Most avenues for improving recycling in the U.S. run through approximately 300 little-known material recovery facilities, or MRFs, that manage our “recyclables” after they are collected curbside.
MRFs serve a vital function of receiving, separating and then preparing recyclable materials for sale to end-user manufacturers. They are a gatekeeper determining how much of the collected material ends up in landfills and how much moves onto recyclers.
But their operations could be improved in several key ways with the help of local and national policymakers.
First is to better standardize recycling containers. At present, various types and sizes of containers are in use in any given region and that has a knock-on effect concerning how much and what types of discarded materials are delivered to MRFs.
Second is to improve collection of recycling materials away from the home, in offices and businesses, for example.
Third, consumers must be better educated about what can and cannot be placed in a recycling bin — this will improve efficiencies and sorting of recyclables at the MRFs. In addition, sorting technology at MRFs must continue to improve so that more recyclable materials can be identified and sent on to be recycled.
But the most important improvement to make, one that will bolster MRFs and the entire recycling system, is the creation of sufficient domestic markets for more recyclable materials. This will require a concerted and collaborative effort by policymakers and industries that would unleash big incentives for MRFs to get them even more focused on diverting materials away from landfills and into the recycling stream.
“The key to fixing recycling in the U.S. is developing the domestic market,” said an article by Columbia University’s Climate School. “This means improving the technology for sorting and recovering materials, incorporating more recycled material into products, getting these products into the marketplace and creating demand for them.”
That’s exactly the approach the U.S. food and beverage carton industry took in what can serve as a case study for policymakers searching for solutions to improve MRFs and improve recycling.
Back in 2009, regional MRFs were reluctant to accept for recycling food and beverage cartons, like the kind used for milks, soups or juices. Some MRF operators said that the carton volume was too low to recycle efficiently, that it was too difficult to sort the cartons from other recyclables or that an insufficient end market existed for the materials in recycled cartons. At the time, MRFs didn’t have sufficient capacity to include these types of cartons in recycling programs, and thus too many were ending up in landfills.
As an industry, carton manufacturers banded together to invest millions of dollars in improving MRFs — providing them resources for new technologies and training that allowed sorting machines to better process cartons, thus creating a larger supply of the recycled cartons.
On the demand side, carton manufacturers focused their attention on developing domestic markets for recycled cartons. The materials inside cartons are highly valued for use in an array of products such as tissue, paper towel, printing and writing paper, as well as in building products. The carton industry worked with the paper stock industry to develop a grade specification for cartons. Establishing the commodity grade known as “PSI Grade 52” helped spur demand for the recycled cartons among U.S. paper mills.
The results are impressive. In 2008, only about 18 percent of U.S. households had access to carton recycling. But by 2014, after the teaming of the carton and recycling industries, that had grown to 50 percent of U.S. households, as noted in a University of Michigan assessment. Today, the figure tops 60 percent.
As the success of carton recycling demonstrates, when industries work directly with MRFs to improve sorting and with other companies to nurture domestic markets for recyclable materials, everyone — especially the planet — benefits.
Jeffrey Fielkow is president and CEO of Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada, which is based in Denton, Texas.