Pacific Northwest pilot recycling project shows promising results

A 60-day pilot program in the Pacific Northwest led by the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS; Washington, DC) has concluded that a secondary sorting facility model is a viable option to help meet increasing demand for recycled materials. Funded by the American Chemistry Council, AmSty, Berry Global, the Carton Council, LyondellBasell, Metro (Portland Metro Regional Government), Milliken and PLASTICS, the group set out to determine how a wider range of materials can be captured from residential recycling streams.

The Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration Project made use of a portable secondary material recovery facility (MRF) that operated for 60 days in Portland, receiving, sorting and measuring the possible recovery from two types of material streams from four MRFs located in Oregon and Washington. Titus MRF Services (Danville, CA) operated the facility and provided the equipment for the project.

Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration Project
Why are these people smiling? Because the pilot recycling project successfully demonstrated that a secondary material recovery facility sized to serve the populations of Oregon and Washington would have a positive effect on increasing material recovery and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Image courtesy PLASTICS.

The project report noted that the present system of recycling has limitations involving resident participation; the quantity and quality of material available for processing; consumer confusion about what and how to recycle; and materials in the recycling stream that are difficult to sort manually. Currently, the report noted, PET and HDPE bottles are usually present in quantities that can justify investment in optical sorting equipment and are also relatively easy to sort manually. “These materials are often used for specific applications in which other resins are not used—PET water and soda bottles, HDPE-natural milk jugs and HDPE-color detergent and shampoo bottles,” said the report.

The analysis not only highlighted some of the confusion within the existing collection program, it provided a glimpse of how the addition of a secondary MRF in the region, coupled with an expansion of collection programs, could increase material recovery. Most notable, said the report, was “the recovery of non-program polypropylene and polystyrene. More than 40% of the polypropylene recovered was non-program material, and demand from existing reclaimers of polypropylene is not currently being met.”

The polystyrene (PS) data was “regionally significant” in that almost 90% of the PS recovered was non-program material, and an emerging technology developed by Agilyx (now Regenyx) is located within the Portland Metro region. “If recycling program planners were to add these materials to the collection program along with secondary sorting capacity, it would yield much-needed feedstock for these existing markets,” said the report.

Materials recovered in this study included polyethylene, mixed paper, cartons, polypropylene, PS, and PET bottles and thermoforms. The results of the project suggest that a regional secondary sorting MRF sized to serve the populations of both Oregon and Washington would:

  • Increase material recovery or landfill diversion by more than 50,000 tons (100 million pounds) per year, equivalent to 2,500 semi-trailer truckloads of recovered materials bound for recycling facilities.
  • Increase the recovery rate by 3% to 6% without significant program changes or investments.
  • Generate 46 green jobs per secondary MRF.
  • Reduce the generation of greenhouse gases by more than 130,000 tons per year, which is equivalent to taking more than 27,600 cars off the road (according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies Calculator).
  • Enable future expansion of the accepted materials list without needing to retrofit primary MRFs.
  • Provide accountability for all collected recyclable materials and eliminate the risk of potential mismanagement and pollution.

The report provided some good advice for confused consumers: Ignore the numbers. Ignore the arrows. Those are for industry use only. Sort by shape!

Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO  of PLASTICS, commented, “The project data shows the value that can be extracted from landfill-bound or mixed materials. It is our hope that the data from this report can help inform state and local decision makers on how to improve our recovery systems.”

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