The American Chemistry Council (ACC), in partnership with Titus MRF Services, launched a secondary sorting study to measure the potential for additional capture of recyclable materials otherwise destined for landfill. This study is projected to wrap up in early 2021 and will provide real-world data to help guide recycling infrastructure decisions.

The Northeast Secondary Sortation Study is the first of its kind on the East Coast and presents an opportunity to gather data that will help increase recycling efficiency. A secondary sorting solution offers a second chance to capture recyclables either not currently recovered by primary material recovery facilities (MRFs) or comprise material yield losses. The data collected during this study will suggest what additional value may be created for the regional recycling system if a full-scale secondary sorting facility were to be developed.

America’s Plastic Makers are committed to helping end plastic waste. We’ve set a goal for all plastic packaging to be reused, recycled, or recovered in the U.S. by 2040. Creating pathways to close the loop for recycled materials and increasing landfill diversion are among our top priorities. The Northeast Secondary Sortation Study is the latest among these efforts to support innovations in recycling.

What We Learned in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest Secondary Sortation Project, a similar pilot conducted in 2019, revealed that a regional secondary sortation facility could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 130,000 tons a year in Washington and Oregon. That’s equivalent to taking more than 27,000 cars off the road. In addition, the results suggested that a regional secondary sorting MRF would:

  • Divert more than 100 million pounds of material from landfills per year;
  • Increase the materials’ recovery rate by 3 to 6 percent without significant collection program changes;
  • Generate dozens of green jobs per facility; and
  • Enable future expansion of curbside accepted materials lists.

The West Coast results are incredibly encouraging and show how secondary sorting can be an effective system improvement at the regional scale, rather than having to invest in similar upgrades at each MRF in a region. It’s a solution that generates benefit -over-year by capturing the value of materials that, in many cases, would be landfilled.

The 60-day study in the Pacific Northwest successfully recovered polyethylene, mixed paper, cartons, polypropylene, polystyrene, and PET bottles and thermoforms. The viability of a secondary sortation solution has the potential to positively impact all materials in the curbside system – not just plastics.

What We Hope to Learn Now

The Northeast Secondary Sortation Project will collect and analyze samples of container line residuals at MRFs in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. Currently, large-scale secondary sorting is not available in the Northeast.

Based on the findings in Oregon and Washington, and the Titus demonstration facility in Los Angeles, CA, we know that secondary sorting solutions increase the amount of material recovered that otherwise would be landfilled. What this new study will tell us is how viable a regional solution would be for the Northeast, in terms of collection volume and types of materials.

What Secondary Sortation Will Mean for Stakeholders

Plastics are critical to society, but without adequate recycling, their full value is being compromised. America’s Plastic Makers are looking at the entire lifecycle of their products, end-to-end, to support ways to increase sustainably. When we unlock viable recycling methods for new materials, it has the potential to impact the entire system, which is vital to reaching our recovery goals.

For primary MRFs, secondary sortation taps into a new revenue stream instead of, quite literally, throwing valuable feedstock in the trash. After these materials are recovered, they can be sold as valuable commodities, and that’s good for the bottom line and a more circular economy. In addition, a regional secondary sortation facility can increase the efficiency of the regional system, serving as a backup for primary MRFs when they need to go offline. Secondary sortation allows primary MRFs to increase landfill diversion scale – that can add up to significant savings for MRFs. It’s a solution that keeps us moving.

In addition to providing information that may enhance the recovery of program material, the secondary sorting study will help identify what type of non-program materials are also recoverable.  The PNW secondary sorting study suggested PP cold beverage cups and PS products, both rigid and foamed, could successfully be recovered. This demonstration could lead to the expansion of the types of materials that residents can recycle, increasing the amount of material being fed to domestic recycling markets.

The Future of Recycling

We’re hopeful that secondary sortation solutions around the country can move recycling forward and help progress critically important recovery goals. If the study shows favorable results, which we do anticipate, we can look to simulating the secondary sortation process with  equipment in the Northeast.