One of the big challenges in plastics recycling is the tsunami of low-value materials like polypropylene yogurt cups or polystyrene food containers that cities say are very difficult for them recycle cost-effectively in their curbside recycling bins.
Now some in the plastics and waste management industries are saying that the U.S. should build a new network of specialized sorting facilities as a wall against that tsunami to try to collect more of those hard-to-recycle packaging materials.
They're called secondary material recovery facilities, and proponents see putting them in major metro areas or perhaps one for a state. The secondary MRFs would pool items from about 10 primary MRFs, which take the first pass at sorting recyclables, and run material they can't sort through specialized filters to pull out the lower-value plastics and paper cartons.
It's an idea getting a lot more attention, with at least one plastics group saying it merits a serious look in the new national recycling strategy being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But it's also an idea that has not been proven on a commercial scale.
Several plastics industry trade groups funded a trial in 2019 in Oregon that they say shows it can work, and in November they announced another, more limited, trial in the northeastern U.S.
Supporters say secondary MRFs can be part of an effort to build up U.S. recycling infrastructure after export markets for low-grade mixed plastics collapsed in the wake of China's National Sword ban.
Some in the environmental community who have looked at the technology, however, point to earlier efforts that failed, and they say weak markets and challenging economics for recycling make the secondary MRF idea questionable.