Open up possibilities for new recyclable commodities markets

February 5, 2018

The recent headlines about new contamination standards limiting solid waste recycled materials entering China are likely to impact your local recycling program. Contaminated waste is the pizza box with cheese stuck to the top and the unwanted crust, or glittery holiday cards with foil that contaminates them for recycling. That is why local recycling programs encourage you to sort more, to separate contaminated waste from that which can be processed.

Many communities cannot afford to adapt their infrastructure to meet new contamination standards established by China. That means more sorting and rinsing at home and at work, or your local program cannot recycle the waste; at least not in the short term. China is not accepting most of it anymore.

Since landfilling the waste is not an economical long-term solution or environmentally friendly, waste management teams across the country are working together to address the challenges created by China’s ban, to meet their established recycling goals, and to be good stewards of our environment.

The challenge is to rethink existing programs using best practices and strategies that address community concerns and move us toward higher diversion goals. Here are various resources by industry leaders that your community is probably already looking into, as follows:

Education and Training

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA)  Zero Waste Principles & Practices Certification Course, promotes the integration of zero waste principles into existing management systems, practices, and policies. The goal is to move local systems toward developing and achieving community-specific zero waste goals.

The Zero Waste Principles & Practices certification course benefits municipal recycling and solid waste professionals, private and public sector policy makers, and sustainability advocates who are looking to write a Zero Waste plan or learn more about components to incorporate in their current program.

The certification course contains 10 modules covering areas of public policy, programs, technology, and measurement, with lessons that include collection options, managing organics, contracts, and financing.


Waste Characterization Studies Jump-Start Diversion Conversations

Statistics and other findings help local governments get ideas for boosting their diversion programs and outcomes. At the same time, these studies open up possibilities for new commodities markets, or expanding existing ones. Changing your program can add flexibility to help balance when commodity markets fluctuate and they can also create jobs. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources conducted such as study and identified a missed opportunity for compostable materials which they are addressing now.


Smart Technology Increases MRF Diversion Up to 80%

A new kind of facility is emerging in the U.S. in response to economic drivers, commodity prices, and social concerns about recycling. Many communities cannot afford to build out their existing infrastructure, but together they can employ newer technologies that can sort and recycle more diverse materials while producing a cleaner end product that is then sold to become useful again.

Some of these groups are using public-private partnerships to build facilities that accommodate our desires to recycle and will recycle more types of materials including that cheesy pizza box and organic materials such as restaurant food waste, without an extraordinary amount of effort by consumers.

Advanced Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) feature a high degree of separation, recovery, and monetization of commodity products and employ additional processes for generating clean cellulose, engineered fuels, and biogas from traditionally non-recyclable materials. The facility discussed here could provide a solution to large urban areas and a collection of smaller programs too. It does take planning, technologies, and due diligence to build a sustainable program and economically feasible facilities, operations, and markets.

How does the facility work?

Paper, corrugated cardboard, plastics, ferrous and non-ferrous metals are separated using automated bulk separation equipment. Uncontaminated materials go for recycling. Contaminated materials receive pulping and washing treatments. Organic materials such as food, yard waste, and wood waste also go through the same processes. The outputs are reused to create new products, as described below:

  • Recyclables are sent to create new metal, paper, cardboard, or plastic products.
  • Cellulose (mixed paper) is sent to create new paper products or used as Engineered Fuel.
  • Engineered Fuel, made from plastic film and paper too contaminated for recycling, is processed into briquette to be used in boilers.
  • Biogas, produced from the residual wash water sent to an Anaerobic Digestion system, helps power the facility.
  • Residuals make up the 20% of recyclables that cannot be processed into fuel or new products. A portion of the residuals is used as alternative daily cover at landfills, and the balance goes into the landfill.


Visit our Solid Waste Planning page to learn more, or use the links in each section to read articles about each best practice or facility. Click here for SWANA’s certification information.



Posted by Diane Samuels at 6:00 am
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