Many people have said that in the world of single stream collection, the material recovery facility (or “MRF,” for short) is the key to success. I like to think of materials like a student going to college. If they get good grades and make smart choices, they will prove to be more marketable and more desirable to an employer. Likewise, if a material behaves well in a MRF and proves conducive to sorting, it will be baled according to plan and be more marketable.
In my conversations with members and others in the industry, there are always questions about sorting foodservice packaging (FSP) in a MRF environment. We realize that when it comes to FSP, many believe that there are numerous barriers to overcome, which is why we’re investigating successful FSP recovery programs across the nation and sharing it with you through our blog. We’re talking with cities across the US and Canada, including Austin, Boston, Boise, Philadelphia, Seattle, Toronto and others, to understand what makes FSP recovery work in each locale and to learn from their experiences. Our posts will showcase successful programs that have led the charge with innovative solutions, including cities that have been making strides in reducing waste and capturing value from their waste streams. Over the coming months we’ll dig deeper into how these cities are making the grade, but today, let’s take a closer look at Seattle, because it is one of the programs with the longest experience accepting and processing FSP.
Since 2008, Seattle has been recovering a variety of FSP at the curb. Paper cups, plates, bags, egg cartons and poly-coated boxes, along with plastic cups, lids and clamshells. Every day, these materials flow through the local Republic Services MRF, where they are successfully sorted and marketed. In general, FSP items make up a relatively small portion of the material stream and can be included with existing material bales such as a mixed paper or mixed plastics #3-#7 bale. Plus, we all know Seattle has a tremendous composting program accepting a wide variety of FSP.
Even though Seattle is having success with items that many professional recyclers consider to have special barriers, that does not mean other cities do not have specific challenges. Food residue has been a concern for all recyclable food containers, and FSP is no exception. In preliminary discussions with recycling officials, it has been suggested that food residue levels of FSP are actually comparable to non-FSP food containers such as spaghetti sauce jars.
FPI’s Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA) and Plastics Recovery Group (PRG) continue to research these types of perceived barriers for used FSP. To help further gauge the level of food residue found in FSP collected at curbside, and whether it differs from non-FSP packaging, our recovery groups have commissioned a study in another city – we’ll share the highlights here in a future post. The results of this study, soon to be released, should help answer some of the questions surrounding these perceived barriers.
The other day, Lynn and I were chatting about these trends and the obstacles surrounding FSP, and we realized that it is easy to overlook the progress FSP recovery has made so far. FPI has built a web of knowledge that allows us to see what works and what doesn’t. The diverse nature of FSP will always bring up questions when it comes to recovery, but the research we are working on allows us to break down any of these real and perceived obstacles and develop sensible solutions.
In addition to the research I mentioned above, the PRA and PRG - along with co-sponsors ACC, APR, Carton Council and NAPCOR - are also conducting research with MRFs to learn more about successes, failures, and barriers in the recovery of FSP and other packaging types. This is part of a greater project to build recovery options for used FSP. We recognize that some barriers may prove insurmountable, but we believe that a research-based, data-driven approach will result in the most sustainable success for the future.