A New Dawn of Quality Recyclates?

19th March 2014

Despite criticisms of the new MRF Code of Practice, which comes into play on 1 October this year, one fact remains: in 2014 material recycling facilities (MRFs) are going to have to spend time improving the quality of their dry recyclates.

Not only will ensuring compliance with these new regulations help to dispel fears of an uneven playing field between the output quality of MRF waste but it has the potential to present the UK as a high quality and well regulated player in the field of global recycling.

When DEFRA and the Environmental Services Association published the long-awaited Code of Practice in February 2013, with a focus on quality standards and equality for small and large scale MRFs, concerns were raised over the viability of the new regulations.

One year on, the MRF Code of Conduct consultation document has been published, showing the diverse nature of the industry’s responses to the new guidelines. Possibly the most controversial recommendation was the idea that materials should be sampled in MRFs that produce over 1000 tonnes of recyclate per annum, in order to establish quality. In fact, during the MRF consultation 55% of responses did not agree with the proposals on sampling, the main reasons being that the suggested provider of samples being confined only to MRFs producing over 1000 tonnes of recyclate – which would still enable smaller MRFs to produce more low quality recylate that would not accurately reflect the new high quality standards in audits – as well as the difficulty faced obtaining large samples from MRFs.

Despite comments criticising how effecting the new sampling standards will be, and how easy it will be for smaller MRFs to circumvent best practice the new code poses an interesting new challenge to larger scale MRFs. Previously, the voluntary nature of the existing recycling registration service gave companies an excuse not to fully regulate and record the quality of their input and output materials. Under the new code’s proposals, the fact that companies will legally have to report quality is likely to increase competition amongst MRFs which, in turn, is likely to increase the quality of production, something MRF operators need to ensure they are prepared for.

As Lord de Mauley, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for natural environment put it when the MRF code of conduct plans were revealed in February last year, there is a “strong business and environmental case for driving up quality” in MRF facilities.

While I am inclined to agree with Lord de Mauley, as a higher quality of produce can only be beneficial, I realise that the idea that businesses ‘must speculate to accumulate’ may be filling many with dread.  The £13 million price tag the government predicts it will cost MRFs to implement the new code is no small sum, despite the promise that £31 million could be saved in higher material revenue and reduced landfill costs.

The best way to get the best quality waste is for MRF operators to ensure they are working with the correct system for the materials that they are handling.

As the quality of output is so important, MRF operators can select specialist solutions to sort and screen accurately, allowing only the correct waste to pass through. By improving the overall quality of materials output, MRFs will make the sampling process quicker and far more pain-free.

Two effective ways of ensuring quality sorting processes are in place, are specifying a MRF system that incorporates a Trommel or Star Screen, depending on the waste materials involved – to effectively, accurately and consistently sort the waste, offering improved quality that is sometimes compromised when waste is sorted manually. By reducing trommel fines from waste, companies will also reduce the amount of money spent in landfill tax.

The size of a company’s facility is also very important when retrofitting equipment for the new Code. For the smaller MRF a mobile screen may be suitable, while a larger facility may require static equipment.  Equipment with flexibility is also essential to enable MRFs to process a variety of waste sizes and streams, considering not only current but possible future requirements.

By investing in MRF equipment that is custom built to suit their handling requirements, MRF operators can ultimately improve the quality of their samples. Other important pieces of equipment include optical sorters, overband magnets, eddy current separators and ballistic separators which also help improve output quality.

MRFs will also need to recognise that new equipment and working practices must ensure large-scale sampling of products does not compromise on health and safety standards, therefore using a more fully automated system within MRFs may bring health and safety benefits in the future.

By ensuring that MRF equipment is consistently to the highest quality, even if updating and investing is spread out over a period of time, businesses are ensuring that they will be in the best position to comply with the new codes of practice and any further legislation to be announced in the coming years. As we all know, best practice always gleans the best results, and this should be at the forefront of any MRF’s mind at the current time.

A fully audited MRF code could, given a fighting chance and a strict auditing process, increase the UK’s presence as a global player in recycling exports. It also has the potential to encourage greater collaboration among the supply chain and even reduce the amount of illegal exports. However easily the MRF Code comes into play, we’re looking at a new outlook for MRFs, which if operators are prepared for, could be more positive than it may first appear.