2015 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference: Understanding the drivers of mixed-waste processing

2015 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference: Understanding the drivers of mixed-waste processing

Panelists from two leading solid waste consulting firms explain the increased interest in mixed waste processing facilities.

October 23, 2015

Pictured at podium, Bob Brickner, GBB; seated Doug Drennen, J.R. Miller & Associates.


If one thing is certain about the recycling industry, it is constantly changing. In 2003, debate centered mostly around contamination concerns with single-stream recycling, and in 2015 mixed-waste processing is at the forefront of the discussion around quality. But as speakers at the 2015 Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference explained, as state and local governments continue to set high recycling and waste diversion goals, mixed-waste processing is an effective method to achieve those goals.

Bob Brickner, executive vice president of Fairfax, Virginia-based solid waste consulting firm Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. (GBB), emphasized the idea that nothing is eternal in the solid waste industry and that even with the amount of recycling that is taking place in 2015, in the nearly 600 single-stream material recovery facilities (MRFs) that exist in the U.S., the recovery rate has remained steady at 30 percent, with recycling only making up 22 percent of that figure, based on a recent Columbia University and BioCycle study figures.

Meanwhile, states continue to set recycling goals well above 22 percent. “Zero waste is a great concept,” Brickner said, “but it costs money. Recycling is not free.”

He noted a recent study GBB did for the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina. The report reviewed the real cost for curbside single-stream recycling from the curb setout, collection, processing at the single-stream MRF, which put the cost of recycling at $3 per household ,or $250 per ton. By comparison, landfilling only cost $45 per ton.

Another study prepared by GBB titled “The Evolution of Mixed Waste Processing Facilities 1970 – Today” was commissioned by the American Chemistry Council and sought to determine how waste composition affects the economics of mixed-waste processing facilities (MWPFs) and its impact on recycling and recovery.

The study looked at single-stream MRF only, single-stream MRF with MWPF in tandem and MWPF only in the city of Ft. Worth, Texas' residential recycling program, which currently uses a pay-as-you-throw program. The study determined that single-stream recycling alone garnered a 19 percent recovery rate, while the MWPF alone had a slightly better recovery rate of 25 percent. The best recovery rate occurred when the two processes were used in tandem, achieving a 34 percent recovery rate. When organics recovery was figured into the equation, the recovery rate for the combined processes was 55 percent.

The report concluded:

  • the average MSW stream  is half recyclables;
  • there is economic value in extracting additional recyclables from automated MWPFs;
  • MWPFs working in tandem with MRFs could significantly increase landfill diversion; and
  • contaminated waste streams, particularly paper and fibers, will affect quality, marketability and commodity values.

GBB arrived at similar conclusions with the Fayetteville study, which also showed the MRF in tandem with a MWPF achieved higher recovery rates, including:

  • 58 percent more OCC, mixed paper and old newspapers (ONP);
  • 107 percent more polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and mixed plastics; and
  • 156 percent more metals.

Brickner also alluded to the recent temporary closure of a mixed waste MRF in Montgomery, Alabama, stating that at the time of the closure plastics quality was the same as that of single-stream MRFs and paper was selling at about $5 per ton above the average price in the Southeast. He emphasized a “markets first” approach to recycling and closed with the advice, “If you can’t sell it, don’t make it.”

Doug Drennen, senior project manager for J.R. Miller & Associates, Brea, California, discussed the costs and mechanics of collection and mixed waste processing. He noted that California’s goal of 75 percent recovery by 2020 (Assembly Bill 341) had increased the pressure to recycle more material. Collection costs for one-bin programs can run between $10-$12 per household each month and when you have separate bins for garbage, commingled recyclables and yard waste, the costs can run about $18-$22 per month per household, he said.

Areas that have higher participation rates and lower residual rates from single-stream recycling, such as Portland, Oregon, and San Carlos, California, can lower their cost per ton.

Two driving factors for consider a single bin collection are lower participation and high contamination at MRFs. It can also provide an opportunity to target the mixed commercial waste and move toward meeting state diversion goals.

Drennen said the technology at MWPF has advanced and includes screening, bag openers (shredders can also be used), air density separators, ballistic separators, optical sorting, eddy current and magnetic separation. The Montgomery facility had an overall recovery rate of 60 percent with individual commodities (plastics, paper and metals) being recovered at over 90 percent, according to an audit.

An integrated waste management system can include more than just recyclables as an end product. The Newby Island Resource Recovery Facility in San Jose, for example, is recovering organics for anaerobic digestion, which can then be turned into electricity, compressed natural gas and compost, explained Drennen. Refuse-derived fuel is another market for residuals from the MRF.

According to Drennen, the implementation of the Newby Island facility has increased waste diversion in San Jose from 22 percent to 72 percent.

“Collection programs need to complement the processing technology selected,” said Drennen. He also emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships to balance the risks.

The 2015 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference was Oct. 14-16 at the Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Next year’s conference will be Oct. 19-21 at the same venue. More information will be available at www.RecyclingTodayEvents.com as it is confirmed.