Contamination, automation, globalization and federal engagement were all hot topics at last week’s 2020 MRF Summit, a joint virtual conference hosted by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA).
Despite the many pandemic- and economy-related challenges the industry has faced this year, SWANA CEO David Biderman highlighted numerous reasons for optimism and embracing opportunities. “The value of the recovered materials coming out of the back of a MRF is about double what it was at the start of year,” he said.
Biderman also cited the wave of companies making commitments to use more recycled content in their containers and packaging, more companies and local governments reporting declining material contamination rates and greater federal involvement in recycling.
Starting from the top
Last week, the U.S. EPA released its draft National Recycling Strategy, which lays out objectives and actions to create a stronger, more resilient national recycling system. A key goal is to increase the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030. The strategy is scheduled to be finalized next year.
“The EPA is taking an important leadership role in promoting and enhancing recycling. … This more active and visible federal role in recycling sends a powerful message to all recycling stakeholders, and successfully implementing components of the National Recycling Strategy will result in less contamination, more efficient MRF operations, additional recyclables and scrap diverted away from landfills and importantly, more jobs," Biderman said.
Speakers also stressed that Congress can and should do more to support recycling. Consumer education and engagement are prime areas where it can offer funding and resources, said Sarah Peery, legislative assistant in the office of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Last year, Portman and co-sponsor Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) introduced the Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education (RECYCLE) Act to create a federal program to bolster recycling programs and education with a proposed $75 million in funding.
Portman recognizes that consumer confusion is one of the main challenges for recyclers, Peery said, as it leads to lower program participation and higher contamination rates. He also would like “some sort of federal incentive or investment to help our MRFs upgrade their systems,” Peery said. “Some of them, frankly, were created to recycle paper — and look at all materials that we can recycle today.”
Adding automation to MRFs has increased in popularity over the last few years, but especially in the past year and during the pandemic. Optical sorters have essentially become mainstream and the use of robotics is increasing considerably, speakers said.
"There’s probably several hundred robots deployed now in North America for single-stream, dual-stream applications and also some C&D as well. That's really probably two to three times the number of robots there were at this time last year. There's a significant growth rate,” said Rob Writz, director of business development at AMP Robotics.
Automation lowers costs by improving efficiencies, which is beneficial considering MRFs’ fixed costs more than doubled in the last decade. Sorting robots now can regularly perform more picks than a human over an entire shift, according to speakers. Automation also serves as a safety measure because it removes humans from high-risk, repetitive tasks and prevents people from working in close proximity during the pandemic.
“The robots are really increasing throughput at those sorting stations. They’re really helping to ensure worker safety as well, and helping to keep operations going and keep the MRFs being resilient,” Writz said.
Several speakers noted it’s crucial to incorporate the right automation for each task, because technology is not universal. For example, optical sorters are more efficient than robotic arms at sorting PET.
“If you can get the robot in the right place, in the right situation… they do a very good job. And they do the exact same job all day long. That’s a big deal in the MRF business,” said Will Herzog, U.S. Western region sales manager at Machinex.
Panelists only expect growth to continue in the coming months and years as robots become increasingly specialized for the recycling industry and more efficient.
“I’m pretty bullish on robotics,” said Brent Hildebrand, vice president of recycling at GFL Environmental. “They’re working for me. But I can’t stress enough… it has to be the right application. I’ve got facilities that I want to put more in, but they’re just not quite the right application. That’s where the other technology will come into play too, like optical sorting.”
World of difference
China has dominated recycling discussions for years, especially since National Sword policies took effect. Recent crackdowns on recyclable material imports have slightly reduced its prominence as a global trade partner, but it still holds a presence and new changes on the horizon are expected to create ripples throughout the industry.
China already stopped accepting most plastic scrap collected and baled at MRFs, as well as mixed paper. Next year it is expected to stop taking all grades of recovered paper, said Adina Renee Adler, ISRI’s vice president of advocacy. This could prompt China's paper mills to import more pulp, which would still be allowed under the new regulations. U.S. mills already have been making investments to produce pulp at a grade acceptable to China in anticipation of the changes.
The Chinese government is also developing recycled raw material standards for metals to ensure they are mill-ready, and it might do the same for recycled plastic pellets. It is unclear if or when that would occur, Adler said, but it could be in 2021. That would affect manufacturers who produce pellets from plastics collected and sorted at MRFs.
As China has tightened its standards, other countries emerged as stronger players in the global recycling trade. Indonesia, Malaysia and India lead the pack; although India experienced a slump this year when recyclers were forced to close during the country’s near-total lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic. The Indian government appears to still be thinking about new restrictions on incoming material following an attempted plastic scrap ban that ended up not coming to fruition, Adler said.
A recent plastic-related amendment to the Basel Convention will also be a powerful global force to watch next year, Adler indicated. Following approval by 187 countries last year, the 25-year-old hazardous waste agreement will now include new limitations on the export of plastic scrap. This policy is slated to take effect Jan. 1.
However, much uncertainty surrounds its implementation, Adler pointed out. First, the language of some restrictions is vague. Specifically, the agreement only allows the trade of plastics that are “almost” free from contamination and constructed “almost” entirely of one resin.
Although work is underway to tighten the language, the revised document almost certainly will not be completed by January. That’s creating confusion about exactly which materials will be permitted for trade when the new year arrives. The language likely will be interpreted differently by different governments, Adler said.
The United States is not one of the signatories to the Basel Convention, meaning any of the controlled materials on the ban list are prohibited from entering or exiting the country. This, combined with the lack of clarity over enforcement, creates uncertainty about domestic recyclers’ future participation in global materials markets.
Separately, there is work ongoing that might redefine recycling and what constitutes a recycler under the convention, which in turn could alter material movement. For example, a plastic toy manufacturer might be considered a recycler but a MRF might not. ISRI is “fighting tooth and nail” to ensure Basel recognizes that “we’re all recyclers,” Adler said.