Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are remarkable facilities. The most advanced facilities with top-shelf optical sorters, screens, compactors and balers that can achieve residual rates of 10 percent or lower, cranking out the maximum amounts of highly processed recycled material.
But running such facilities is not cheap. That’s an even bigger issue in today’s climate, where depressed pricing on commodities is putting a tight squeeze on returns.
That leaves recyclers with tough questions. What materials should be part of the recycling stream? How is the composition of what’s in the waste stream changing? What are the best methods? Who should bear the costs? How can municipalities—which are demanding ever higher diversion rates—share in both the upsides and the risks of the processes?
These were the fundamental themes that came up again and again throughout the 2016 Waste360 Recycling Summit, which was held this past week in Austin. The conference brought together 300 industry professionals from around the nation to tackle the key issues, challenges and opportunities facing the industry. The summit also featured the official unveiling of EREF’s “Municipal Solid Waste Management in the U.S.: 2010 & 2013” report and the announcement of the winners of the National Waste & Recycling Association’s (NWRA) annual recycling awards.
Here are some key final takeaways from the summit:
- A key session on the conference’s second day sought to break down the costs of recycling on MRF operations. It included Nat Egosi, president & CEO, RRT Design & Construction; Chris Hawn, North American sales manager, Machinex; and Pete Keller, vice president, recycling & sustainability, Republic Services.
- In looking at one model facility, Hawn estimated the single highest cost item arises from manual sorting and quality control labor. Overall, Hawn put the operating costs of a MRF at about $41 per ton. Sorting labor accounts for nearly half of that amount at $20 per ton. Overall, the facility Hawn analyzed costs about $1,435 to operate per hour. Maintenance costs, including parts and labor, amounted to an additional $6.14 per ton.
- Hawn also estimated the downtime costs of the MRF. The facility he looked at had experienced downtime of 125 hours. At a cost of $95.20 per minute, that amounted to $714,000.
- Egosi analyzed how recycling has changed and will continue to evolve, including looking at the “evolving ton” in terms of how the composition of the waste stream itself has transformed. In the future, Egosi said the industry will see more commingling, greater integration between collection and processing, further automation, rationalization and optimization.
- In terms of the waste stream, even between 2010 and 2015, there have been big changes. In 2010, a prototypical MRF saw about 54 percent news, 11 percent OCC, 27 percent containers (glass & plastics) and had 8 percent residue. In 2015, those numbers had moved to 37 percent news, 21 percent OCC, 27 percent containers and 15 percent residue. By 2020, that composition will shift further with news declining to 22 percent, OCC stabilizing at 25 percent, containers at 29 percent and residue climbing to 23 percent.
- In explaining the rise in residue, one explanation offered by the panel was so-called “wish-cycling”: items thrown out by customers with good intentions because they think or want them to be recycled. A lack of education with consumers also leads to the wrong items ending up in bins, as well as a lack of consistency between providers and municipalities. Egosi added that combining streams, moisture and shredding has become an issue, leading to some amounts of paper becoming impossible to process.
- Keller outlined what Republic Services is experiencing with its recycling operation. “We believe that if we don't make investments in diversion ... we become less relevant all the time,” he said. But the firm is also wrestling with the challenges posed by today’s waste stream, including manufacturers switching to materials that are hard or impossible to recycle. Two examples he looked at were the move from HDPE to off-spec PET plastics and the switch from easily recycable tin cans to impossible-to-process copolymer pouches.
- Keller also pointed out that lightweighting of materials has increased volumes by 20 percent. “That means a 30 ton-per-hour MRF is now effectively a 25 ton-per-hour MRF.” Keller also put contamination costs at $7 million per every 1 percent of contamination for Republic across its 67 facilities collectively.
- Glass remains a hot button material for the industry. A panel that included Tom Outerbridge, manager, municipal recycling, Sims; Jim Nordmeyer, vice president, global sustainability, Owens-Illinois; Michelle Goth, regional business director, Ripple Glass; and moderated by Richard Abramowitz, director, corporate communications & government affairs, Duracell, tackled the topic.
- Goth talked about how Ripple Glass was formed in the Kansas City, Kan., market after glass was dropped from the region’s single stream system in 2013. The company collects glass through bins at 100 collection sites in the area. She estimated the city’s glass recycling rate has gone from 3 percent to about 22 percent since the company was formed. Glass was dropped “because the three MRFs that process materials did not want it. They said they couldn't survive if glass was in the mix.” Local companies, including a major brewing company in the region, Boulevard Brewing Co., stepped in to create Ripple Glass.
- Nordmeyer spoke from the perspective of a major glass producer. “We as consumers prefer glass packaging for many of the goods we consume,” he said. “What is important about glass and glass recycling is quality. We recognize the entire value chain needs to work.” Nordmeyer said Owens-Illinois is working collaboratively with municipalities, waste haulers and MRFs to get the quality of glass it needs to support its operations.
- Overall, Nordmeyer estimated the number of glass containers consumed in the United States is just over 12 million metric tonnes. Overall, 2.4 million tonnes gets reused as glass packaging. The fiberglass industry uses between 1 million to 1.5 million tonnes. The math works out to 8 million tonnes ending up in landfills.
- Owens is part of the Glass Recycling Coalition that was formed in April. “The focus of the coalition is recycling glass to its highest and best use,” Nordmeyer said. “We’re working with the entire chain to identify best practices. … There is a huge market for glass. We're here to work with you.”
- But Nordmeyer admitted there is a fundamental obstacle—namely that the price of virgin cullet is so low that it’s hard to recycle glass and make money. “It's part of the equation glass producers use in understanding what the true value of cullet is,” he said. “There's still an economic limit.”