Why Packaging Designers Should Visit A Recycling Facility

by Bill McCool on 04/25/2019 | 9 Minute Read

There was a time, not so long ago, where if I had a piece of plastic that needed throwing away, I would toss it in the recycling bin and give myself a pat on the back for a job well done because RECYCLING.

On its face, you could say it was “wish recycling,” that never-ending sequence of crossed fingers and throwing whatever you can in the blue bin in hopes that someone will repurpose that material.

But it’s more than just that. Most consumers probably think that everything from a Starbucks coffee cup to their granola bar wrapper or even those pesky plastic straws everyone keeps harping on and on about are recyclable when in all actuality, they aren’t. Granted, I wasn’t throwing car batteries or bowling balls into my blue bin before, but at some point, you honestly believe that these materials have value, that they have an end-use, and that you can sleep easy at night because you weren’t the one shoving a straw into a sea turtle’s nose.

And that’s why you need to visit a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

An MRF is a recycling facility that processes and sorts comingled materials from both residential and commercial recycling programs. Various machines and laborers will separate recyclable materials and send them to end markets where they can be repurposed. And yes, those in the know pronounce it as “Murph.” The first time I attended a sustainable packaging conference and heard someone refer to a recycling facility this way, I somewhat seriously thought who is this person “Murph” everyone keeps speaking of, and why do they keep sending him their trash?

Point is, everyone needs to have a greater understanding of what happens to their trash. And you really need to visit an MRF if you happen to be one of those types who design packaging for a living.

Or, you know, if you sell products that come in packaging.

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The first thing you can’t help but notice when you get out of the offices and step out onto the floor of Recology’s MRF in Seattle is just how much plastic there is. Overflowing bales of the stuff line a corridor. These are no water bottles in these bales, mostly just long strands of plastic bags and flexible packaging wrapped tightly into cubes busting at the seems.

Recology’s facility is about five miles south of Downtown Seatle, and it sits on the bank of the Duwamish Waterway in what looks like an otherwise nondescript industrial area. Throughout their 12 MRFs across California, Oregon and Washington, Recology annually recovers 600 million pounds of recyclables, and this particular site servicing the Puget Sound community takes in 624,700 tons of waste every day (the average person produces 4.40 pounds of waste per day).

They’re also the only employee-owned waste handler in the country, and they have extensive outreach programs, often touring schools and providing education for residents and businesses to increase participation in their recycling program.

And, you know, do it the right way. That means no plastic bags, no foam and no snack bags. They’re continually educating citizens on how to get it right, and despite all of the outreach, residents are still putting their plastic bags in recycling bins, as well as believing that any piece of plastic that has the chasing arrow symbol is an indication that the product is recyclable when, in fact, it symbolizes what the plastic resin is. It has no bearing whatsoever on whether they accept it in your town’s recycling program.

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So here’s how the whole thing works.

First off, the thing to keep in mind is that every municipality is different. What they accept at an MRF in Seattle might not be taken in Iowa, but generally speaking, they accept core materials like metal, aluminum, paper, cardboard, glass and plastic.

Recology’s trucks drive onto what they call the tipping floor and dump out all of the material they’ve collected, and their goal is to clear all of it before the end of the day. Forklifts shovel everything onto the metering bin, and then it’s fed onto a sorting line. Before it hits that sorting line, the material is run through a rotating drum so that everything compacted inside that trucks can get loosened up.

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Once the material travels up the line, it goes through its first round of hand-sorting where workers will get rid of contaminated, non-recyclable material. You name it they’ve seen it—even needles. Here, they will also try to gather as many plastic films as they can because they jam up the gears and slow down production. At the end of the shift, a worker will have to repel into the machine and cut out all of those plastic films with a boxcutter. Not only is it a pain to cut out because the accumulated plastic is as thick as concrete, but it reduces the efficiency of the system incrementally as the day goes on—within four hours they’re at 50% capability because film plastics drastically reduce the effectiveness of the system.

Incidentally, this is why you shouldn’t recycle your plastic bags curbside—return them to your grocery store if they have a take-back program, or “bag with friends” and bundle all of your plastic bags together.

From that initial hand-sort, things get pretty interesting, and it almost feels like magic watching some of the materials get sorted and diverted to where they need to go. Further down the line, magnets pull metals from the stream and drop them into their designated bins while Eddy Current separators whisk aluminum cans away as if they were salmon jumping upstream. While mostly accurate, packaging with mixed materials is problematic. Magnets can and will pull up something as seemingly innocuous as a Pringles can, so you're better off leaving them out of your recycling bin.

Glass also presents its own unique set of challenges. While infinitely recyclable, it’s also tough on the machinery and their fleet of trucks because it acts like sandpaper. When glass enters the line, it goes to a NIHOT machine which filters out the less dense pieces and cleans the material for reuse.

