A new analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. supports the idea of secondary sortation as a way to capture more harder-to-recycle plastics for reuse.
"Beyond the Bottle: Solutions for Recycling Challenges" takes a look at current market conditions for recyclables, including film, and concludes that certain plastics quality would benefit from a secondary sortation beyond what material recovery facilities currently provide.
MRFs, commonly operated by solid waste management companies or municipalities, are essentially designed to capture PET and high density polyethylene bottles and containers, although a minority of such facilities do process plastic film.
"Of the approximately 500 MRFs in the United States today, 20 to 30 percent have some capability to handle plastic films. These MRFs could produce what is known as a "MRF film bale"; however, the majority choose not to because of a perceived lack of an end market," the McKinsey article states.
"The disconnect is likely due to the quality of post-use plastic bales. Today, the quality of MRF film bales is typically low. Some are composed of 50-70 percent PE or polypropylene (PP); 10-20 percent other undesired plastics, such as PET or polyvinyl chloride (PVC); and 10-30 percent nonplastic materials, such as paper, metal, or food residues," the article states. "The composition of the bales is also highly inconsistent, with high variability over time and by source, making it difficult to use them in downstream processing."
But combining the output of hard-to-recycle plastics from these MRFs and sending it to a secondary sortation facility — also called feedstock preparation facilities. or FPFs in the report — could greatly enhance plastic film recycling in the United States, McKinsey said in the article by Chris Musso, Zhou Peng, Andrew Ryba and Jeremy Wallach posted on its website.
"Our conclusion is that demand for recycled plastics is strong, there are large volumes of untapped feedstock available to meet this demand, and price premiums for recycled material make the economics attractive for the entire value chain to invest to collect and process this material to produce high-quality circular plastics," the article states.
Creating another sortation step, however, does add another layer of costs to plastics recycling.
But the McKinsey article said secondary sortation could succeed because "price premiums for recycled plastic have expanded, creating more value across the chain to help cover the cost of additional sortation."
"FPFs would be designed to handle rigid plastics as well as plastic films, which were largely excluded from secondary-sortation activities in the past, creating a larger volume of potential material to be sorted and improving benefits of scale," the article states. Also, "Advanced recycling represents a new tier of buyers seeking plastic feedstock with more flexibility on quality compared to mechanical-recycling buyers of previous eras."
Advanced recycling, also called chemical recycling, is a category that is receiving more and more attention as a way to recapture hard-to-recycle plastics by using methods other than mechanical recycling. Chemical recycling, which can use various methods, breaks down plastics into their molecular components for reuse.
"In the years to come, we expect continued demand for recycled plastics. By tapping into new segments of plastic waste, brands will be able to achieve their commitments on recycled material, enabled by advanced recyclers and supported by price premiums which allow investment across the value chain. These circumstances present an unprecedented opportunity for waste collectors and advanced recyclers to jointly (and profitably) invest to drive a step change in North American recycling rates," the article states.
The McKinsey article comes at a time when the American Chemistry Council also recently looked at the issue with similar findings.
A study performed by Titus MRF Services of Danville, Calif., for the ACC concludes that collecting the back-end material from MRFs on a regional basis would give a secondary MRF the needed volume to pull out enough quality recyclables to support operations.
Titus took samples from six MRFs located in the Northeast to serve as a basis for the report's findings.
ACC funded the study as plastics continue to face a low overall plastic recycling rate — one popular estimate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has it at 9 percent — amid the ever-growing demand for post-consumer resin by brand owners, consumers and packaging makers.
"Secondary material recovery facilities aggregate low-volume and difficult-to-sort materials, along with machine yield losses, from a network of existing primary MRFs. This allows for material to reach the critical mass necessary to justify the types of investments in automated technologies for detailed sorting that may not make sense at the individual MRF level," the ACC report reads.
"The concept of a secondary MRF is less about advanced sorting technologies and more about a business model that can achieve economies of scale for sorting all materials by type within a regional waste-shed, such as the Northeast," the Titus report states. "The equipment and technologies utilized at secondary MRFs are much like those found at modern primary MRFs, but they are employed to refine the recycling stream to recover low-volume and difficult-to-sort materials along with machine yield losses."