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How does a Materials Recycling Facility work?

MRF, pronounced murf, is not just a funny word. It stands for Materials Recycling Facility, and over the next few posts I’m going to be explaining to you how they work! I have had the luck of visiting two MRFs recently (one in London, one near Geneva) and meeting the awesome people who run these centres and know far more about recycling than I do! I’ve learned so much and want to share it, as I know recycling is a rather mystical and poorly understood process.

Since there is so much to write about (and I’m not known for my brevity…), I’m going to break this up into four separate articles. Expect the others over the next few days, where I’ll be covering:

  • PART ONE: How is recycling collected?
  • PART TWO: How does recycling work? (Going inside a MRF!)
  • PART THREE: What’s the problem with recycling?
  • PART FOUR: What happens with non-recyclable goods?

Recycling is a confusing process, mostly because it is highly localised – so your town’s recycling system may be totally different from the one next door to you in terms of how it is collected, what can be recycled and how it is processed. Of course, there are many places in the world that have inadequate or no access to waste management, let alone recycling. I’ll get into that more in parts 2 and 3.

The main differences in recycling start from the logistics of how it makes it to the MRF. In North America, municipalities favourise “single-stream” recycling, where you put all of your recyclable waste in one bin, usually picked up every other week from your curb. This means that more people are participating in recycling programs (since all you need to do is one “level” of separation between recyclable and non-recyclable goods, but this of course puts the onus on recycling facilities to sort waste: this is more expensive for the municipality, but also creates local jobs.

Single-stream recycling bins in Arlington, Virginia in the United States. Photo credit: Aaron Webb

In Europe, “dual stream” recycling is more popular – this is where materials are separated at the household level. Usually you will then deliver this to a local recycling drop-off centre. For example, at mine near Geneva, Switzerland we have: PET, cardboard/paper, aluminium tins and cans, Nespresso capsules, mixed plastic (for incineration) and different coloured glass. Though this is obviously cheaper for the municipality, and can work really well when people separate their waste properly. Poor understanding of how recycling works and what can be recycled leads to people putting lots of non-recyclable goods in recycling facilities. We in the “biz” like to call this “aspirational recycling” – people with their hearts in the right places wish something were recyclable, and so they will put it in the recycling bin. Unfortunately this can contaminate your recycling and create problems at the MRF, which I’ll cover more in part 2.

Some countries with more recycling schemes will have deposit/refund schemes, where you pay a premium when you first purchase an item like a can or a bottle, usually between 5 and 10 cents, and then you will get that money back once you return your empty bottle to a collection centre. This can help ensure that people have a motivating reason to bring back empty cans and has shown to be really successful, though currently only operating in 38 countries!

Container deposit scheme in New South Wales, Australia. By Bidgee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

It will be the responsibility either of the local government’s waste management department or a private contractor to transport all this recycling to the nearest Materials Recycling Facility, or MRF. What happens there, you ask? Ah, that’s for the next post…

Thanks guys for your patience and lovely notes and messages through my contact page as I went through my hiatus period – back in full force now after the long business school application process!

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