Study examines improving sorting efficiencies in MRFs

Study examines improving sorting efficiencies in MRFs

Research yields information to optimize recycling of broad list of materials, according to funders of the study.


Five national trade associations representing a variety of packaging types—the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR), the Carton Council of North America (CCNA), the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR)—have commissioned a study exploring ways to optimize recycling of postconsumer packaging. The “MRF Material Flow Study” examines how numerous materials flow through several different types of material recovery facilities (MRFs) with the goal of better understanding how to get more recyclables actually recycled. It looks at where packages end up in the sorting facility, why packages flow in certain ways and what potential changes to the sorting processes could improve recovery.

“The recycling facility is where the proverbial rubber meets the road when it comes to recycling,” says Derric Brown, vice president of sustainability for the Carton Council of North America and director of sustainability for Evergreen Packaging, Memphis, Tennessee. “Even in a community with a robust recycling program inclusive of many materials, such as cartons or rigid plastics, if those items do not flow efficiently through a sorting facility and to the right place, all or some of their value may be lost and they may end up as residue, possibly in a landfill.”

He continues, “We understand that managing programs and motivating consumers to recycle is challenging enough, so we want to help by finding and communicating the study findings.”

Five U.S. MRFs representing a range of operations, including those of different sizes and those processing single- and dual-stream collected recyclables, were selected for the study. Materials, including paper and plastic cups, clamshells, containers, domes/trays, bottles, tubs, lids and gable-top and aseptic cartons, were added to the mix of standard recycling items coming in to these facilities. Materials were processed and then sample bales of paper, plastic and residue were tested, with bale contents being sorted into more than 100 categories, to where the materials flowed naturally, without intervention from the MRF operators, according to the study’s funders.

“The study reinforced that everyone plays a role in ensuring recycling is effective and efficient and that there are actions that can be taken at all steps in the process to help ensure items get their maximum value when they are recycled,” says Jim Frey, CEO of Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the architects of the study. “One such action is asking residents, and other recycling customers, not to flatten items before placing them in recycling containers. The study found that three-dimensional objects (packages in their original form) versus two-dimensional (flattened/crushed objects) have a higher likelihood of making it through the system to the appropriate container lines and bales. This is not only a helpful finding but an actionable one which illustrates that even everyday actions in the home can help boost recovery.”

The organizations say they look forward to finding ways to apply this knowledge to increase recovery and to working closely with stakeholders, such as communities and facilities.

The study was developed and delivered by RRS; Reclay StewardEdge, Toronto; and Moore Recycling Associates, Sonoma, California. To access the study, learn more from the funders and about how facilities and communities can apply their suggestions, visit