What Is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?

Like any industry, the world of waste and recycling has its own key terminology and acronyms, and a “murf” is one of those. A materials recovery facility (MRF), sometimes called a materials reclamation facility or materials recycling facility, is a plant that separates and prepares single-stream recycling materials to be sold to end buyers.

A MRF is an essential component of any city’s residential and commercial single-stream recycling program as more cities and municipalities across the United States have moved to single-stream recycling. In fact, a survey conducted by The Recycling Partnership in 2016 found that 82 percent of curbside recycling programs are now single-stream.

This shift toward single-stream is putting the onus on residents and business owners to sort their recyclables and has been proven to be a boon in terms of increasing the sheer quantity of recyclable materials actually being redirected, instead of trashed. A 2018 Harris Poll found that two-thirds of Americans agreed with the statement “if a product is not easy/convenient for me to recycle, I probably would not recycle it.” Which is to say, the job of a materials recovery facility is only going to get more important as time goes on.

What Does a Materials Recovery Facility Sort?

Materials recovery facilities sort a wide array of recyclable materials, including but not limited to:

  • Plastics
  • Cardboard (OCC)
  • Paper including newspapers, magazines, office paper, mixed paper, etc.
  • Glass bottles and jars
  • Metal containers, including aluminum and steel cans
  • Cartons

Here is a short video by Recycle More North Carolina that depicts the process flow of how each of these recyclable materials are sorted (and the equipment that is used at each step of the way), from the moment they are brought into the material recovery center to the moment they are baled or otherwise prepared to be sent out:

As the video notes, unlike other materials being sorted and baled, glass is instead crushed—once crushed it is referred to as cullet—and put into containers which are then sold to manufacturers who remelt the cullet and turn it into new glass products or utilize this feedstock in insulation. Typically glass is separated by color, with clear, green, and brown glass being more valuable on the commodities market than glass of other colors.

Clean MRFs vs. Dirty MRFs

There are two primary types of materials recovery facilities: clean and dirty.

Clean MRF

Put simply, a clean materials recovery facility only processes residential or commercial single-stream recycling; that is, recyclable materials that you place in your curbside recycling bin that is picked up every week or so.

The recovery rate at a clean materials recovery facility (the percentage of materials that enter a clean MRF that actually ends up being recycled) is thought to be higher than at a dirty MRF. With that said, recovery rates at MRFs can be hard to unravel and many facility owners don’t want to share this information, which can make it hard to determine exact recovery rates.

Dirty MRF

A dirty materials recovery facility, on the other hand, is a MRF that processes residential or commercial trash in the hope of capturing recyclable materials that have incorrectly been thrown out as trash. When combined with clean materials recovery facilities, the benefits of dirty MRFs is that they allow for greater overall recovery of recyclable materials, whereas the downsides are that they typically cost more to run, as they require significantly more manual labor to remove trash, and any soluble recyclables, such as mixed paper and OCC, tend to get contaminated.

There is a third materials recovery facility type, known as a wet MRF, which is essentially a dirty MRF in which water is present to separate and clean recycling streams, and in some cases, begin to biodegrade certain organics to make them ready to enter an anaerobic digestion facility.

How to Improve Materials Recovery Facility Efficiencies

There are a number of ways in which you can help to improve the efficiency of your local materials recovery facility and the community it serves.

The number one way to help these facilities is by not contaminating your recycling load by “recycling” plastic bags and straws. One of the biggest challenges that materials recovery facilities face today is plastic bags, straws, and other small, flexible plastic pieces getting caught in the sorting equipment.

Typically, MRFs can only capture items that are a minimum of five inches in dimension in any direction. Smaller items, such as plastic straws, and extremely flexible materials, such as plastic bags, tend to clog up the machinery or fall between the cracks and get swept up with dirt, grit, food waste, broken glass, wine corks, bottle caps, and any other smaller items, before getting sent to landfill.

Due to the fact that materials that find their way to a materials recovery facility are manually sorted as they pass by on conveyor belts, the greater the number of contaminants in a particular load, the greater the chance that manual sorting will be required.

If you have any questions, or you’re interested in speaking with me about our recycling solutions here at Rubicon, you can reach out to me directly at meredith.leahy@rubiconglobal.com, or contact our sales team at (844) 479-1507.


Meredith Leahy is a Waste Diversion Manager at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive Rubicon news and blog content directly in your inbox.