come down to cost: operators need to weigh up the reasons for the upgrade against the investment required to undertake the work.

Gavin Russell is sales engineer at Tomra Sorting Recycling


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