Featured image with text: "What Is a Dirty MRF?"

We answer the question of “What Is a Dirty MRF?” and why whether a MRF is “clean” or “dirty” is a big issue. Then we explain why the EU is going down the route of Clean MRFs and their more modern successors. But will the Brits stick with their Dirty MRFs? They could, now that the UK is no longer in the EU, but…

What is a Dirty MRF?

To the uninitiated, the term “Dirty MRF” (pronounced “murf”) sounds vaguely unpleasant, maybe even insulting.

Perhaps, when you first heard it spoken you thought the person who said it, must have been struck by a speech impediment!

A dirty MRF (materials recovery facility) is a waste processing facility, accepting deliveries from WCVs (waste collection vehicles), as a mixed solid waste stream (otherwise known as residual waste, or black bag waste).

A Meme in which a man asks what is a dirty MRF.

In other words, a dirty MRF is one where all the garbage comes into the processing facility and workers sort the recyclable materials from the trash. This type of waste treatment technology accepts refuse and recyclable materials mixed together, and separation occurs within the plant.

Recyclable materials which are removed are then sent on to pre-processors and any residual material that is not suitable for processing goes for disposal. A dirty MRF recovers between 5% and 45% cent of the incoming material as recyclable materials. The remaining amount is then mostly landfilled, but on some occasions would be otherwise disposed, such as by incineration.

However, because the material entering a clean MRF typically weighs 50 to 100 pounds per cubic yard and the material entering a dirty MRF weighs about 350 pounds per cubic yard, dirty and clean MRF designs vary significantly.

Household Waste Recycling Centres (or HWRCs) are available at most dirty MRFs and usually, these are located at the entrance to the MRF transfer station area, Newspaper, cardboard, aluminium, tin/steel, plastic and brown, clear and green glass are examples of waste types accepted at most household waste recycling centres.

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The Role of the Dirty MRF

A “Dirty MRF”, processes household or commercial waste (trash) that has not had any recyclable trash removed. MRFs play an important role in reducing the waste stream sent to landfills, the demand for raw materials, and pollution associated with the manufacturing of new products.

The Mixed-Waste Processing Facility (MWPF)/ Dirty MRF

“Dirty MRFs”, are also called Mixed-Waste Processing Facilities (MWPFs). The mixed-waste processing system, sometimes referred to as “black bag waste” as black bags are commonly used, accepts a mixed solid waste stream and then proceeds to separate out designated recyclable materials through a combination of manual and mechanical sorting.

Materials Recovery Facilities are alternately known as Materials Reclamation Facilities or and it is really better to think of them simply as “multi waste stream re-use facilities”. Typical materials recovered at MRFs include, as a minimum, ferrous metal, aluminium, PET, HDPE, glass and mixed paper. MRFs include both clean MRFs and dirty MRFs.

What is Mixed Waste Processing or “All in One/Dirty MRF” Recycling?

Clean MRFs and a Dirty MRFs carry out mixed waste processing, and the nomenclature is even more confusing as some people also refer to them as carrying out “All in One/Dirty MRF” Recycling. A Dirty MRF (materials recovery facility) is a waste processing facility, accepting deliveries from WCVs (Waste Collection Vehicles – refuse trucks), as a mixed solid waste stream and inevitably, by the time it arrives, it is dirty, as all the dust and muck in each bin has gotten stuck all over everything even the recyclable materials. That’s pretty obvious!

But, herein lies the problem. Some amazing technology can be, and is, used to separate the recyclable materials (recyclates) out of it, but those materials will always be dirtier at that point than kerbside separated recyclable materials. It has a lower value in the market for recyclable materials, and if washed to clean it there is a financial as well as an environmental cost from using scarce water to wash it, and energy is used to clean the wash water up after it has been used.

"Waste picking in a clean MRF for what is a MRF?

Workers clear large debris from a conveyor belt at Waste Management’s CID Recycling & Disposal operation on Chicago’s far Southeast Side. This worker has found a plastic wheel hub within a segregated recycled waste stream of card and paper. – CC BY-NC-ND by cementley

Which is Best a Clean or a Dirty MRF?

A Dirty MRF can be capable of higher recovery rates than a Clean MRF, since it ensures that 100% of the waste stream is subjected to the sorting process, and can target a greater number of materials for recovery than can usually be accommodated by sorting at the source. If they only knew it and took enough interest to make themselves aware of it Dirty MRFs have an enormous advantage to you and me as householders, because if the proponents of the Dirty MRFs got their way and Clean MRFs were closed we could all just simply throw our trash into a mixed waste bin and WE WOULD NOT HAVE TO BOTHER WITH RECYCLING AT ALL. The Dirty MRFer’s say – just leave recycling to the experts to solve and don’t torment the public with impossible rules and lists of what to recycle and in which container.

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Dirty MRFs also are capable of greater rates of recycling than Clean MRFs because the recyclable materials which people don’t recycle (over half the household waste in the UK for example) go straight to landfill or incineration. It will only be possible to stop the recyclables which people don’t put into their kerbside collection going to landfill if either:

  • the public is willing to be more conscientious than it is currently and stop putting their recyclable waste into their residual waste bins, or
  • the local authorities and business waste collection services operate two systems. That is a Clean MRF waste stream and a Dirty MRF waste stream simultaneously.

The first idea of the public having to willingly recycle more, might achievable to a certain degree, but over 65% recycling is probably not ever going to happen.

