Bright future for material recovery facilities
The need for bigger and more advanced material recovery facilities to radically improve the UK's management of refuse was highlighted at a key gathering of waste professionals in London this week.
Among the speakers was Linda Crichton, manager of WRAP's Recycling and Organics Technical Advisory Team who stressed the importance of MRFs and the lessons the UK could learn from their use overseas.
"Material recovery facilities will be critical to the delivery of higher rates of recycling nationally," she told delegates.
"To deliver targets we'll have to collect more of the materials we're currently collecting and also focus on a wider variety of materials and that will require better sorting technologies."
Presenting research conducted by WRAP, she outlined potential progress and pitfalls in the implementation of MRFs globally.
In the USA, she said, a much wider variety of materials were being recycled and this had led to a move away from kerbside sorting and towards a reliance on MRFs designed to cope with mixed waste.
"The more materials that are recycled, the more efficient automated sorting becomes," she said.
"But large facilities are required if you are going to achieve the economies of scale."
The UK is currently in a position where many of its MRFs have been built into existing, outdated waste facilities where space constraints on the sites have meant large-scale operations had been impossible.
"We also have a broad range of collection systems and much of our sorting tends to be done at the kerbside, which means we have a lot of small MRFs which isn't necessarily the best way to go."
To become economically attractive, sites needed to be processing over 50,000 tonnes of waste per annum, she said, which meant looking at ways to diversify, whether by taking in a wider spectrum of materials or accepting waste from varying sources.
"If you have a fully-automated facility dealing with less than that it doesn't make sense from an economic point of view," said Ms Crichton.
"So economies of scale will become critical. Many overseas schemes collect over 16 materials and there are also opportunities to develop facilities that handle municipal and industrial/commercial waste."
But most important in ensuring the figures stacked up was knowing there would be a strong market for the end product.
"We need to work on it, but we've got the future potential to produce higher quality and higher value products and that equals higher market interest.
"And that is what we are really looking for because with that you are able to secure more stability and longer term opportunities."