What impact will the new MRF Regulations have?

Written by: RWW | Published:

What will the new materials recovery facilities (MRF) Regulations mean for the waste sector, in particular for local authorities and their services? Victoria Hutchin and Dr Adam Read report.

The amended Environmental Permitting Regulations including the MRF Regulations came into force in April 2014 and have received a mixed welcome by the sector. While most agree that measures to drive improved quality of recyclables are desirable, there has not been agreement on the suitability of the specific measures introduced under the Regulations. One key area which has not been fully addressed in the consultation process is the impact on local authorities; a key player in determining the feedstocks reaching MRFs.

Under the regulations, a regulated facility is defined as one that receives mixed waste material in order to separate it into specified output material for the purpose of selling it, or transferring it to other facilities or persons to enable that material to be recycled by those facilities or persons. 

Where a regulated facility is receiving a minimum of 1,000 tonnes of mixed waste during the relevant year, and the largest proportion consists of two or more of the target materials (glass, metal, paper and plastic) mixed together, the Regulations will apply.

Of the 368 local authorities in England and Wales, 69% are collecting some form of mixed materials, ranging from fully co-mingled collection systems to those mixing only a couple of items such as cardboard and plastic bottles. As such, the potential impact on local authorities could be far reaching. 

Furthermore, of the 30 top performing English and Welsh authorities in 2012/13 (in terms of recycling rates), 20 of these operated co-mingled collection systems, and it is difficult to predict at this stage what impact, if any, there will be on recycling performance league tables from the introduction of the MRF code of practice.

While improving recycling quality from MRFs is necessary, if only to ensure compliance with Regulation 13 of the Waste Framework Directive (which requires materials to be separately collected wherever it is necessary to achieve high quality recycling, and is technically, environmentally and economically practicable), there will be unintended consequences of the Regulations for local authorities, particularly those which are operating co-mingled collection schemes. 

No prescribed methodologies

Under current arrangements for reporting MRF processing contamination on Waste Data Flow, there are no prescribed methodologies or frequencies for undertaking material testing. 

As such, some quoted contamination rates will be from very infrequent testing regimes, and in other cases may use average contamination rates from all materials processed at the facility, rather than rates specific to materials received from individual authorities.

In 2011/12, 75% of local authorities using MRFs to process materials reported contamination rates of 9.2% or less. It will be interesting to see how many of them will continue to do so under the more rigorous material testing requirements.

At present it is unclear if, or how, the introduction of improved material quality testing under the regulations would link into Waste Data Flow. 

At a recent WRAP hosted event on the Regulations, it was suggested that there would be no reconciliation between the two data sets. If, following the introduction of the regulations, authorities use the new more robust data to report their recycling performances on Waste Data Flow, this could lead to a fall in individual authorities’ reported recycling rates. Clearly, this would not be the case for all authorities, as the impact assessment estimates that currently 50% of MRFs are undertaking material testing similar to that required under the regulations, and it would be fair to assume that this data was being accurately reported on Waste Data Flow. Additionally, in most cases, local authorities report contamination in respect of material inputs, taking no consideration of the output quality.  

What is not clear is how this will be taken into consideration, if at all, when reporting individual or national recycling performance. 

Measuring success

The main focus of the Quality Action Plan (England) is to improve material outputs and encourage closed loop recycling, and it is difficult to envisage how its success will be measured. The greater transparency of information brought by the regulations could lead to a national fall in recycling rates, making the target of recycling or reusing 50% of materials by 2020, all the more challenging.  

In addition to the potential impact on recycling rates, there could also be significant financial impacts for local authorities, the most direct of which being additional costs of complying with the regulations passed to the authority from its MRF operator.  

The impact assessment estimated that annual costs of labour for undertaking the required testing could range from £12,010 for a small facility up to £54,650 for a large facility, in addition to the estimated annual £2,000 payable to the regulatory bodies (Environment Agency/Natural Resources Wales), which could equate to between £2 and £14 per tonne depending on the size of the facility.

Further unintended consequences include the likelihood that there will be more rejected loads at MRFs, in part due to the greater availability of data and therefore a better understanding of material inputs, and also possibly due to MRF operators not wishing to report poor quality results when the data will be in the public domain. 

Poor material inputs not only generate more waste, but also generate poorer quality outputs. If, as has been suggested, local authorities use data from the quality tests to assess MRF contractual performance, and/or use this as a criterion to evaluate tender submissions, this would be a significant disincentive to process poor quality material. 

The possible reduction in reported recycling rates and increases in rejected loads could also have a significant impact on collection authority disposal costs. 

Where collection authorities’ recycling rates are negatively impacted, their receipt of recycling credits (from the disposal authority) will reduce and in addition to this, their costs of disposal may increase. Many MRF contracts sit outside of county disposal agreements meaning that any rejected materials have to be disposed of at the cost of the collection authority. Even in cases where collection authorities are able to use county disposal arrangements for rejected material, they will still be liable for transportation costs, which will vary significantly depending on the site of the MRF in relation to the disposal point. 

Wholesale change in MRF market

The regulations could also bring about a wholesale change in the MRF market, with those facilities with poor performance being driven out of the market. This could lead to increased costs for material processing as smaller, cheaper to run facilities which may be more likely to fail to produce the same quality standards as other more technologically advanced facilities, withdraw from the market. 

This could also cause a retraction in the MRF market leading to less competition within the market place; this could be of importance to local authorities tendering for MRF processing contracts in the future.

If nothing else, the regulations will give us a greater understanding of MRF processing quality and allow greater accuracy when comparing MRF-sorted materials to kerbside-sorted materials, which will be of greatest importance once the requirement for separate collections comes into force in January 2015. 

Only time will tell, but the eyes of the sector, and the public, will be firmly on MRF performance over the next 12 months.


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