Over the past year numerous mainstream media articles presented a national recycling crisis. In John Tierney's October 2015 New York Times article The Reign of Recycling, Waste Management (WM) CEO David Steiner is quoted, "If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront."
Yet the crisis seems to revolve around WM's profitability within single-stream recycling systems. According to the September 2015 Fortune article The American recycling business is a mess: Can Big Waste fix it?, single-stream recycling is a sorting method WM pioneered in 2001. Under WM and other large waste hauler influence, single-stream recycling evolved into the only available option for curbside and corporate recycling programs in many municipalities.
In single-stream recycling, common recyclable materials - fiber (cardboard, paper), plastics, metals and glass - are placed in a single bin for later sorting at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Once sorted by type, material is baled for sale within the commodity market. Beginning around 2009 the big waste haulers started switching over to single-stream recycling as their offered service.
|Ei Chair Scott Seydel in front of a|
MRF single-stream recycling delivery
Unfortunately, contamination was rampant in single-stream recycling systems from its introduction. Contamination generally falls into three categories: 1> non-recyclable items 2> food & melted ice and 3> glass.
In the beginning, many of the non-recyclable items in single-stream collection were due to lack of clear signage and consumer confusion. For example, bin signage may read "Plastics," rather than the specific accepted plastics. Thus, consumers include ALL plastics - lawn chairs, hoses etc. - in the single-stream bin.
Food waste on recyclable foodservice packaging is contamination. In addition to rendering the packaging unfit for recycling, the food waste may contaminate nearby material. Water (melted ice from fountain soft drinks and other beverages) causes paper to stick to plastics; the paper and plastic are impractical to separate in MRF sorting systems. Therefore, the plastic, along with the paper stuck to it, are deposited in the landfill-destined trash pile.
Most single-stream recycling is collected in packer trucks where the material is crushed for transportation. When crushed, glass breaks into small shards that contaminate the paper, plastics and metals in the load. Additionally, glass (essentially sand) causes significant wear and tear on hauling trucks and MRF sorting equipment.
In December 2009 the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) issued the comprehensive Understanding economic and environmental impacts of single-stream collection systems white paper. Within the paper, research findings forewarned of single-stream perils: single-stream recycling increases diversion from landfill rates yet decreases recycling rates due to contamination.
The U.S. EPA Sustainable Materials Management Web Academy presented the webinar, Single-Stream Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, in July 2011. Within the webinar, the presenters address the effectiveness of a system designed for ease of collection. The ZWA Blog article, Single-Stream Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, gives a synopsis of the informative webinar.
|MRF separated glass - filled with|
plastic & paper contamination
If contamination was rampant since launching, how did the waste haulers make the necessary profits to drive single-stream recycling to the predominant, often only, recycling option available for communities and corporations at-large?
The answer is within commodity market pricing. As the recycling commodity markets regained strength from the 2008 pricing plummets, MRFs made profits even with significant contamination. Markets for contaminated material remained reasonably stable with China purchasing the strong majority of the "dirty material."
Large waste haulers often invested in their own MRFs to complement landfill investments. Thus, the hauler collected tipping fees from landfill-bound, contaminated MRF material.
|2015 McCormick Place recycling bin|
w/ clear signage, next to waste bin.
A robust commodity market through mid-2014 masked the contamination flaws within single-stream recycling systems.
Beginning in mid-2014, recycling commodity market pricing started a downward spiral. At the same time China cut U.S. purchases significantly and demanded cleaner material. Contaminated material prices severely declined and in some instances the market disintegrated. Suddenly, contaminated material was perceived as an expensive program cost versus a system by-product.
For larger generators, on-site source separation is best materials management practices and improves the bottom line. As noted in the ZWA Blog article, Zero waste moves from "best" to standard operating practices, the Piazza Produce source-separated material recycling program generated $288,000 of cost-savings in 2015; the program continued to improve the bottom line during soft recycling markets.
As a raw material in manufacturing operations, clean recyclable material retains value. When there are strong local markets, larger generators often circumvent the commodities market and sell directly to the manufacturer. The Elemental Impact (Ei) Source-Separated Materials Recycling Template (S-SRT) is grounded in clean material source-separation and direct, local sales to manufacturers. Committed to integrity, the S-SRT tagline is Contamination is a Mistake!
Thus, the recycling crisis touted by David Steiner in mainstream media is a contamination crisis.
As the first in a series, this article's purpose is to establish the contamination crisis scenario. Following articles will address available solutions to overhaul corporate recycling programs, whether at an individual location or for the municipality, into systems that make good business, community and environmental sense.
|Separated material at the|
In general, the articles will address corporate recycling with little to no focus on curbside recycling. Intended topics include:
- Waste Prevention - working with the supply chain on transport packaging to eliminate trash packaging; ensuring no waste is created when products are sold to customers.
- WE Consciousness | Culture - ensuring organization employees work in unison toward common goals within a supportive corporate culture; includes working in partnership with the supply chain and customers.
|clear communication at|
an employee bulletin board
- Hauler | Generator Responsibility - taking responsibility for contamination within a recycling stream; using WE Consciousness, the hauler & customer work together to craft recycling programs that generate clean streams; culture plays a critical role.
- Clear Communication - educating employers and guests on proper placement for material and trash; includes clear, effective signage & best bin practices.
- Local Infrastructure - working with grass roots recycling companies on flexible programs unique to the local end markets; may attract new manufacturers to the local market if a significant volume of their raw material is generated within the community.
With a positive flavor, the articles will focus on success stories and how to engineer profitable recycling systems.
It is time for the corporate community to exercise their power of consumer demand when it comes to materials management and resource recovery. Once industry leaders break the single-stream cycle, the big haulers will follow with crafting an alternative, effective system. Simple Economics 101 may prove the best pathway to fixing a broken recycling system riddled with contamination.