Do Material Recovery Facilities Have a Future?

The first MRF from memory was with the Richards family in Chinderah, Northern NSW. They were also pioneers in the 80’s to design and manufacture a side loading compactor truck for co-mingled recyclables. This first generation MRF was very basic, but for Australia the start of the local government love affair with an expensive separation.

During the past decade, disc screens, ballistic separators and optical sorting have been able to add value to Mixed paper and also cardboard, plastic, metal and glass with old newspapers traditionally making up 65% of the kerbside recovery mass. This was followed by glass 30%, plastic 3.5%, then metal 2.5%. Newspapers and cardboard separation had the critical mass and cash flow, whilst plastic and metal was the cream on the top.

From 2008 onwards, newsprint consumption has decreased. During the 2009 calendar year, it fell a further 14.5% (approximately 100,000 tonnes), whilst business papers, promotional circulars and magazines collectively increased slightly. So what does this mean when paper consumption, especially newspapers continues to decrease?

If glass, plastics and metals recovery stay constant around 36% of the collections and total fibre at 65%, the mix of papers becomes critical for a MRF operator to be viable. Throwing more money into sorting technology for paper and board appears futile.

No matter what is done with fibre, mixed in will be mixed out which is already evident in export audits and statistics.

Over the past 5 years, the average export price for Mixed papers has been $93, with domestic between $45-65. For #8 News $136 and $110 per tonne an average price reduction of 41%.

The question is evident - why contaminate a low value fibre with other materials that have nothing in common with each other in lieu of source separation of mixed papers and plastic packaging and beverage into separate plants? Container deposit legislation (CDL) is looking more viable for the East Coast of Australia.

The ramifications appear many. A surplus of Mixed papers will either need to be hand sorted in Asia or consumed for packaging alone. The price level of any surplus material is vulnerable. Newsprint mills will need to be converted to multi purpose paper machines with coaters.