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Why UBC consumers are finally warming up to MRFs

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For the U.S. aluminum industry, which has braced for challenges due to climate regulations and energy costs, the past year has been a time for overcoming past phobias tied to can scrap—not an easy task.

The motivator is getting to a 75-percent can recycling rate by 2015. The phobias being relaxed are toward container deposit legislation and unsorted collection of household recyclables at curbside, known as single-stream recycling.

At the policy level, the Aluminum Association in November said that it considers container deposit legislation "a proven, sustainable method of capturing beverage cans for recycling." Only two months earlier, preparing the way for such a shift, Gregory Wittbecker, director of corporate metals recycling strategy at Alcoa Inc., had said "deposit is sort of a nuclear bomb. You use it with great discretion."

At the operational level, aluminum producers are reconciling themselves to ever-larger quantities of can scrap coming from single-stream curbside pickup programs, in which households and businesses toss discarded metal and plastic packaging, paper and glass bottles into a single bin. The outfit doing the collecting, typically a municipality or private trash hauler, also enjoys a simpler role it doesn't have to handle multiple bags of recyclables from each customer.

But simplicity at the intake side means tougher tasks further along. A single stream requires more sophisticated and intensive processing at the sites that do the segregating and cleaning materials recovery facilities (MRFs).

"Historically, Alcoa has not bought significant quantities of UBCs (used beverage cans) that have originated from MRFs," Wittbecker said. "You've got operational people with long memories of what material looked like five, 10, 15 years ago. They say they don't like to handle that stuff because it's got plastic in it that causes us problems."

Some MRF material does reach Alcoa indirectly after being routed through scrap processors familiar with the specifications of the Pittsburgh-based aluminum company. "They're doing a second-stage cleanup process. (After breaking apart the MRF bales) they run it through a beneficiation process. They clean it and repackage it. We've qualified a number of those dealers' material for consumption at our plants," Wittbecker said. "Single-stream recycling has done more to raise the volume of material than anything else out there. The amount of UBC supply that's coming from MRFs is definitely going to grow. We've got to be prepared as an industry to deal with it."

MRFs face a higher hurdle achieving mill standards than other suppliers of can scrap, said a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based canstock producer Novelis Corp. "Single-stream recycling, by definition, commingles other materials. The process will inherently yield lower quality on average. That being said, many single-stream suppliers are excellent," she said.

Novelis believes MRFs do better when they work under revenue-sharing arrangements. "Some are paid only on throughput," typically by a local government agency. "They have no incentive to change or improve. Some share in the revenue and thus have more incentive to make better quality," the agency said. The best MRFs choose the right technologies and then manage both equipment and workers conscientiously, the company spokeswoman said.

A key variable is the pace at which recyclables move through the MRF, Wittbecker said. For MRF management, "it's always a struggle to say 'Should I run my facility at a higher speed? That might jeopardize the quality of the package that I produce for the aluminum guys. Or do I slow down and make the package they like? But then my operating costs might go up'," he said. "Some of the more recently built MRFs are figuring out how to balance that and get both high-end production and quality."

The inevitable wrangling with MRFs shouldn't obscure the goal, according to David Gast, vice president of metal purchasing and logistics for Linthicum Heights, Md.-based canstock sheet producer Wise Metals Group.

"Our objective is to do what we can to put more UBCs back into the stream rather than into landfills. I'd much rather be buying UBCs than buying prime (primary aluminum) as a backfill," he said, adding that MRFs selling to Wise sometimes route their material through a third-party processor after can scrap bales have been rejected.

"If you're going to take it somewhere and rework it, that's fine. But that isn't a warrant that we're going to bring it back in and accept it. It's still going to have to pass muster," Gast said. "Like any other vendor, (MRFs) have to determine what adaptations, if any, they need to make in that quality to ensure it gets through the mill without causing any degradation to our production."

Alcoa was an early advocate of what recently became an Aluminum Association goal raising the recycling rate for aluminum cans in the United States to 75 percent. The 2007 recycling rate was just under 54 percent, below the peak of nearly 68 percent in 1992. Reaching that goal will require orchestrating household behavior, infrastructure and lawmaking, Wittbecker said. The legislative possibilities include tax breaks on fees paid to get curbside recycling and accelerated depreciation for capital investments at privately owned MRFs, he said, noting that the number of MRFs is approaching 700 in the United States, some of which are at inefficient locations.

"You've had municipalities build these MRFs in anticipation of increasing their recycling volume and then they find that their constituents don't participate. Or the infrastructure to collect the stuff isn't convenient. They become a drain on the municipality," he said. "(At the MRFs) aluminum has always been the heavyweight champion, providing the greatest single source of income. The Chinese injected a lot of real great revenue into the MRFs, buying paper, cardboard and plastic. That's basically disappeared. Aluminum is pretty much the only one that's still got any value." PAUL SCHAFFER


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