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The Evolving Landscape of Material Recovery Facilities

At the Packaging Recycling Summit 2023, attendees learn about today's challenges and advancements in the material recovery facility sector, that include contamination issues, technology's role, and the need for improved consumer education.

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Yesterday’s panel discussion at the Packaging Recycling Summit 2023 in Atlanta, titled Inside the Business of MRFs, highlighted both problems and opportunities that MRFs (material recovery facilities) face as it pertains to tackling the recycling problem. The panel consisted of:

1.    Pete Adrian, SWALCO-Solid Waste Agency Lake County 

2.     Jeff Snyder, Director of Recycling, Rumpke

3.     Myles Cohen, Founder, Circular Ventures LLC

4.     Jane Fridley DeGigit, Sales & Procurement MGR, MyPLas

MRFs are a critical component of the recycling ecosystem, tasked with the complex job of sorting and processing recyclables. As the industry navigates a landscape of consumer confusion, contamination, and evolving technology, stakeholders are calling for more tangible and effective strategies to enhance the recycling process.

MRFs operate within a for-profit framework and face the challenge of maintaining profitability while addressing environmental concerns. The closure of recycling facilities in various cities due to contamination levels and other economic pressures highlights the delicate balance between sustainability and business viability.

Businesses contribute significantly to U.S. recycling tonnage, accounting for approximately 80% of the material processed. Unfortunately, residential recycling rates are declining, or flat, and consumer confusion often leads to contamination from at-home recycling, which remains a persistent issue for MRFs. Contamination rates can reach as high as 18-20%, with a portion of that being recyclable materials that are not recovered due to contamination. This not only affects the efficiency of MRFs, but also has economic implications, as contaminated recyclables are less valuable in the market.

The problem is highlighted by the fact that a substantial amount of recyclable material, such as cardboard and plastics, still ends up in landfills. For instance, approximately 70% of residential cardboard and a significant portion of plastics designated as recyclable are not recovered. This inefficiency points to a need for better consumer education and more effective sorting technologies.

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New Solutions Arise

One of the technological solutions being implemented in MRFs is the use of X-ray and artificial intelligence (AI) to better identify contaminants. Additionally, advancements in optical sorting technology, which uses infrared (IR) to sort materials, are proving effective in reducing contamination rates. These technologies can identify and sort recyclables by shape, color, and size, enhancing the purity of the recovered materials.

Despite these advancements, the issue of shrink sleeves on plastic bottles and other similar contaminants remains a challenge. These materials often end up not being recovered due to their composition and the way they interact with the sorting equipment. Collaboration between manufacturers, brand owners, and MRFs is crucial to address these issues, with a focus on designing packaging that is more compatible with current recycling technologies.

The panel also discussed the role of consumer education in improving recycling rates. The consensus was that keeping recycling guidelines simple and avoiding complex materials that consumers do not understand, such as multi-layered plastics, would help reduce contamination. There is also a need for infrastructure that supports effective recycling, such as better sorting at the source and clear labeling on packaging to guide consumer behavior.

The economic aspect of recycling cannot be ignored. If recycling is not mandated or economically incentivized, businesses may not see the value in participating. As such, there is a call for mechanisms that make recycling economically viable for businesses, which could include regulatory measures or market-based incentives.

Looking ahead, the panelists expressed optimism about the potential of chemical recycling, which could provide a solution for plastics that are currently difficult to recycle mechanically. While the technology is still developing, the interest and investment in this area suggest that it could become a more significant part of the recycling landscape in the future.

Thus, the MRF sector is at a crossroads, with technology offering new ways to tackle old problems, but consumer at-home recycling rates, which are on the decline, still presenting the same challenges. The industry must continue to adapt, with a focus on reducing contamination, improving consumer education, and fostering collaboration between all stakeholders. As technology evolves and the market for recycled materials grows, the hope is that more effective and sustainable recycling practices will emerge, benefiting both the industry and the environment.

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