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We can plan but not second-guess

MRF Sorter

The most important piece of legislation for the recycling and waste industry in the past 20 years was undoubtedly the Landfill Tax Regulations 1996, which changed the face of the sector for ever.

This first-ever environmental tax in the UK was responsible for a new way of thinking. Whereas recycling had previously existed in specialised pockets – such as bottle banks or office paper recycling – the entire industry now had to consider what it could divert from landfill, and reuse or recycle to save landfill costs.

Hot on the heels of the landfill tax came the Producer Responsibility Obligations (PRO) 1997, which resulted in producers and commercial users of packaging having to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products. This resulted in increased recycling of both card and glass, and kickstarted plastics recycling as we know it in the UK today.

To pinpoint the birth of the modern MRF, we need to look back to the Household Waste Recycling Act 2003, the introduction of which saw local authorities required to provide at least two containers for the collection of household waste, and to collect at least two separate recyclable fractions. This move started to formalise how recyclates were collected and processed.

Then Europe’s 2008 Waste Framework Directive not only introduced higher recycling targets for household waste, but was crucial in enabling businesses to be able to define their waste, allowing the waste industry to conform to the framework’s reuse, recycling, recovery and disposal steps.

All in all, the blueprint for the modern MRF was firmly established by the early noughties.

The very first MRFs were built by equipment suppliers from other industrial sectors, such as quarrying, mining and agriculture, which adapted existing equipment – including screening drums and conveyors – to deal with relatively small amounts of clean, basic recyclates such as newspapers, cardboard and glass.

Although there is a degree of crossover between sectors, not all machinery was fit for purpose for both. For example, the requirements of a screening drum to deal with municipal solid waste (MSW) are very different from screening drums for compost or vegetables. As a result, some engineering companies developed their equipment to suit the waste and recycling market, and the most successful MRF builders nowadays are those companies that specialise solely in the waste sector.

Technology has also played a major part in the capabilities of today’s MRFs. With continuing legislation, councils need to collect an increasingly diverse range of materials to meet their recycling targets. This has resulted in MRFs becoming progressively more complex, such as that in Milton Keynes, which was rebuilt in 2005 to include near-infrared (NIR) sorters.

These optical sorting technologies and their continuous development is a great example of just how much our industry has progressed during the past few years. Early visual camera recognition sorters relied on the shape and size of materials, whereas the accuracy and range of capabilities of modern machines has increased significantly.

Automation within MRFs has become more commonplace, resulting in better quality fractions which are recovered more efficiently. And the size of individual MRFs has increased, improving their economies of scale.

We have also seen significant headway being made in engineering processes. Improved manufacturing techniques mean that we cannow produce screening drums which are 20m long and 3m in diameter – a size which simply would not have been possible 10 years ago.

The circular economy and increasingly tough EU recycling targets will continue to drive our industry to boost the recovery of recyclable materials and improve their quality. In order to achieve this, we need to focus on how we collect waste to reduce contamination, ensuring that valuable commodities within MSW can be recovered in a cleaner form.

For now, Stadler UK plans to continue its engineering focus on automation to reduce or, as in the case of our recent fully automated RoAF plant in Oslo, eradicate the need for manual sorting ( article).

Looking even further into the future brings even higher levels of innovation. Robotic technology is on the horizon, but will have similar challenges that NIR technology faced in the early years: most waste is a non-homogenous material, so the challenge for MRF process engineers and operators will be to present materials to robots in a form they can process.

Whatever the future brings, one thing is clear. As industry experts, we will never be able to second-guess the impact that future legislation may have on our sector and its potential to be a game changer for even our most coveted of plans.

Benjamin Eule is director of Stadler UK

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