Are MWPFs just dirty MRFs?

Departments - Critical Thinking

December 4, 2014

With mixed waste processing a part of virtually all new conversion technologies today, the question of whether mixed waste processing facilities (MWPFs) are just dirty material recovery facilities (dirty MRFs) has become common. The answer is “not necessarily.”

Often, earlier facilities were called “dirty” MRFs because they may have had very high levels of residue, odor issues or contaminated materials. However, today’s MWPFs are increasing their recovery rates for recyclables and organics, streamlining their processing to produce better fuels and reducing the amount of residue sent to landfill.

Although the newer MWPFs may deal with a more complex waste stream than MRFs for the “cleaner” streams of source-separated recyclables, to say that MWPFs are just dirty MRFs is not just an oversimplification, it is not accurate. Regardless of what is set out, collected and processed, the better question is: “Can the material products be marketed and at what sustainable value?”

Today’s MWPFs can receive and process municipal solid waste (MSW) with and without source-separated recyclables. MWPFs provide an opportunity for additional materials recycling opportunities from MSW feedstock. In Montgomery, Alabama, an Infinitus MWPF is processing MSW, and it has been able to market all of its recovered materials.*

Therefore, while it is possible for recyclables commodities markets to be resistant to MWPFs, the concerns are manageable. The fiber, plastics and metals recovered from MWPFs have been successfully sold even from the oldest MWPFs despite lacking the design features or unique specialty equipment in recent modern MWPFs.

Significant commodities can be sold from the MSW even after source-separation recycling has occurred, as shown in two pie charts below. There are different grades for the recovered materials, and therefore, different revenue pricing structures for them.

The economics of a MWPF do not revolve around one commodity or singular price assumption. During project development, it is crucial to determine realistic market value for the expected recovered materials.

Where recycling rates are low, MWPFs can be the avenue to achieve higher recycling rates. As source separation removes the assay available to MWPFs, local governments have a choice: abandon source-separation programs and implement MWPFs that achieve potentially higher diversion rates or increase education and collection-system costs while increasing recycling participation to increase diversion.

MWPFs offer an opportunity for increased recyclables diversion, including organics, and production of a cleaner, higher-quality fuel residual product. Paramount in these decisions is the ability of the recycling market to consume the recyclables reliably at prices able to support the MWPF economics. If moving from source separation allows more materials to be recycled and converted to a fuel feedstock, resulting in even higher diversion from landfills, aren’t we better off?


* Kyle Moritz, CEO of Infinitus, written correspondence to Bob Brickner at GBB, Sept. 2, 2014.

Harvey Gershman is president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., solid waste management consultants, Research assistance provided by Elizabeth Rice, senior consultant.