What is a Materials Recovery Facility?
A materials recovery facility (MRF), otherwise known as a materials reclamation facility or materials recycling facility, is a plant that separates recycling materials to be sold back into the commodity market and reused by manufacturers. The MRF is an essential component of residential and commercial recycling programs. Single-stream recycling is the collection of all recyclable waste from a business or homeowner’s single recycling bin. The majority of residential recycling programs have shifted to single-stream recycling from dual-stream (82%) as there are many benefits to the collection and processing of all materials mixed together, rather than source-separated methods. Materials Recovery Facilities receive these mixed-up materials and use a variety of equipment and manual labor to separate them.
The materials recovered at MRFs include certain metals, aluminum, glass, plastic, and paper and may vary by county. There are many types of MRFs, two of which are Clean MRF and Dirty MRF. Clean MRFs process recyclable materials only, while Dirty MRFs process solid waste to remove salvageable recyclable materials from garbage.
How Does a Typical Single Stream Materials Recovery Facility Work?
First, recycling is picked up from residential homes and businesses by a hauler. Haulers in the surrounding areas then bring the collected recyclables to a nearby Materials Recovery Facility.
Once the haulers have arrived at the Materials Recovery Facility, the recycling travels across a conveyor belt to the presort station. Workers manually remove non-recyclable materials and large pieces of metal or other unwanted items. This is a crucial step because if not removed, these items can cause damage to the downstream sorting recycling equipment and the workers themselves.
While almost all clean MRFs are unique in some way, most have the same basic steps. The first step in the recovery process is the removal of cardboard, and this is most often separated by size. Next, the rest of the paper products are removed, leaving only the containers and any non-recyclables. As the different paper commodities are removed, they are distributed onto separate conveyors for further processing to attain a prescribed level of cleanliness acceptable to the greater commodity market.
The remaining material then travels along a sort line, where the different plastics are sorted by type. Sometimes, workers do this manually or by optical sorters that use a camera and some clever software to differentiate between the various commodities.
The metals are the next material to be removed. Powerful magnets attract steel cans and other magnetic metal as it passes by. Once magnets collect the steel and tin, an eddy current separator uses a strong magnetic field that repels the remaining non-ferrous metals from other materials and forces them into a separate bin
Glass is retrieved by breaking it into smaller pieces and removing it by size, but this also brings with it all of the small non-glass items such as shredded paper and bottle caps. Air separation systems can be used to separate heavy glass from lighter material.
Once the separating process is complete for all recyclable materials, we are left with six major groups of recyclables: paper products and cardboard, aluminum, steel, glass, and finally plastics. Each material is then compacted and baled to be sold into the commodity market, or to an end-user like a paper mill.
Clean MRFs vs. Dirty MRF
A clean materials recovery facility processes residential or commercial single-stream recycling. These are simply recyclable materials that you place in your curbside recycling bin that is picked up periodically by the haulers. The majority of materials at Clean MRFs are already recyclable materials, as they have been pre-sorted by the businesses and homeowners themselves.
A dirty materials recovery facility sorts through and processes residential or commercial garbage in search of recyclable materials that have been thrown out as trash rather than sorted in a separate bin. When they work alongside clean materials recovery facilities, dirty MRFs can allow for a greater overall recovery of recyclable materials; however, they typically cost more to run because of the excess of manual labor to sort and remove the trash.
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