Co-mingled MRFs – Challenging times but is there a new lease of life coming?

The recycling industry is facing tough challenges. Keeping up with higher quality specifications for outputs, low commodity prices and increased contamination, especially during these COVID times, are putting the squeeze on profit margins. The net result is that operating a co-mingled Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) is hard work at the moment.

From Turmec’s perspective, the co-mingled MRF (also known as single stream MRFs) designed 10 or more years ago is moving through the end stages of its product lifecycle and is now moving from maturity to saturation where achieving profit becomes challenging, costs become counter optimal and competition for material (both infeed and outputs) is high.

The natural move is to increase the size and throughput of MRFs and increase the use of technology. This may involve upgrading existing co-mingled MRFs to install additional process lines to increase capacity, or, the installation of additional NIR technology to improve quality, to reduce labour costs or to replace equipment reaching the end of its useful life or no longer performing optimally in the current environment.

But this can be especially challenging for smaller MRFs which maybe space constrained, and the cost benefit analysis may not be so compelling.

Collection strategy also plays a part. We know the choice of collection system is complicated and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution but these factors, plus the quest to increase the range of product outputs and to improve output material quality, are pushing collection authorities steadily towards kerbside sorting and two-stream comingled collections.  In a two-stream system the fibre is collected in one box and containers including glass, in another. This move by collection authorities can be seen as good news for co-mingled MRFs.

The kerbside collection element of a two-stream comingled collection system can improve quality, acting as a pre-sort where elements of contamination such as textiles, toys, wood etc are not collected, resulting in cleaner target materials placed in the back of collection vehicles.

How does the typical co-mingled MRF turn this into an opportunity?

Normally, a co-mingled MRF will consist of sizing equipment such as trommels, OCC and ONP screens to separate fibre from containers for onward treatment by other equipment such as NIRs. 

One of the big challenges for MRFs handling single stream material is the size distribution of the different material: for instance, there are large and small pieces of fibre and large and small containers, resulting in cross contamination of target materials in addition to the normal non-target contamination received. By removing the cross contamination and some of the non-target contamination, the separation and clean-up of target material will be easier.

Working closely with our clients, our solution to reconfigure co-mingled MRFs is to create two distinct infeed points for each material stream to create a fibre sorting line and a container line. Each line is focused on improving the quality of materials using the correct amount of technology.

At Turmec, we love building new plants but recognise that the investment into new large scale greenfield MRFs is increasingly hard to justify commercially. By adapting and upgrading existing facilities we can extend the lifecycle of comingled MRFs and help them remain competitive and profitable in the face of changing market conditions.

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