July 22, 2015  
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Study identifies ways to improve efficiencies in recycling facilities

Editor's Note: Based on a July 8, 2015 press release.

What steps can a resident take to ensure the items they place in a recycling container end up successfully being recycled into new products? And once at a recycling facility, how does one item make it all the way to the correct bale while another ends up in the wrong one, or worse, in the residue and ultimately, the landfill?

Packaging companies want to ensure the packages they put in the marketplace are properly managed at end-of-life, instead of ending up in the landfill. Five national trade associations representing a wide range of packaging types, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR), Carton Council of North America (CCNA), Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), joined together to commission a study to find ways to optimize the recycling of their packaging after it goes into the bin or cart. The study specifically evaluated where packages end up in a sorting facility, why packages flow in certain ways and what potential changes to the sorting processes could improve recovery.

The “MRF Material Flow Study” uniquely looks at how numerous materials flow through several different types of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) with the goal of better understanding how to get more recyclables actually recycled.

“The recycling facility is where the proverbial rubber meets the road when it comes to recycling,” said Derric Brown, vice president of sustainability for the Carton Council of North America and director of sustainability for Evergreen Packaging. “Even in a community with a robust recycling program inclusive of many materials, such as cartons or rigid plastics, if those items do not flow efficiently through a sorting facility and to the right place, all or some of their value may be lost and they may end up as residue, possibly in a landfill. We understand that managing programs and motivating consumers to recycle is challenging enough, so we want to help by finding and communicating the study findings.”

Five U.S. MRFs were selected for the study, representing a range of operations, including those of different sizes and processing different recycling streams (single- and dual-stream). Materials, including paper and plastic cups, clamshells, containers, domes/trays, bottles, tubs, lids and gable-top and aseptic cartons, were added to the mix of standard recycling items coming in to the facilities. Materials were processed and then sample bales of paper, plastic and residue were tested, with bale contents being sorted into more than 100 categories, to where the materials flowed naturally, without intervention from the MRF operators.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Size and shape make a diff­erence. Items tend to flow with similarly sized and shaped materials, so, containers shouldn’t be completely flattened or crushed by residents before being placed in their recycling bin or cart. Additionally, package form and stiffness influences flow. Materials that hold their shape have a higher likelihood of making it to the right bale.

  • Good separation is important. Maintaining equipment to ensure efficient sorting is critical.

  • Optical sorters can help identify material types. As the recycling stream evolves into being more diverse and lightweight, optical sorters play an increasingly important role.

“The study reinforced that everyone plays a role in ensuring recycling is effective and efficient, and that there are actions that can be taken at all steps in the process to help ensure items get their maximum value when they are recycled,” said Jim Frey, CEO of Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), one of the architects of the study. “One such action is asking residents, and other recycling customers, not to flatten items before placing them in recycling containers. This is not only a helpful finding but an actionable one which illustrates that even everyday actions in the home can help boost recovery.”

The organizations look forward to finding ways to apply this knowledge to increase recovery and working closely with stakeholders, such as communities and facilities. The study was developed and delivered by RRS, Reclay StewardEdge and Moore Recycling Associates. To access the study go to: www.CartonOpportunities.org/MRFStudy.

THE CARTON COUNCIL

The Carton Council was formed in 2009 to deliver long-term collaborative solutions in order to divert valuable cartons from the landfill. It is composed of four leading carton manufacturers, Elopak, SIG Combibloc, Evergreen Packaging and Tetra Pak, as well as Weyerhaeuser as an associate member. Through a united effort, the Carton Council is committed to building a sustainable infrastructure for carton recycling nationwide and works toward their continual goal of adding access to carton recycling throughout the U.S. For more information, visit www.CartonOpportunities.org.

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