Recently, I joined colleagues from the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association of Ohio to tour the Rumpke Waste & Recycling Columbus facility. This material recovery facility (MRF) gave us a chance to see recycling in action along with challenges that Rumpke is working hard to overcome.
Both Ohio’s non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverage industries want more of our containers kept out of landfills and out of nature, becoming new containers when possible. Every facet of Ohio’s recycling system matters from package design, consumer education on how to properly recycle, access to convenient recycling, material recovery to processing recovered materials into new products.
We gathered to better understand what happens after recycling bins are emptied and hauled away for sorting to MRFs. We began our meeting reviewing Rumpke’s plans for a new 200,000 square foot advanced recycling center. This new facility will open next year after a more than $50 million investment, becoming North America’s most advanced MRF. But our tour would begin with their existing facility where despite aging infrastructure, technology and workforce constraints, Rumpke is doing amazing work.
Marketplace demands for more recycled content in everything from Amazon boxes to beverage bottles drives Rumpke’s quest to recycle more materials faster and cheaper while working to cut contamination. They process mounds of paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, glass bottles, PET plastic bottles and more. After moving through optical sorters and mechanical sorters, Rumpke still relies on workers to do finer sorts to remove unwanted items like plastic bags and batteries to name a few.
We better understood challenges around “wishful recycling” after viewing the sorts and hearing more about Rumpke’s efforts to educate consumers on what to put in their bins—and more importantly what to leave out. Anything that tangles sort machines (plastic bags), starts fires (laptops, anything with batteries) or doesn’t ever belong (bowling balls) must be removed. Prevention work through consumer education is constant and vital.
Once the sorts are completed and machines remove paper labels, recyclables are compacted into bales and ready for sale to various processors. For example, PET plastic bottle bales are purchased by companies like Evergreen to be made into new PET bottles. According to Jeff Snyder, Rumpke’s recycling director, most of what is processed at their Columbus facility is sold to Ohio processors like Evergreen or Pratt Industries, a paper mill in Wapakoneta. We loved the efficiency of that circular system.
The new Rumpke facility will replace 1980’s optical sort technology with more and better optical scanners (up to 20 from the current three in use). They will also use AI advanced systems to identify materials from millions of datasets further improving sort accuracy, recovering more materials and reducing contamination in the bales.
How will a better MRF help producers of your favorite beverages? Producers want more recycled content (in the case of our PET bottles, we want more rPET or recycled PET plastic). Processors buy bales from MRFs to make new bottles and cans. If there are more bales to buy and those bales are cleaner (meaning fewer contaminants that the processor has to pick out and discard) there will be more recycled content available to buy. More supply will eventually mean lower prices for those containers so using fewer virgin materials will help with sustainability commitments while protecting operating costs.
We all agreed to return next year to tour the new MRF and celebrate this private sector investment in Ohio’s circular economy.