In the market for materials recovery

Casepak's state-of-the-art MRF is part of a new generation of plant designed to maximise materials recovery. Nick Warburton took a tour

As the man responsible for directing operations at Casepak’s new materials recovery facility (MRF) in Leicester, Kevin Thomas feels privileged to have got where he is.

One of the few industry operators to oversee the design and build of not one, but two state-of-the-art facilities, he joined Casepak in April 2011 after previously project managing SCA Recycling’s MRF in Totton, Southampton.

“We were very fortunate that we could learn from the experience gained there in terms of the technology they installed,” he reflects. “I was seconded to the Casepak project while I was employed by SCA Recycling and this MRF is really an evolution of Southampton.”

Officially launched by the environment minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach in January, the facility, on the Braunstone Frith industrial estate, began operating in September after US supplier, Bulk Handling Systems, completed the installation of its sorting technology.

The new MRF has the capacity to sort 150,000 tonnes of dry, mixed recyclables a year, including paper, card, plastics, metal and glass, which is all sourced from the municipal sector and mainly from four local authorities – Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, Blaby District Council, Rutland District Council and most recently South Holland District Council, which announced a contract with Casepak in February 2012.

Casepak is fortunate that the original planning consent for the site allows the company to develop the facility in the future – up to a maximum capacity of 360,000 tonnes a year. That ceiling is a long way off, however, and Thomas’s immediate priority is to get the MRF bedded in and “working like a well-oiled machine”, as he puts it.

When the sorting technology first kicked into action, the MRF was processing about 30,000-35,000 tonnes of materials a year. Before Christmas, however, the company landed some valuable short-to-medium-term contracts, which have doubled the volume.

Coming at the busy festive season, when municipal collections increase, Thomas has been extending the plant’s operating hours over the last few weeks. He estimates that the MRF is currently clearing around 1,500 tonnes per week with long-term growth planned in the second half of the year.

Casepak is a family-owned business with its roots in paper recovery. Since founding in the 1970s, it has expanded the material streams in response to client needs. A sister plant in Enderby focuses on source-separated materials from the commercial and industrial sector.

Thomas has no illusions about the fierce competition that exists for materials and the inevitable shift in goal posts as the market evolves.

“Throughout 2011, there was an oversupply in the market and most of us were chasing volume,” he says. “You are also trying to look at the way the market is going from a material point of view. What we are seeing is a composition change coming through the streams. Cardboard and paper are declining whereas the plastic grades are increasing.”

As a general trend, materials are also becoming smaller in size and more lightweight, he adds.

The new facility is unique in that it claims to be the first UK plant to incorporate specialist screening for highly compacted materials. In another first, the facility also features a specialist de-inking screen, which Casepak says ensures that newspapers and magazines recycled through the mixed collections reach the quality standard required by paper mills.

Often overlooked in the busy life of a MRF, manual sorters are vital to the day-to-day operations, fishing out and separating materials that cannot be recycled and sold on to the reprocessing industry. Whiskas cat pouches are one the many “problem” materials that have to be removed from the conveyor belts.

“The composite packaging items are difficult,” he admits. “Those ones where they fall in the grey area between two materials are always tricky.”

As frustrating as these materials are, Thomas does have some sympathy with residents that intentionally, or not, place these items in kerbside collections.

“It takes a long time for that experience of what you can and can’t put in the system to really embed and sometimes we expect too much of the residents,” he says. “It’s still a young industry. How old is the MRF market?”

To drive down contamination, Casepak undertakes regular reviews with its local authority customers and also provides monthly reports, which include material composition, performance, quality issues and volume information. He accepts the MRF sector is not consistent and needs to improve. Looking ahead, he welcomes talk of a mandatory code of practice.

“Let’s take the greyness out of the marketplace and have more clarity about what the expectations are for MRFs,” he says. “It’s not easy to run a MRF because the material does challenge you from time to time, but you can do it properly if you set up in the right way and approach it in the right way from a management perspective.”

With Thomas’s track record, the new facility has a bright future.

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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