China's policy restricting imports of U.S. recyclables is shining a brighter light on our country's flawed recycling infrastructure, which has been in desperate need of modernization and innovation for years. However, before China's policy change, we had little impetus to focus on the problem.
How did we get here? The move to single-stream recycling over the past two decades made residential recycling more convenient for consumers but created significant issues for material recovery facilities (MRFs). Most of our country's MRFs were built years before single stream was introduced and were designed to sort just a handful of materials. With the addition of many other materials to the recycling stream, it's been virtually impossible for MRFs to sort everything into individual commodities because they lack the necessary space for additional equipment. Even if they do have the space, they're unable to reach the volume needed to obtain a return on investment for many recyclables.
This results in MRFs creating mixed paper or plastic bales filled with items with low critical mass and/or no domestic markets. Before China's policy change, many of these mixed bales were exported. But shrinking export markets are forcing domestic MRFs to landfill their mixed bales or sell them at a loss.
As part of our voluntary producer responsibility efforts, Dart has invested tens of millions of dollars into recycling and have partnered with municipalities across the country for decades. We know firsthand the difficulties MRFs and municipalities face with infrastructure and a system that has not been updated to meet today's needs.
A few years ago, we learned about a secondary MRF that we believe could be an integral part of the solution to effectively modernize our recycling infrastructure. We have since financially supported and advocated for this concept as it could help mitigate our current challenges and support domestic recycling markets long term.
Secondary MRFs help solve the challenge primary MRFs face regarding materials that lack critical mass. Primary MRFs are able to recycle the materials they choose to sort, and then send materials they don't want to sort to a secondary MRF. Since a secondary MRF receives material from several primary MRFs, it reaches the volume necessary for profitable recycling of items such as aseptic cartons, nonclear PET, polypropylene and polystyrene.
Hardly a week goes by where Plastics News doesn't run a story about a new "enhanced" recycling technology for "hard-to-recycle" materials. These materials need a supply chain, and it's going to be much cheaper to create a supply chain with secondary MRFs placed strategically around major metropolitan areas in the U.S., rather than retrofitting and upgrading numerous primary MRFs.
Dart's 2014 and 2016 investments in Titus, the company that operates the secondary MRF, has shown that on average, 50 percent of container-line residual (material the primary MRF chose not to sort or missed and was otherwise destined for a landfill) can be captured for recycling. For mixed plastics bales landfill diversion increases to 60 percent. As efficient as primary MRFs can be, Titus has also captured a lot of material the primary MRF wanted but missed. Titus estimates they have diverted 210,000 pounds of aluminum cans, 3.3 million pounds of PET bottles and 35 million pounds of paper from the landfill since 2014.
There are several examples where secondary MRF-type operations have failed to be economically viable. However, if we create a system where secondary MRFs receive sorting fees equal to or less than net landfill tipping fees, economic viability is well within reach. In addition, we need a shared financial commitment for this system from public-private collaborations and adequate payment for the sorted materials from companies turning it into profitable new products.
While some manufacturers may be hesitant to make such investments, the current challenges and otherwise grim long-term outlook for recycling and the consequences associated with it dictate that a new approach is warranted. We must recycle at rates that are significant for the long term, and secondary MRFs will remove the barriers to reaching those meaningful recycling rates. Producers alone can't shoulder the burden or solve the problem, nor can we expect governments and primary MRFs to do so. We all need to do our part, and that includes collaboration and shared investments.
Sorting additional materials into truckload quantities with high frequency that can be sold domestically and manufactured into new products is a key component toward ending the current recycling predicament and moving us one step closer to a circular economy.
As such, we believe it is time to advocate for and support legislation calling for reasonable, achievable recycling rates that includes public-private infrastructure funding mandates to create a nationwide network of regionally operated secondary MRFs. This is a solution that is cost-effective with some initial proven results. It's time for all stakeholders to come together and get to work on a viable solution, such as the development of connected regional secondary MRFs.