MDF recycling trials bring solution closer

Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) recycling has moved a step closer, after a trial of a commercially-viable process to recover wood fibre from the material was successfully concluded by UK recycling company MDF Recovery.

The company announced this week that it had successfully concluded trials, after more than six years’ research and development, to develop a commercially-viable recycling process, which recovers the fibre for use in insulation and horticulture.

First devised in the 1970s, MDF is constructed from a combination of wood fibres and resins formed at high pressures and temperatures by breaking down hardwood or softwood into wood fibres. It is commonly used in the furniture, DIY and construction sectors, and the company says that more than 50 million tonnes are produced globally every year.

Due to the production techniques used in its construction, however, MDF is hard to recycle and is usually incinerated or sent to landfill. In a 2009 report, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) stated that conservative estimates suggested that, every year, over 150,000 tonnes of MDF waste were either disposed of in landfill sites or burnt without energy recovery from the UK furniture sector alone. MDF’s manufacturing process, meanwhile, produces an additional 131,00 tonnes of waste material a year.

First ‘environmentally-friendly’ alternative

MDF Recovery says that its new technology will offer the first ‘environmentally-friendly’ way of disposing of the fibreboard. It estimates that between 30,000 and 60,000 tonnes of the fibreboard waste could be recycled by the company each year in the UK and almost three million tonnes globally.

The technology uses ohmic heating, a technique commonly used in large-scale food processing that involves heating material by passing an electric current through it. In MDF Recovery’s new technology, MDF is first shredded into uniform 20-25-millimetre pieces before it is added to water to which the ohmic heating process is applied. The process is said to free up the individual fibres by breaking down the resins that bind them, as well as removing laminates from the material. The resulting material is then mechanically agitated to fluff it up and dried if necessary.

According to the company, the process generates a new raw material of the same quality as virgin wood fibre that can be used as a feedstock to the manufacturers of MDF board, insulation products and horticultural growing products.

‘Zero waste production is now a real possibility’

According to MDF Recovery, the technology can be retrofitted or designed into new plants, with financial payback dependent on the size of the plant, but in larger plants is expected within 18 months.

There is, MDF Recovery states, over 40 years’ production of MDF embedded in products and buildings and over 25 million tonnes of new product being manufactured every year, making sustainable handling of the material vital.

Co-founder and Managing Director Craig Bartlett explained: “The technology can also process industrial and commercial forms of MDF waste, allowing manufacturers to take back material from their customers – a so called ‘closed-loop’ solution. Zero waste production is now a real possibility.”

He added that the company is now ready to take the technology to the commercial market, and discussions with companies operating in MDF production and with waste industries have begun and will be progressed during early 2017. The company has set up an advisory board to help commercialise the technology.