Overcoming the Business Challenges of Single Stream Recycling

Why did municipalities throw sorting to the curb?

80 percent of California jurisdictions offer single stream or mixed curbside collection- a representation of the growing nationwide trend that allows residents to throw paper, plastic, metal, and glass into the same bin. States with ambitious recycling goals, such as California’s 75 percent recycling rate by 2020, began implementing single stream programs to boost recyclable volumes.  However, the focus on quantity strained many MRFs’ ability to produce quality feedstock.

How are MRFs coping with increased volumes of mixed recyclables?

To handle incoming volumes of commingled recycling streams, many material recovery facilities updated their recycling technology and increased manual labor on the sorting line. Now, when mixed recyclables are delivered to MRFs, they pass through sorting mechanisms such as disk screens that separate by size, overhead belt magnets that capture steel and tin, eddy currents that sort nonferrous metals like aluminum,  and optical sorters.  The latest technological development is the use of robots to sort the materials.

Despite the implementation of new sorting technologies, however, about one-fourth of single stream volume is still going to landfills due to contamination.   Some operations report contamination costs an average of $140/ton.  Consumer ignorance and good intentions are behind the rising costs of processing and falling revenues. Despite widespread educational campaigns and bin stickers, residents remain confused about what is actually recyclable. Film plastic, including the notorious plastic grocery bag, poses the biggest problem to recovery facilities.  Many strange items are found in the waste streams, including lawn mowers, 20mm shells, dead animals, and fake hand grenades. Among the more dangerous items include propane-type tanks that have caused minor explosions.   Such items are not handled by machines but require extra labor to remove.

Even when residents follow the recycling guidelines, the challenge remains for the MRF operators to separate into pure grades what the residents have comingled together in their roller carts.  Recyclers are finding top-notch stock increasingly difficult to deliver to end-users, causing material values to drop.   While adding more sorters or additional separation machines results in better quality, both options add cost to the operation. This is particularly troublesome in light of China’s ongoing National Sword campaign to improve incoming material grades and rumors of outright material bans of mixed or impure grades.

How can MRFs overcome the challenges posed by single stream recycling?

Current trends enforce the idea that municipalities nationwide prefer single stream collection programs. So, how can material recovery facilities embrace this system and protect their bottom lines?

  • Invest in processing and sorting technology. Recycling technology is constantly evolving to increase identification and sorting accuracy. New sorting equipment also has increased through-put capacity.
  • Implement material audits from the point of delivery to point of outbound shipping of sorted grades.
  • Understand the needs of end markets: determine the quality and quantities required. Knowing the markets will help MRF operators decide how to tailor their operations.
  • Negotiate with municipalities for the inclusion or exclusion of materials in the stream based on the cost separate and the final value of each grade.

MRFs, as well as commercial waste generators, can incorporate all of these elements into their overall quality strategy; however, securing the counsel of experts is perhaps the single best action recyclers can take to boost their sorting efficiencies. If you handle large volumes of mixed recyclables and are looking to improve your material values, contact Berg Mill Supply today! Our industry veterans can help you capture the best possible value for recyclables by creating operational efficiencies and matching materials to the highest markets.