Mechanical separation of light packaging waste is a useful practice for improving the quality of the recyclable waste flows and its exploitation in a frame of the circular economy. Materials Recovery Facilities can treat from 3000 to 5000 tons per year of light packaging waste. Concerning the plastic content, this is divided in four flows: PET, HDPE, other plastics, and waste rejects. The last two are generally used for energy recovery. For improving the quality of the recyclable plastic waste, a manual separation is required for reducing the impurities detectable in the final products. However, this practice could enhance the risk at work of the operators, which should be constantly monitored. This article explores the main differences of a manual separation and of a mechanical separation, assessing the costs and the health risk for the workers. The analysis started from the situation in an Italian Materials Recovery Facility, generalizing the context; a future scenario with the application of a mechanical separation is theoretically introduced. The main results obtained suggest that the manual separation plant improves the quality of the material, though increasing the risk of the operators due to the possible contact with sharp waste, sanitary danger, and risk of injuries for the mismanagement of machines, among others. The mechanical separation can be considered a real advantage from an economic point of view, since the operating costs are lower and the investment could be recovered in around 10 years, in an Italian-like context. On balance, on the one hand, the article provides indications for the private sector for improving the management of a Materials Recovery Facility, while, on the other hand, it detects the main pros and cons of both methodologies.
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