The different types of automated sorting equipment systems, as well as the number of manufacturers of plastics recycling sorting systems, have more than doubled in the past four years, according to a survey conducted by environmental consulting company 4R Sustainability Inc. in Portland, Ore.
The survey found that there are currently 18 manufacturers of sorting equipment offering 52 different systems, as well as six manufacturers of hand-held identification sorting systems. A similar study conducted in 2006 by a different research group found just eight manufacturers and 23 systems.
The number of container-sorting systems increased from 17 to 25 in that four-year span, while the number of flake-sorting systems jumped dramatically from six to 27, said Kim Holmes, principal consultant with 4R Sustainability, in an April 13 telephone interview.
Nine of the 27 flake-sorting systems are designed specifically for electronics scrap, said Holmes. But even excluding those, the other 18 flake-sorting systems now available represent a threefold jump from 2006.
The survey results were released at Plastics Recycling 2010, held in March in Austin, Texas. The survey found that companies can expect to pay between $100,000 and $300,000 for container-sorting systems and $150,000 to $350,000 for flake sorters, but noted that some flake-sorting systems can cost up to $600,000.
The average life span of automated sorting equipment is 10-15 years, but the equipment can be obsolete within five to 10 years, the survey said.
Holmes said that, based on data from private research firm Governmental Advisory Associates Inc. in Westport, Conn., in 2006 about 50 of the 570 materials-recovery facilities in the U.S. were using automated sorting technology to separate plastics into streams by colors and into PET and high density polyethylene containers.
But she said interviews with MRF operators and reclaimers suggest the number has increased substantially since then.
MRFs said that there has been a much wider adoption of automated sorting technology in the past four years, said Holmes. It helps them maximize the material they get out of bales and reduce their costs.
Mike Schedler, technical director of the National Association for PET Container Resources, believes that number has doubled to 100 or more.
And the number is expected to increase, as about 120 of the MRFs in the U.S. were receiving single-stream material in 2008, according to GAA data. The adoption of automated sorting equipment is expected to continue to grow in MRFs as more accept single-stream material and expand capacity, said the report from 4R Sustainability.
Conversely, the adoption of automated sorting equipment in export markets such as China and India has been slow, but that is likely to change, said Holmes.
We expect that as labor costs increase, there will be a lot of opportunities for manufacturers to sell automated sorting systems into China and India over the next 10 years, Holmes said.
4R Sustainability said the market for new bottle-sorting technology seems to be saturated, but the firm expects to see more new companies selling technology for flake and size-reduced sorting.
There seem to be fewer new entrants into bottle-sorting technology, said Holmes. There appear to be many more manufacturers entering the flake-sorting market. That market appears to have much more growth.
In addition, Holmes said she expects technology for identifying black plastics to continue to improve in the coming years as near-infrared technology becomes more sophisticated. She also expects developments in NIR technology to advance the development of automated sorting systems for PVC materials.
However, even with expected technology developments, the report said multilayer bottles and barrier materials will continue to present challenges for automated sorting.
The recycling equipment survey by 4R Sustainability was conducted between November and February and was funded by the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va.
The report identified 15 manufacturers of flake-sorting systems, four makers of hand-held NIR sorters, two manufacturers of hand-held X-ray fluorescence sorters, nine producers of mass-feed-sorting systems for containers, and two manufacturers of singulated feed systems for sorting containers.
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