Sorting fact from fiction

Columns - Letter from the Editor

Mixed waste processing may be getting an unfair reputation.

April 7, 2016

It is fair to say that mixed waste processing facilities (MWPFs) have had their share of bad press lately. In October 2015, the Infinitus Renewable Energy Park (IREP) facility in Montgomery, Alabama, shut its doors after not even making the two-year mark of being operational. The city of Montgomery in February began taking steps to acquire the facility and begin a two-bin collection system.

It was disappointing to see something so innovative fail in such a short time. When it opened, it was considered the answer to the city’s recycling challenges. It also included a component in later phases for anaerobic digestion, where the city’s fleets would be powered by the biogas. Sadly, the cost structure the facility was based around, proved faulty and expenses soon well exceeded any profits being made from the recycled commodities produced.

Mixed waste processing (MWP) was dealt another blow in February when a court of appeals ruled the city of Indianapolis violated competitive bidding laws when the it awarded a long-term recycling contract to Covanta in 2014. It included the construction of the Covanta Advanced Recycling Center, a MWPF that was to be adjacent to the company’s Indianapolis waste-to-energy facility.

In both cases, the effectiveness of the operating or proposed technology’s ability to sort recyclables from waste was never at issue. MWPFs have been operating successfully for years across the U.S., and as conversion technologies continue to advance, their development also will continue to increase.

On page 20 of this issue, you will read about a successful MWPF in Los Angeles, Athens Disposal. It is processing commercial mixed waste, capturing many types of recyclables and working to develop additional fuel markets with its residuals.

MWPFs have been operating successfully for years across the U.S., and as conversion technologies continue to advance, their development also will continue to increase.

Despite some groups coming out in opposition of MWPFs, they do fulfill a vital role in the recovery of recyclables and the production of renewable energy from waste. In fact, they have the ability to capture more recyclables from the waste stream than single stream alone. Studies from Gershman, Brickner & Bratton (GBB) and others have backed up these claims.

MWP is not a perfect process, and neither is single-stream recycling. In certain communities, MWP may be preferable or complement single-stream. Part of what GBB concluded its study of Fayetteville, North Carolina’s residential recycling program was a MRF in tandem with MWPF resulted in higher recovery rates: 58 percent more OCC, mixed paper and old newspapers (ONP); 107 percent more polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and mixed plastics; and 156 percent more metals.

Unless single-stream curbside programs can figure out ways to improve the amount of recyclable materials being placed in the recycling bin and being kept out of the trash bin, then it seems to me the recycling industry is missing out on a huge amount of recyclable commodities that continue to needlessly go to landfills.