While there are some plastics that MRFs are happy to see roll through their doors, others, namely those labeled 3 through 7, have historically presented problems that make sorting and processing them economically impractical. But an emerging recovery model is changing the plastics recovery landscape: the PRF, or plastic recovery facility. These facilities buy MRFs’ mixed polymer bales, extract plastics 3 through 7, and sell it. Slowly, PRFs have come online to pump the industry as the commodities market in China has dwindled. And these operations are beginning to fill a fast-growing demand, here on domestic soil.
PRFs are a critical link in the post-consumer plastic business. And their emergence has allowed U.S. recyclers to recover the material again, says Greg Janson, CEO of QRS Inc., a Baltimore-based PRF that buys from MRFs in the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada. Through the collaboration, MRFs make a little cash off of what was once a headache, while QRS capitalizes too and feeds processed plastics what would otherwise be landfilled to manufacturers.
“MRFs are designed to handle large volumes of material where it’s in the back door and out the front in a short time. These materials require separation, which can be time -consuming and costly; meanwhile MRFs are under tremendous pricing challenges as the commodities markets plummet,” says Steve Alexander president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
Meanwhile, demand is climbing, especially for recycled polypropylene (PP). A new study of the Association of Plastic Recyclers reports manufacturers will need more than 280 million pounds of nonfood grade PP over the next 30 months, based on 21 brands’ responses.
MRFs' recover less-than-robust volumes of some individual plastics, making capitalizing on them impossible. When recyclers don’t have enough to work with, whether PP, polyethylene (PE) or black materials – optical sorters can’t pick up black – PRFs aggregate it and work with it.
“MRFs bale it and ship it to us by the trailer load, which is 19 to 22 tons each. If I am running 5,000 tons of material, that would translate to about 250 loads,” says Janson.
“An individual MRF will produce two to five loads a month, but I bring in 250 so I can make the investment; that’s the concept. It’s a domestic process and solution for mixed post-consumer plastic containers.”
Where it starts and where it goes
When single-stream collections enter MRFs, fiber, glass and metals are removed. Next, optical sorters remove most of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). If there’s a third sorter, remaining plastic can be blown into the stream to create mixed bales sold to PRFs. If there is no third sorter QRS still buys it and processes out contaminants.
In addition to plastics, QRS has noncontainer residual trash, and some aluminum and tin that they put through what Janson calls a sophisticated sorting process.
“So we are unscrambling the omelet to package and sell separated materials,” he says.
The company sells to the PET bottle-to-bottle market, and also sells PET used as carpet fiber. HDPE has had value as feedstock for underground pipes and for plastic lumber. And demand for PP includes use for car parts and durable goods like pallets and crates.
But there’s more work to be done to grow the market. And getting the whole value chain to support recycling will be key, says Janson.
“We need to find other uses for materials. Keurig can’t make coffee pods of recycled resin, but we can make a pallet if they tell their pallet makers to use post-consumer resin,” he says.
The operation he oversees is a recipient of a loan from Closed Loop Fund, which supports recycling infrastructure with investments from major brands.
“We had brand owners come out so we could showcase some of what their investment is used for and to discuss how we could work better together on design for recyclability and to support markets. So we are working with brands to tell them what works and what doesn’t, and here are our challenges and solutions. We are letting them know where they can help,” says Janson.
Collaboration is key
“When we export our [hard-to-recycle] stuff to another part of the world, we also export the opportunity to work together to solve problems here,” says Janson. “And then we are not innovating. But now we are working domestically with the packaging industry to solve problems. And we are reshoring recovery. That’s very fulfilling.”