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What Exactly is a “MRF”? Lethbridge Living takes a tour of the Materials Recovery Facility

Growing up, I always found a certain fascination by accompanying my dad to the dump. At six years old, it seemed to be a land of lost possibilities, where things that were once loved went to perish. While I was taught to “reduce, reuse, recycle”, the concept of regular recycling hadn’t quite caught hold yet in the early 80s.

The first Canadian municipal curbside recycling program was established in 1981 in Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario, serving 1,500 homes. A second was started in 1986 in Mississauga, and momentum grew across the country. Almost four decades later, municipal run curbside recycling is coming to Lethbridge. The blue bins will be distributed starting April 15th, with first collections scheduled the week of May 14th. It will take about four weeks to deliver around 35,000 carts.

But where is all the material taken once it is collected? Lethbridge Living took the first media tour inside the newly constructed Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, at the City’s Waste and Recycling Centre, also known as the landfill.

From the outside of the building, it appears to be just a big blue warehouse. But inside, it’s an elaborate state-of-the-art equipment operation. “At the end if the day when we process everything, all the different materials that we have are going to go through this equipment and it will be pretty much the shape of a bale 5’x4’x3’,” explains Joel Sanchez, the City’s Waste and Recycling Services Manager.

Materials will be sorted through a combination of mechanical and human interaction. Trucks will deposit the collected materials into a metering bin, which will determine the tonnage per hour to ensure a steady stream of goods. The facility has the capacity to process eight tonnes of recyclables per hour.

All the materials will run up a conveyor belt into a sort cabin enclosure. Four employees will hand pick out the “large forgets” as Joel calls them - items such as propane tanks or housewares that aren’t meant to be put into a curbside recycling bin. These “contaminants” are then put into a bin to be deposited where they belong – whether a special recycling area, compost site or the landfill.

“That’s the first checkpoint for material coming to the plant,” says Joel. “After that cabin it goes into the OCC Screen – that’s for cardboard. All the other material goes through and cardboard gets separated.” Everything else continues on the conveyor to another sort cabin that has two lines and chutes where employees can sort paper – white paper in one and mixed/newspaper in the other. The remaining materials continue to move through the system.

A magnetic separator then attracts all the metal recyclables into another stream. Only aluminum and plastics should remain, which wind up in another sorting cabin where three employees will sort the plastics by type. They will also sort out any remaining contaminants and drop them into a pipe which leads to a baler outside the building. The last step is the Eddy current, which is specially designed to attract aluminum like a magnet. Once sorted and the bunkers are full, the recyclables will be sent to the baler, in preparation for marketing to businesses that can use them.

In April 2018, the City launched a curbside recycling pilot project (Phase 1) which offered service to a group of approximately 900 homes and several multi-family complexes. Phase 1 allowed City staff to test different delivery methods and collect feedback ahead of citywide implementation.

After nearly one year, it collected close to 90,000 kg of material. “In that Phase 1, we had around 14 per cent contamination, which is not too bad. We wish we could do better – around 10 per cent,” says Joel. But when compared to Calgary, Edmonton or Red Deer, communities that have had a MRF for close to a decade, their contamination rates are around 20-25 per cent, he explains.

Plastic bags and glass are not accepted in the blue bins to protect the safety of employees and functionality of the equipment. However, they can still be dropped off at the recycling depots. Materials from the recycling depots will also be brought to the MRF for baling. For the most part they are already sorted, says Joel, but if there is contamination then they will have to run the batch through the sorting process. This can get costly, so residents are reminded to become educated about what can and cannot be recycled and how to prepare items for recycling.

In Phase 1, they conducted curbside audits. Several staff would do checks, looking what’s inside the blue bins ahead of the trucks collecting them. They would leave an “oops” tag if there was too much contamination. “What we found was textiles, like t-shirts, pants… grass, dead animals, styrofoam, branches… some things can be recycled but not in the blue cart. So, we’re really trying to get the message out,” says Joel. Curbside audits will continue in the citywide implementation. If the cart is more than 25 per cent contaminated, they will leave a tag and not pick up the cart that day, he explains. “There will be a message telling the residents why we didn’t pick it up.”

Every bin has an RFID tag with a serial number and each truck is equipped with a camera. When the contents are dumped, the truck driver can see if there is contamination and flag the account so a notice can be issued to the residents. “We really hope that eventually that will help,” says Joel. “We know it’s not going to solve all the problems but at least there’s a way to do that.” If there is consistent contamination, there could be a surcharge applied to the bill.

“It’s not going to be easy at the beginning and we know that. That’s why we don’t want to go to enforcement right away,” says Joel. The first three months will entail notices, lots of education and suggestions for what to do to correct any issues.

Why do we want to divert waste from the landfill? Currently there is about 55-60 years of capacity, Joel says. “With the introduction of curbside recycling we can expect the landfill to last another 10-12 years. And the idea is to go back to council (this summer) and present a proposal for organics… so to do the same thing we’re doing with the blue cart but now with a green cart.” Approximately 47 per cent of household waste is organics, Joel explains, so with a green cart program it would extend the life of the landfill yet another 15-20 years.

What happens once the recyclable materials are packed and ready to leave the MRF? They are marketed to companies that can use them. After sending a Request for Proposals, the successful candidate was Recycle America, a company of Waste Management. “Sixty to eighty per cent of material goes to North America. They don’t ship to China, they don’t ship to many other countries, mostly North America,” says Joel. “By partnering with them, they have a bigger volume (of accounts) and can find better prices for us.” The City is also open to local business partnerships and collaborating with other southern Alberta communities. The final say on where the material goes rests with the City, explains Joel.

Also at the landfill is the Blue Sky Centre, an educational building designed for students and the general public to learn more about recycling. They can watch what’s happening in real time on monitors and will soon be able to try a Virtual Reality sorting game, through a collaboration with the University of Lethbridge. “The idea is if you can start early enough, you can probably make a change,” says Joel. “For everything that we do, the outreach and the education is probably the most important because that will give people the tools and the knowledge to know what to do.”

Almost four decades later, I now see the landfill in a different light – no longer a place of lost possibilities, but full of possibilities to preserve our environment and instill hope for future generations.
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