60% of what Recology pulls in is paper, and there are two different screens for this-one for cardboard, and the other for newspaper. The most recognizable piece of branded packaging that whizzes by you on the line is an Amazon box, and there is a damn near appalling amount of them.

Plastic must go with other like plastics, and the MRF utilizes optical sorting to ensure this happens. These infrared sensors can detect the size, shape and structure of a piece, and once identified, the machine hits it with a blast of air so that it can go into the correct bin. PET and HDPE bottles go into their own bins, but they bundle plastics 3-7 separately so they can go to an outside vendor.

Of course, optical sorting isn’t always accurate. For example, you could have a PET bottle with a plastic film scan as PET, and this type of mixed material will cause a problem for the MRF. Again, you're contaminating the stream when this happens.

At the end of the line, there’s a Quality Assurance hand screen to guarantee that every sort gets thoroughly scanned for contaminated materials. But even in this last QA, they’re still removing plastic from the stream. They might even find a Tetrapak container in this final hand sort, which, while recyclable, is a contaminate because the MRF doesn’t have the ability to separate the multi-material package.

Once all of the materials make their way through the MRF for sortation, they get crushed and baled, and later sent to various vendors for repurposing the materials.

It’s all very high tech and insanely awesome, although according to a few Germans I toured the facility with, American MRFs are twenty years behind their counterparts because there are more infrared scanners to detect those unwanted materials like plastic films and flexible packaging.

Also, you should always tour one of these facilities with Europeans because they will laugh and laugh about our lack of infrastructure, but that’s what happens when you’re lucky enough to have extended producer responsibility laws on the books.

Ultimately, Recology’s goal is to be waste zero—you don’t want to send anything to a landfill because there’s a fee for diverting that waste. They’ve also added more staff for hand-sorting and cleaning these materials, and they’ve also slowed down the line to capture as many recyclables as they can.

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Those bales of plastic materials I saw as soon as I walked onto the floor? The goal is to find an end market for those materials. A few years ago, they could offload these materials to China, but in the wake of their National Sword Policy, this is no longer a viable option. They might be able to find a market for these flexible plastics in Indonesia or Vietnam, and some could even go to Canada if they’re lucky. And while Recology will likely sit on these materials for some time, there is still the chance it could go to a landfill.

And while it’s difficult to put an exact number on that based on what the inbound commodity is for any given day, 18-20% of the waste they bring in isn’t recyclable and it will go to a landfill, typically because it’s garbage, but on occasion, because they couldn’t find the end market for that material.

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Think about an aluminum can.

This is something that’s endlessly recyclable, but you still have manufacturers or brands that don’t always consult with MRFs or any other sort of waste stream when they're designing packaging. Sure, there's the APR Design Guide for Plastics Recyclability, but you still have folks using mixed materials.

So, when a packaging designer or brand releases an aluminum can with a plastic film over it— maybe like that craft beer or energy drink you’re sipping on—they’re throwing a wrench into a complex system where multi-materials don’t always thrive. It’s less costly for the brand to wrap that can in a plastic film, but you’re also gumming up the works for the recycling facility while at the same time telling consumers your can is 100% recyclable. Yes, that can is recyclable, but it still creates a problem for MRFs, and you want that material correctly diverted because it’s a valuable commodity.

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“When brands and designers see the process that’s involved in recycling these materials and why certain materials are recyclable or not recyclable, it’s really helpful in informing the upstream design of these products,” says Quinn Apuzzo, Recology’s Government and Community Relations Manager.

“There’s an end market for these products we’re producing,” she adds. “There’s a lot of different factors that go into how we collect and effectively sort these materials into their constituent categories, and it’s very impactful when we can share that message upstream for brands and folks designing packaging.”

I write and edit a lot of articles about what goes into branding and packaging design. When talking to designers or agencies or even the brands themselves, there’s often a romantic story that involves learning how they sourced the ingredients or materials for their product, or they talk up its artisanal nature, the devotion to craftsmanship. Designers will talk and talk about seeing how the product gets made because it informs so much of the design process because you simply must do the research to truly wrap your head around the product and what it is. Not once have I ever heard a designer talk about what happens to a product at the end of its life.

This is not to say that they’re not packaging their products in the best materials or that they could care less. On the contrary, they sometimes do, and they love to talk up the recyclability of those materials and build that into their brand’s story. But just because something is recyclable, it doesn’t mean you can always recycle it. A plastic bottle can’t be recycled again and again, and nothing against park benches, but there are only so many we need. The onus of recycling can't be on the backs of consumers and the MRFs, and at some point brands, manufacturers and designers have to take responsibility for the packaging they’re putting out into the market.

You need to have a deep understanding how the products you design travel through the waste recovery system, realize that every product you design has an end of life, and that material—this valuable, raw material—can either be reused again, or it’s going to a landfill.

It’s that simple. And as a designer or a brand owner, it’s your duty to know how these things work.

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