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Recycling meets Reality

The modern industry has made huge strides to turn trash into new products of tomorrow, but it is still far from perfect. New technologies can help. Updates on chemical recycling, design, and dirty recycling.

Design for recycling

They take your stuff to be re-cycled, right? They don’t just dump all the carefully separated newspaper, cardboard boxes, and metal cans with the rest.

Relax. Rest assured that your recyclables will (probably) end up where they are supposed to. The same trucks are going to different destinations — usually a sorting facility, similar to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that Michael Taylor explains right now.

Taylor shouts over the noise of blowers, conveyor belts, and screens that move multiple streams of recyclables across a space as large as a football pitch. This equates to a daily average of almost 1,000 tons of recyclables coming in from curbside bins throughout the metropolitan area of Baltimore, Washington D.C. and the surrounding suburbs.

Taylor, the MRF manager for Houston-based Waste Management, said that this MRF is one of the busiest MRFs in the United States. It’s not unique, but it is typical of hundreds of MRFs across the country. Taylor says, “We’re a hardcore manufacturing company that reverses the process.” Taylor says that they are de-manufacturing the material, breaking it into its individual components. “We take this mixed-up flow of material and we break it down, breaking it apart,” he says. “I am building bales for newspaper, aluminum cans, PET water bottles and soda bottle bales.” This is the basic business model of Waste Management MRFs as well as many others. They charge cities for collecting recyclables and sorting them and then share any profits made by the MRF from selling the bale. These mills will turn the material into new bags, boxes, and other products.

Follow what people throw away in the blue bins to the recycling facility, which sorts it and makes money from it. Recycling is a complex process, but there are new ways to manage solid waste.


The story becomes messy at the last step. It’s not just because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Most US cities, though is by no means all, are still trying to keep curbside recycling an essential service. The amount of recyclables in residential areas has increased as more people are staying at home.

What’s hurting recycling is the fact that a third or more of bales from this MRF, and others similar to it, used to be sent to recycling mills located in China and elsewhere. In July 2017, China announced that it would no longer accept “contaminated” materials from outsiders. This contamination could be, for example, residual paper, metal, and glass that were not completely removed from a plastic bale. As part of the National Sword initiative, China’s policy said that the fraction of contaminants allowed would be reduced from 10 percent to just 0.5 percent as of March 1, 2018.

The MRFs were unable to achieve the 0.5 percent standard, which was much more costly for them. In the following year, their bales of carefully sorted recyclables flooded the market. The result was steep price drops and less money going back to cities via profit-sharing agreements. Dozens of cities responded to the crisis by suspending curbside collection. The media ran headlines such as “The World’s Recycling is in Chaos.”

The situation has now settled down a little. Elkridge MRF has, like other MRFs, tried to meet this new standard by adding people and slowing down the sorting line. The recycling industry is like an ecosystem that has just begun to recover after a wildfire. It’s good to know that an industry is returning that has had to reinvent itself and rethink its approach.

img alt=”Photo of a large cubic made from compacted recycled cans.” src=”” title=”Tin can bale”/>

Recycling collection facilities produce bales that contain cans, cardboard, paper or plastic. These cans can then be sold to companies that will transform the materials into something that manufacturers can use.


In MRFs for example, National Sword’s shock has led to a rapid deployment of new technologies such as robots, computer vision systems, and other innovative tools that improve sorting and decrease contamination. In North America, dozens more recycling plants are being constructed to process the MRFs output. These new plants will use some advanced technologies, such as “chemical recycle” — a growing approach that could help reclaim the 90 percent plastics in North America that are not recycled.

This is a lot to change at once. Change is constant in the business world. Taylor, a political scientist and public administrator with degrees in both fields, says that this is not what she went to college for. “But each day is different.”

The tipping floor

The dream of ” circular economies” is central to any notion of sustainability over the long term. This would be a world where factories don’t simply feed a pipeline from mines to landfills but use products today as raw materials for tomorrow’s.

This is the place where the modern recycling industry meets reality. Here at the Elkridge MRF, it begins on the tipping floors. The tipping floor is a large open area where collection trucks back in and dump the contents of the blue bins and other containers on top of previous loads. Between tips, the front-end-loader scoops up large chunks and places them on a conveyor that carries the material up to the pre-sorting area, where workers are positioned on both sides.


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Jane S. King

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