Test bed: Scaling up a world-first recycling solution for MDF

edie investigates the green business potential of breakthrough technologies and innovations in this new series of 'test bed' case studies. First up: a look at a world-first solution that creates a secondary material from recycled MDF boards, generating zero waste in the process.

Despite being used in everything from housebuilding to furniture, medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is notoriously difficult to recycle. However, a “world-first” technology has been developed, offering an alternative to landfill or incineration for MDF products and waste.

The company behind the innovation, MDF Recovery, is working with support from waste management company SUEZ to test the viability of the process and determine whether there is a successful route-to-market for both the technology and the recycled material it produces.

The challenge

MDF is an engineered, wood-based, sheet material made by bonding wood fibres with a synthetic resin adhesive. Around one million tonnes of MDF is used in the UK annually, and around 25 million tonnes worldwide.

Despite its popularity, MDF is a difficult material to recycle due its composite nature, the wood and additives being hard to separate. In the UK furniture sector alone, around 150,000 tonnes of MDF waste is either sent straight to landfill or burnt without using energy recovery every year. Part of the issue is that burning MDF is problematic due to the amount of dust it generates.

New technologies and solutions are needed to create a viable second-life for MDF or create a new material that offers a similar performance to virgin material.

The solution

And MDF Recovery has done just that, developing a solution that creates a secondary material source from recycled MDF boards, generating zero waste in the process. After six years of research and development, the company claims that it can now deliver this “world-first” solution that displaces demand for new virgin materials and adds a closed-loop material into the wood and natural fibre industries.

The process shreds the MDF at low speeds to minimise the amount of dust created. The product is then soaked in hot water to create a slurry. An electric current is then passed across the material, increasing the temperature of the MDF and breaking apart the resin bonds.

The wood fibres can then be removed and dried for reuse, while the wax and resins remain in the water. The water is then removed (and reused) and the additives that are left behind are dried and pressed to be used as fuel for energy recovery.

The recycled compound can be fed directly back into MDF production or sold to be used in insulation, where natural fibre products have a low take-up because they are more expensive than mineral wool.

The company is tailoring its solution to enable companies to either treat MDF waste and recycle it onsite, or send it to an MDF Recovery plant, which is currently being piloted.

The pilot

With funding provided by SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, MDF Recovery has been trialling the process in a small, 12-metre pilot plant in Chesterfield. Designed in November 2016 and operational since mid-December the same year, the pilot plant has a handling capacity of around 100kg of dry waste. It is testing how the technology reacts with different MDF board types and exploring what the energy, material and cost inputs and outputs of the process look like.

SUEZ’s involvement with MDF Recovery was established to help the latter overcome the two “valleys of death” in relation to innovation: concept delivery and industrialisation. In March 2017, SUEZ invested £250,000 to support the test-bed operations. SUEZ and MDF Recovery have collaborated for the past three to four years, including on an Innovate UK project as part of the ‘Supply Chain Innovation Towards a Circular Economy’ competition. That project sought to introduce a closed-loop recycling option for waste MDF, enabling manufacturers to utilise waste material from their customers.

The testing phase will come to an end shortly and the two firms will examine how much recycled content the process has generated, while also gaining better understanding of the operational costs and projected costs of feeding recycled MDF back into the market.

The business case

However, MDF Recovery has already been working with manufacturers to test the recycled fibre in products, with Bangor University’s BioComposites Centre now making boards using 100% recycled fibre. However, MDF Recovery feels that the eventual recycled content rate will be closer to 20% due to a lack of sufficient waste to meet manufacturing demand.

The financial payback of this process is dependent on the size of each plant, but MDF Recovery expects larger plants to provide return on investment within 18 months. Retrofit applications are also being discussed including installation onsite at existing manufacturing plants. Through this option, manufacturers could recycle the waste as it is produced and bring in extra waste material from customers to generate and sell more recycled content.

And, because all overlaying laminates and foils are also separated during the process, all types of MDF can be recycled, increasing the potential yield from customer take back and other sources.

Scaling up

Looking ahead, the company aims to establish the UK’s first commercial-scale MDF recycling facility. Its bold vision includes the licensing of its technology worldwide, potentially with a retro-fit option for existing plants.

SUEZ has already noted that the process will have a heat need, and will therefore be exploring how waste heat could be used to power the process to save money and energy.

The next phase will see a design of a commercialised plant drawn up by an engineer, using the cost and material data extracted from the test phase. What is trialled in the market will depend on the balance of the scale – the bigger the plant, the cheaper it will be for companies to treat the material, but will require more to be transported to and from the plant.

Therefore, if the test-bed phase proves commercially viable, the two companies will need to agree on a system that caters for waste MDF demand but does not cost too much to operate. SUEZ claims that a decision could be made by summer 2017, although plans for a commercialised rollout of the process are some way off. However, while data collection is ongoing, MDF Recovery is confident that there is a net cost benefit to this process.

View all of edie’s case study content here. 

Matt Mace

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