UPDATE: Dec. 4, 2019: The Plastics Industry Association and other organizations recently released results from a demonstration project in Portland, Oregon that further illustrates growth potential for secondary MRFs.
According to a report on the project, a full-scale secondary MRF could recover an estimated 50,000 tons per year of recyclable material from residual streams in Oregon and Washington. Mixed paper would represent the highest volume, followed by various categories of plastics as well as cartons. Such a facility could potentially raise the regional recovery rate for residential recyclables by an estimated 3-6%, based on a current regional estimate of 88% recovery.
- The Plastics Industry Association will manage a 60-day pilot to highlight the value of MRF residuals in the Portland, Oregon area. Titus MRF Services will set up a portable version of its secondary MRF prototype at property owned by Far West Recycling.
- Using an optical sorter and other technology, Titus will sort for PET, HDPE, LDPE, PP, PS, and gable top and aseptic cartons. The goal is to create 40-ton samples that can be audited from four to-be-determined MRFs in the region.
- Funding will come in equal parts from the American Chemistry Council, AmSty, Berry Global, Carton Council, LyondellBasell and Oregon's Metro regional government. Total funding was not disclosed, but Metro confirmed its $50,000 contribution.
The concept of taking another pass at MRF residuals has started to gain traction as profit margins shrink. Even the most advanced MRFs still lose valuable material in their streams, often due to pacing and technological factors.
It's not uncommon to find aluminum, PET and other lucrative materials that were initially missed. Beyond that, the potential to prove marketability for certain commodities traditionally sorted as mixed plastics — or not accepted at all — is clearly what has brought so many plastics partners to the table.
Based in part on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's ongoing efforts to bolster infrastructure after state recycling programs were disrupted by China's scrap import policies, Portland was seen as a logical test case. A preexisting equipment relationship between Titus and Far West was likely also a factor.
"It fits really well with what's happening across the state right now," Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association, told Waste Dive. "We hope that the information not only informs decisions in the Pacific Northwest, but that this information can be translatable to other communities that have a similar mix of curbside materials."
Holmes said financial details are still being worked out for participating MRFs, but noted the data will be valuable and test bales will also represent avoided disposal costs. Companies may find it worthwhile to install new equipment at their facilities or support a larger regional facility.
Once the material is sorted, it will have interested potential buyers among the funding partners.
Amid a wave of negative media coverage, companies are looking for more ways to boost usage of recycled content and prove their products are a necessary part of the marketplace. AmSty — which has now teamed with Agilyx — can take polystyrene via a nearby facility in Tigard, Oregon. Berry Global has a stated interest in polypropylene. The Carton Council would like to prove markets exist for its products, given recent moves in states such as Massachusetts to cut them from recycling programs.
This pilot's outcome will also present a key opportunity for Titus to showcase its system. After Portland, the portable unit will now be used to prove viability and research new material streams in different markets around the country.
"We believe we will gain 'buy in' for that region that building a secondary MRF at scale is the optimal way to dig deeper in the blue bin and eliminate the risk of ocean plastic pollution leakage as well as increase diversion for the cities the MRFs serve," Titus President Mike Centers told Waste Dive via email.
The equipment company has now been handling up to 1,200 tons per month (on one shift) at its Los Angeles facility for years. The goal is to eventually build three full-scale secondary MRFs along the West Coast, which would essentially serve as regional hubs, and this pilot could help kickstart those plans.