MRF Operations: Challenges and Opportunities

Many sustainable technologies are making a mark in the waste recycling sector at present, but another important facility, the material recovery facility (MRF), has been quietly playing a major role in dealing with mixed municipal solid waste by sorting all the materials and recovering recyclables that are then sent offsite to be processed into new products.

Filed under
Waste Management
April 18 2021
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Credit: Bee’ah

MRFs have been playing a significant role in helping achieve the recycling goals of various municipalities and meet the government’s national targets. Basem Abu Sneineh, Director of General Waste at Bee’ah and Mahmood Rasheed, Chief Operating Officer, Imdaad speak to Swaliha Shanavas about the role of modern MRFs in current and future service provision, significant advances in these facilities that helped improve recovery rates, how automation improves process efficiency and quality of material recovered, the opportunities and challenges posed including the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the operations and material recovery.

What are the significant advances in material recovery facilities (MRFs) that help improve recovery rates?

Basem Abu Sneineh: Advances in MRFs have certainly helped improve recovery rates. As we embrace new technological developments, Bee’ah’s material recovery facility has undergone several retrofits to become more and more capable of recovering increased value from waste. However, the real driver for recovery rate success lies in segregation at the source. Here in the Middle East especially, given the nature of household and commercial waste, source segregation needs to be better implemented in order for our facilities to increase efficacy.

That is why Bee’ah has launched a source segregation initiative in Sharjah to promote better sorting of waste. The pilot stage successfully achieved 20 percent participation from subjects while the second stage (currently underway) covers 5,000 apartments. We strongly believe that with proper source segregation mechanisms, we will be able to shift public mentality to achieve the desired outcomes and increase recovery/recycling rates significantly.

Mahmood Rasheed: The increasing use of state-of-the-art technology like image processing systems and electromagnetic sensing has contributed to the rising recovery rates of MRFs. Modern MRFs like Imdaad’s Farz are equipped with advanced sorting and segregation systems and technologies including pre-sorting platforms, automatic bag openers, and shredders to ensure high recovery rates. Trommel screens are widely used to sort materials based on their size, while a wide range of separators, including magnetic, Eddy Current, and ballistic and optical separators segregate the materials according to their types. At Farz, we have adopted an advanced sensor technology to analyse data at the plant, to further improve our efficiencies. As a result, we currently have a recovery rate of 25-30 percent.

Has automation led to better process efficiency and quality of material recovered? What are the key issues that need to be addressed?

Basem Abu Sneineh: Automated material recovery facilities have been proven to be more efficient than traditional models. They can increase capacity of waste processed, speed up operations and decrease energy consumption. With smart recovery technologies such as bag breakers, air separators and optical sorters, automated MRFs are also better able to reclaim value from waste for better quality recycled products.

As a next step for the industry, we need greater information and research on enhanced automation through AI and robotics to the process of MRF to further increase the material recovery efficiencies.

Mahmood Rasheed: Automation becomes a necessity when source separation is low, and the quantity of materials is high. Scanners, optical sorters, and separators considerably increase efficiency, quality, and sustainability, while reducing the dependence on manual labour, he notes. Automation of the segregation processes at Farz has limited human intervention at the facility to the quality control part. Despite being one of the biggest and most advanced MRFs in the region, Farz employs a total of only 80 personnel across all its operations, with 18 employees handling core functions every shift, thanks to our automated processes.

Recycling all the recovered materials within the UAE is one of the most critical challenges, as many countries have banned the import of baled materials, mostly plastics. To overcome this, we usually collaborate with recycling partners to ensure timely supply to the local and international markets as well as to contribute to landfill diversion and the country’s economic growth.

Removing irrecoverable materials at the beginning of processing is time-consuming and inefficient. To maximise recovery, we need to develop more recoverable products, which will also simplify the refining and sorting processes. Recoverable products will also enable easy recycling to strengthen the circular economy and save the environment, as well as boost the revenues of MRFs.

Imdaad - Farz

Has the shift towards a circular economy impacted the material recovery efforts in the country/ region?

Basem Abu Sneineh: We not only endorse the circular economy and the positive impact it has on environmental and sustainable performance, but also actively seek opportunities to facilitate it. There are two ways of looking at the impact. With more focus on reusing and reintegrating materials from waste into the economy, there will be a higher demand for material recovery efforts.

However, we do expect that in time, the reduction in single-use plastics as a result of sustainability efforts will affect material recovery efforts, but this is a positive problem to have. The exact nature of its effect is still to be realised and we will have to study this further as the region transitions towards a circular economy.

Given the rise in concerns about end markets, the increasing requirement for higher quality materials and the new policy agendas from various governments, things have been starting to change. What does this spell for material recovery in terms of improving the recycling rates and circularity?

Basem Abu Sneineh: All of these factors will lead to a virtuous circle. With companies shifting to using recycled materials, MRFs will see an increased demand for high-quality products which will in turn generate an increase in recycling rates especially in plastics because of food grade producing companies. As more and more of these companies start initiatives around the use of recycled materials, recycling rates will continue to increase, and we will take significant strides in achieving circular economy goals.

Mahmood Rasheed: Waste segregation and public participation in recycling are important not only to increase the operational efficiency of MRFs but also because of the environmental benefits involved. The recycling rate in the region remains significantly low compared to other parts of the world, mainly due to the lack of awareness on source segregation. Though 2/3 stream recycling bins are increasingly being placed in streets and among communities in the region, the percentage is still very low. Besides, people need to be informed about the various aspects and methods of sorting from the source, particularly for household wastes.

It would be a good idea for schools to take the initiative to educate students on the significance of sorting waste as well. Many waste management companies, MRFs and local authorities have been coming up with initiatives to produce alternative fuels from post-rejects, significantly reducing diversion rates and landfill dumping, and increasing the recovery rates. Also, the use of these alternative fuels in cement kilns will enable considerable energy cost reduction in addition to providing substantial environmental benefits by conserving nonrenewable resources like coal.

Credit: Bee’ah

In what way has Covid-19 affected the MRFs overall and also with regard to the quality and quantity of recyclables recovered?

Basem Abu Sneineh: During Covid-19, Bee’ah implemented greater health and safety measures to protect the workers at our material recovery facility, to ensure that the waste was properly handled and there would be no risk of secondary transmission of the virus. The quality of materials remained the same, but we did observe that the quantity of waste decreased significantly during the height of the pandemic due to lower economic activity and lockdown periods. Going forward, we will continue to see automation play a greater role in material recovery efforts for increased efficiencies.

Mahmood Rasheed: Waste management was one of the sectors with the highest risk of exposure to Covid-19. MRFs devised and implemented SOPs for employees and made it mandatory for staff to wear PPE throughout the pandemic period. At Farz, to mitigate the risk of infection, we split our operations team into two batches, significantly reducing the interactions between employees while ensuring the continuity of operations. We also sealed the gathering spots within our premises and strictly enforced social distancing at all times, not to mention carrying out regular disinfection drives within and outside the plant. Throughout the crisis, all our policies and protocols were formulated with the safety and well-being of our employees as the highest priority.

There was a significant drop in waste generation as well as the quality and quantity of material recovery at the peak of Covid-19, due to the precautionary protocols, travel restrictions, low consumption levels, reduced operation levels across industries and commercial establishments, decline in tourism, and various other factors. However, 2021 has been very encouraging so far, in terms of the demand and prices of recyclables. Efforts are underway to develop new products and services to support the sector’s post-Covid recovery and compensate for the shortfall.



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