Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs): How it works and why soft plastics are a challenge.
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Until quite recently, people have disposed of their garbage and recyclables with little after-thought about what happens to this material. With current concerns surrounding waste in our environment, alongside other sustainability issues such as climate change, the public have become more aware about their waste and a majority of people are looking to have less negative impacts.
In regards to our recycling stream here in Australia, we must understand the process of recycling to understand the challenges we face with soft plastics in particular with our current co-mingled stream.
What is a Material Recovery Facility (MRF)?
The MRF is where all the product from our recycling bins go once they’ve been collected to be sorted.
How does the process work?
The collection trucks offload the materials into a large open shed at the MRF, where piles are picked up by small forklifts and placed on a conveyor belt. This then travels into the main room of the MRF where a series of conveyor belts and rollers sort different materials from others based on physical attributes (weight, shape, size) with the help of MRF workers and sorters. This process is shown in the infographic video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CFE5tD1CCI
Why do soft plastics cause so many issues in co-mingled recycling?
There are two main issues when we look at recycling soft plastics-
Firstly, the physical make-up of soft plastic mimics the qualities of paper, which is problematic when trying to separate each material category in the current MRF process.
Secondly, unlike most rigid plastic containers (such as PET bottles), soft plastics aren’t all made of a single, easily identifiable polymer type, with many soft plastics containing layers of different polymer types. Even if a single pouch is made from one type of plastic, separating soft plastics from one to another once they’re scrunched up, dirty, torn and mingled in with the rest of our recyclable waste makes things even more difficult. While a select few MRF’s overseas utilise speciality lighting frequencies and high-end technologies to scan and sort different types of plastics (similar to how we sort different coloured broken glass), it is not a complete solution.
These two issues are why we cannot currently accept soft plastics into our co-mingled, kerb-side recycling stream. However, neither of these issues are unsolvable, and we expect innovation in our recycling infrastructure in the next few years that will allow easier collection, sorting, and (most importantly) reuse of these soft plastic materials in new applications.
Simultaneously, manufacturers are working on alternative soft plastic materials that utilise a single-polymer type, without losing the packaging performance and barrier properties required for all food applications. This means that when reclaimed, these polymers would be easier to sort into a polymer category, and provide much less contamination between material types that could allow us better opportunity to re-purpose and re-use.
Is there any non-landfill option currently for soft plastics?
Soft plastics can currently be returned to bins within most Coles and Woolworths stores, which are collected by an organisation called Redcycle (https://www.redcycle.net.au/ ), with items sorted, cleaned, and distributed to a number of companies that create new products from the recycled items (such as Replas: https://www.replas.com.au/).