The Green Pressure Groups, plus recycling organizations and stakeholders have been weighing in on what they see as negative effects of mixed waste processing on recycling. In the author’s opinion.

The pressure groups are saying that a facility processing waste and recyclables mixed together, known as a dirty MRF, will not improve and may harm recycling. But, you will usually find that the objection to Dirty MRFs is more about the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) syndrome than a real appreciation of the issues surrounding waste processing.

Locals always, understandably, wish to avoid the construction of a mixed waste processing facility or dirty MRF, near them. They are big, and ugly no matter what the architects try to do to make them look better. They are huge! Nevertheless, as separation technology improves they will advance and in truth, the washing process is just one more step in an already highly complex waste separation process.

In any event, implementation of the circular economy which uses far less in the way of raw materials than today will require the use of reusable containers for most of our food in future. Single-use plastic is due to be banned in many countries and throughout Europe in 3 to5 years time. Hence, deposit-return containers will become the norm and every one of those returned containers will have to be washed to high standards of hygiene and sorted mechanically into the bottles owned by each food supplier, before being sent for refilling.

MRFS Are Morphing Into MWPFs

In effect, Dirty MRFs are here to stay hand-in-hand with Clean MRF streams, so much so that new facilities have a new name as “MWPFs”. These are now known as Mixed Waste Processing Facilities (MWPFs) use a variety of new and existing technologies to sort recyclables from a stream of mixed trash. Or, an MWPF can be thought of as a stand-alone facility processing the entire waste stream. The US appears to be going down this route while European governments have been excessively influenced by green campaigners who have failed to understand the longe term vision.

Recycling, as an important concept, will have gone by the time we enter the era of the circular economy. Recycling is no longer useful as a bolt-on concept. It is central to waste management once the circular economy really gets underway. What today we call recycled materials, will just be thought of as raw “materials” alongside the diminishing use of “virgin” first use materials. The only real difference will be that the impurities in new materials will always be rather different from those in the recycled “raw materials”

Clean or Dirty MRFs? Does It Really Matter When All That Society Needs is “Clean” Products?

The new generation of MWPFs (Materials and Waste Processing Facilities) will deal with a more complex waste stream than MRFs for the “cleaner” streams of source-separated recyclables, to say that MWPFs are just dirty MRFs under a new name, as many green campaigners do, is not just an oversimplification, it is not accurate. Regardless of what is set out, collected and processed, the better question is: “can the material products be marketed and at what sustainable value?”. In other words “Quality is King“. That’s all that matters to any business seeking to buy the material outputs from any waste processing facility. The buyers of the processed (recycled) materials care not whether the process is clean or dirty.

Do You Really Care Whether a MRF is Clean or Dirty? Especially When Dirty Waste Processing Would Mean You Don’t Have to Bother With Recycling at Home?

But, I am convinced that the public would care a great deal if they were asked whether they would rather spend hours each week washing and source separating their recyclables, or not bother and simply let their council employ their waste contractors to do it for them!

The EU is Going “Clean” But Will Brits Stay “Dirty”?

Much of the US is going down the “dirty” rote, but the EU is set on “clean”. The UK now being out of Europe could join the US and go “dirty”, but so far the UK government seems set on continuing to adopt EU policy. However, surely this is an area of policy which could now be reviewed? Hence, the title of this article. Full implementation of the “circular economy” must go ahead if the UK is to attain Net-Zero 2015 targets, but that does not mean that the UK has to phase out all Dirty MRFs – as required by EU Directives recently passed.

The “Are MWPFs just Dirty MRFs?” Debate Rumbles On

With mixed waste processing, a part of virtually all new conversion technologies today, the question of whether mixed waste processing facilities (MWPFs) are just dirty material recovery facilities (dirty MRFs) has become common. The answer is “not necessarily”. Often, earlier facilities were called “dirty” MRFs because they may have had very high levels of residue, odour issues or contaminated materials. However, today’s MWPFs are:

  • increasing their recovery rates for recyclables and organics and can go higher than purely clean processing will ever attain,
  • streamlining their processing of the residues and with the production of better fuels and a greatly reduced amount of residue sent to landfill bring together many benefits lost in clean-only waste processing
  • using their residue to make energy, only after the more preferred uses identified within national waste use hierarchies have been extracted.

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Concluding this Article on What Is a Dirty MRF? The EU is Going Clean But Will Brits Stay Dirty?

Our plea is don’t dump the Dirty MRF.

What is important is that all the possible single-stream materials get sorted according to the principle of environmental and economic sustainability by specification and then they are processed and prepared for the end buyer. Whether the materials enter this process clean or dirty is irrelevant and many other, often more important, factors apply.

Clean MRFs often currently do recycle more materials than dirty MRFs, but the final number of materials that end up being recycled is still low due to contamination issues that arise from ‘commingling’ the kerbside materials before they reach the waste processing facility. Avoiding this is impracticable. It has led to each local authority making its own rules as to what recyclables must be placed in each council supplied container. The household waste rules are complex and confusing and as people move around remembering what goes into which recycling container has become an impracticable nightmare for the UK population, and elsewhere.

Commercial and Industrial (C&I) Waste is another case to consider. Contamination is reduced when input comes from homogenous sources like office buildings. The case for various waste treatment and recovery systems differs. There is no wish to deny that success relies on clean and dry streams. Clean streams have their place and for some businesses and industries, with good staff training in waste segregation, clean streams can have a huge role. By so doing, current C&I Waste recovery rates can be raised still further with low-quality output due to contamination being replaced by much higher quality recyclates as normal.




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