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Waste360 Recycling Summit

Is Mixed Waste Processing Dead?

TAGS: Recycling
Sorting recycling material
Here's what Recycling Summit attendees can expect from the "Is Mixed Waste Processing Dead?" session on September 20.

Members of the waste and recycling industry have had their ups and downs with mixed waste processing, but has it finally seen the end of its life?

Shawn State, senior vice president of the Southern Region recycling division at Pratt Industries, and Rich Reardon, regional sales manager at Bulk Handling Systems, will be speaking at the Waste360 Recycling Summit on Tuesday, September 20, at their session “Is Mixed Waste Processing Dead?” The duo will be joined by JD Lindeberg of RRS and Hilary Gans of South Bay Recycling.

Waste360 spoke with State and Reardon about the past, present and future state of mixed waste processing and what Recycling Summit attendees can expect from the session.

Waste360: How would you define mixed waste processing?

Shawn State: For me, mixed waste processing is the act of bringing municipal solid waste into a facility and trying to pull recyclables out of it.

Rich Reardon: Mixed waste processing is the application of mechanical processing to recover value from a material stream that includes recoverables and a high amount of inbound residue. This can be municipal solid waste, commercial waste or even material found in a single stream collection program.

Mixed waste processing streams can recover OCC, mixed paper, PET, HDPE, PP, mixed rigid plastics, Fe, non-ferrous (including Al), glass, plastic film, food waste and other organics.

Waste360: Over the years, how have you seen mixed waste processing change?

Shawn State: I have not seen it work successfully so it really hasn’t changed. It has not worked in the U.S., and there’s not a successful model that I am aware of that is pulling recyclables. The materials just aren’t as clean as they need to be for the end user.

I think that in order to get the recyclables of the quality that end users need that it needs to not be comingled with mixed waste. Currently, the technology that is out there really hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years, and there isn’t a technology that I am aware of that is capable of cleaning the material to the point where you can mix it with mixed waste and still sell the recyclables to the end markets.

Rich Reardon: In the 1990s and early 2000s, mixed waste processing was a manually intensive proposition. These systems were called dirty MRFs—a term that refers to a small, manual pick line, and possibly a screen to remove fines. These were designed to capture the “low hanging fruit” and while recovery of reusable products was done, it was on a very small scale. 

Today’s advanced facilities employ automation to process high volumes of material and create high-quality end products. Additionally, the developments of ancillary technologies, such as dry anaerobic digestion and other organics recovery systems to make compost, have provided the need for organic separation within these systems to maximize the value of the organic content. 

Rather than just a weigh station for baled commodities, a mixed waste MRF is a source of energy; supplying an organic feedstock to create biogas for electricity production or converting that biogas to CNG to fuel a fleet of trucks.

A mixed waste MRF today is a high-production and increasingly efficient operation.  It delivers dependable uptime and a large volume of quality recyclables.  In fact, buyers of these commodities have compared them favorably to single stream outputs.

Waste360: What is the current state of mixed waste processing?

Rich Reardon: There are still plenty of detractors, as there was when single stream collection was being implemented in favor of dual stream applications. It’s clear that we’re never going to reach high diversion goals with only single stream collection.  Despite best efforts with single stream collection programs, a significant amount of recyclables end up going to landfill, and this is one area in which mixed waste processing fits into the mix.

That is not to say that mixed waste processing systems will be cannibalizing single stream collection anytime soon, and it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. Mixed waste processing and single stream work best together to really maximize recovery and the purity of end products. 

Waste360: What do you see for the future of mixed waste processing?

Shawn State: I think that what’s happening is people are using the equipment that’s available to them, which is the same equipment that has been available 5-10 years ago, to try and pull recyclables out of mixed waste. They might even be trying some different configurations of the equipment or adding multiple layers of the equipment that’s available to try and clean the material but at the end of the day, we aren’t seeing the material clean enough to utilize in our mills.

I think for it to work, the economics have to work and there has to be an end market for it. Even though I haven’t seen a program in the U.S. where the economics will work, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one out there. In large part, I think that’s driven by landfill costs being low in the U.S. and the end users (the folks who need to use recyclables in their mills or process) needs to be clean enough for us to use it and from our perspective, it hasn’t been clean enough.

Rich Reardon: Diversion goals are not going to be minimized or move backwards. Mixed waste processing is driven by policy and consumer demand and if we really want to be serious about diversion and perhaps more importantly creating high-quality end products to reduce the amount of virgin materials used in creating new products, mixed waste processing needs to be a part of the mix.

I see it continuing to be an option that communities embrace. For the operator, it is a value add, not only allowing for a higher capture of available commodities, but providing market based flexibility by recycling products previously not able to be recovered.

Additionally, with the development of these separation technologies we can retrofit older single stream systems to deal with the evolving mix of packaging materials that antiquated systems are not equipped to reclaim.

Waste360: What are some of the things that members of the industry can do to better manage mixed waste processing? 

Rich Reardon: The development of end markets is important—there’s the capability to capture material by types, including density, size and composition. Now, what do we do with it? We’re seeing some creative uses for non-traditional commodities. And on the consumer side, I think it’s important for the industry to work with our stakeholders and producers to help design consumables that are recyclable with our technology while, in turn, we need to continue to create innovative technology that can recycle our consumables. 

Technology is being developed to target the “evolving ton.” As the material mix and packaging types continue to change, the technology across the board for mixed waste and single will be targeted to make recovery of resources economically possible. 

Waste360: What can attendees expect from your session at Recycling Summit?

Shawn State: I want to make sure that we talk about the economics of mixed waste processing. I think it’s important for the folks that are looking at this technology to not get hoodwinked by the way some of these municipalities have been running. More often than not, folks are left making the down payments and the mixed waste processer just disappears or goes out of business or even goes bankrupt. We need to talk about that and people need to know what the industry will look like years from now. We need to better understand economics and why mixed waste processing doesn’t work and why it won’t work. We also need to talk about the end use. If you don’t have a market to sell it to, you aren’t going to get paid a premium for the material that you are generating. I also think that we really need to explore the source separated model, and I would really like to speak on that.

Rich Reardon: Dispelling the myths around mixed waste processing.

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