A pilot project in the Pacific Northwest is out to show that secondary sorting could prove to be an economic way to capture additional plastics from the recycling stream, items not initially recovered at material recovery facilities.
Managed by the Plastics Industry Association trade group, this secondary sorting project in Portland, Ore., diverts materials already run through a handful of area MRFs. Instead of going to landfills, the material is reprocessed at a separate MRF designed to capture even more material.
MRFs essentially are designed to capture PET and high density polyethylene bottles for the most part, but there is plenty of other material that has value flowing through the equipment, said Rob Flores, vice president of sustainability at Berry Global Group Inc.
That Evansville, Ind.-based plastics processor is one of several funding sponsors of the effort officially called the Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration Project.
Instead of adding additional equipment to each MRF to capture more plastics, the pilot project instead is out to prove that a secondary sortation at a completely different facility is cost effective.
"If we look at the recycling infrastructure today, there's hundreds of MRFs around the country. To retrofit all those with additional equipment for additional sorting would be very expensive and not very practical and not very feasible," Flores said. "Most MRFs are set up to recycle, from a plastics standpoint, only bottles."
While final results of the study are still under analysis, Flores said initial indications are that a secondary sorting approach can work.
"We can achieve that critical mass needed to justify the [second] sortation, to justify the new technology. So I think it's a good model that can be implemented regionally throughout the United States to get into those additional materials that are not being recovered today," Flores said.
A secondary sortation approach is particularly helpful in capturing more polypropylene, an emerging target for plastic recyclers, he said.
The vast majority of recycled plastic involves HDPE and PET, but PP recycling is growing at a higher rate because the effort is essentially in its infancy.
Creation of a secondary sortation network for plastics can help replace the market that disappeared when China essentially stopped imports of recycled materials. China had become a simple way for recyclers to sell their post-MRF plastics stream without much thought.
But these mixed plastics now are having more of a difficulty finding reuse after China slammed its doors shut to recycled materials through a crackdown called National Sword.
Along with HDPE, PET and PP, the pilot project also is focusing on polystyrene, low density PE and gable top and aseptic cartons.
"Our hope is to prove this program out so other municipalities can adopt this," said Amy Waterman, a spokesman for Berry.
Other sponsors include American Chemistry Council, Americas Styrenics, Carton Council, LyondellBasell, Milliken and Metro, the regional government in the Portland area.
"We're not to the point of publishing final results, but we successfully proved and demonstrated that the technology exists to sort these materials. It's just a matter of where does it make sense to build a secondary MRF and how many communities do you have to pull material from to justify that infrastructure," Flores said.
Titus MRF Services of Concord, Calif., oversaw creation of the temporary, secondary facility in warehouse space, he said.
"Public-private partnerships like this, where governments and industry work together, show that if we collaborate we can devise solutions to address the complex, global issue of plastic waste," said Jim Seward, LyondellBasell vice president of sustainability, in a statement.