Monday, March 18, 2019

How you recycle matters

by Lisa Voss

We all know that we should recycle but HOW you recycle has a big impact on how much actually gets recovered and recycled. It affects the quality of the material and the percentage of the material that can be recovered. In general, the more the consumer separates materials upstream, the better the result.

According to the EPA 2015 Sustainable Materials Management report, over half of the waste stream is potentially recyclable but only about half of those of recyclables are currently recovered, for a “yield” of only approximately 25% of the waste stream nationally. (Note another 28% of the waste stream generated is food and yard trimmings that are almost all landfilled but could be composted). If we want to do better, we must separate materials earlier in the process and we need better markets for those materials.

Recycling approaches contain different tradeoffs; based on the sustainability goals of the municipality, decision-makers must balance between contamination risk, consumer effort/willingness, and processor investment. See the table below.

Full Source Separation
Consumer or business separates recyclables into individual bins
Two bins: fiber (paper/cardboard) and containers (glass/cans)
One bin for all recyclables, separate bin for trash
All waste in one bin, recyclables and non-recyclables together
Contamination Risk (recoverability)
LOW: Main risk is from placing contaminated or non-accepted items in bins (e.g. pizza boxes, plastic film, non-recoverable resins)
LOW-MED: Risk of placing items in wrong bin added to risk of contaminated or non-accepted items
MED-HIGH: Many non-recyclable items placed in bin (“wishcycling”), fiber contamination by container residue and broken glass
HIGH: Large amount of fiber content is contaminated by other waste, broken glass is both a contaminant and non-recoverable
Consumer Effort (adoption)
HIGH: Effort to separate, clean, and transport items
MED: Effort to separate and clean items; move 2 bins
LOW: No effort to separate recyclables
Processor Investment (cost)
Onsite collection bins, remote collection bins & pickup logistics, separation operation
Specialized 2-bin collection trucks, separate trash & recycling routes, “clean MRF” operation
Dedicated recycling collection trucks, separate trash & recycling routes, “clean MRF” operation
Standard collection trucks, single collection route, “dirty MRF” operation**
Local Example in Verde Valley
Sedona Recycles
Waste Management, Taylor Waste*
Patriot Disposal
* Waste and recycling collected by Taylor is currently being processed through Patriot’s facility
** The specific sorting technologies in MRFs can vary widely

For a quick education about the current challenges surrounding recycling, here’s a recent NYT article and a recent podcast that lays out the issues very well: Global Recycling Is A Dumpster Fire. Literally.

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