Recycling methods: what happens behind the scenes?

recycling container. recycling methodsYou have put your recycling out at the curb, or perhaps taken it to a drop-off center. Does it actually get recycled?

Probably. It depends.

You may have read that a lot of what’s put out for recycling goes to the landfill. You may have also read that the US exports a lot of recycling to China and other Third World countries.

Not all recycling programs are created equal. Your community uses one of four different recycling methods. Local government policies and partnerships also affect what happens to your recycling.

Recycling methods

Source separation

recycling dropoff center. recycling methods. source separation

Recycling dropoff center, Kansas City, Missouri

Some jurisdictions require source separation. That is, households must sort their recycling into paper, plastic, metal, and glass.

Source separation works best at drop-off centers. Consumers take a load of recyclables to the center and then sort it into the proper containers. The center may even have separate containers for different colors of glass.

Curbside pickup works less well for source separation. It requires the jurisdiction to provide either multiple bins for each household or a single container with multiple compartments.

This recycling method requires the least complicated processing. It also results in the most valuable products on the commodities markets. Unfortunately, in our convenience-loving society, it also results in the lowest participation rates.

Single stream

Most commonly, people simply separate recycling from trash. All the recycling goes into the same container. It’s more convenient for the public. Therefore more participate and the program keeps more recyclables out of the landfill.

Single stream recycling also costs less to collect at curbside. It does not require separate or multi-compartment containers for the public or multi-compartment trucks for the company that collects it.

It becomes much more complicated and costly to process it. The recyclables go to a materials recovery facility (MRF). Some combination of complicated machinery and people picking things off conveyor belts must sort it.

Single-stream recycling produces less valuable bales of recyclables. Inevitably some product gets mixed up in bales of another product. Paper contaminates bales of plastic and metal. Plastic contaminates bales paper and metal. And so on.

And even before the sorting process begins high quality paper can become contaminated. Maybe spattered with ketchup or something else from an unrinsed bottle or jar. Clean, office paper brings higher prices than any other paper. Contaminated, it drops in value.

Dual stream

Recycling bales

Bales of recycled plastic ready for reprocessing

I have read about places where customers must put paper in one container or compartment and everything else in another. And others where it’s glass that they must separate.

Some articles use dual stream synonymously with source separation, but I think that’s a mistake.

Some places require separation of recyclables into two categories and others require multiple separation.

The two recycling methods are different. It’s confusing to use one term for both.

Unseparated trash

Single-stream recycling gets a higher participation rate. So why not let people put all their trash in one container and then separate out the recyclables?

Montgomery, Alabama decided to find out. In partnership with a company called Infinitus, it opened a new MRF in April 2014. It was designed to separate recyclables from trash. Infinitus collected trash from as far away as the Florida Panhandle for the plant.

For a while it made money. Then commodity prices plummeted. Infinitus couldn’t afford to stay in business. The plant closed in October 2015. Montgomery and other towns that had contracted with Infinitus had no choice but to send everything to the landfill.

Santa Rosa County, Florida, one of the cities affected by the failure of the Infinitus plant, restarted its recycling program a year later. Its new partner had to builda new MRF for single-stream recycling.

It’s not all about commodity prices. Single-stream recycling requires a more expensive sorting process and suffers higher contamination than source separation. Think of how much more expense and contamination unseparated trash entails!

The other recycling methods have good, bad, and neutral points. Not separating recyclables from trash has nothing to recommend it.

Local government policies

Years ago, I worked for a temp agency that assigned me for several months to the American Public Works Association. I looked at magazine articles and assigned keywords from a thesaurus. Someone else entered the information into a searchable database.

The magazines concerned about six different categories of public works, including waste management. Some jurisdictions outsourced operations. Others managed the work themselves. I read articles about how some places saved money by deciding to outsource. Others saved money by firing their contractor and doing the work in house.

Probably the same range of variability exists today. For recycling, most towns enter into partnerships with trash haulers, like Waste Management. Some have partnerships with companies more strictly in the recycling business. Some go it alone.

A tour of a MRF

materials recovery facility. recycling methods

A Re Community MRF

I recently toured the MRF in Greensboro, North Carolina, owned by¬†recycling specialist Re Community. It is a single-stream processing facility. Tori Carle, Greensboro’s recycling education coordinator, told me that the neighboring city of High Point owns and operates its own MRF.

Re Community separates the various kinds of recyclables and sells them to local or regional companies. In telling me specific companies that buy specific materials, Carle said, “These are companies that are locally based, regionally based, and those are jobs that are here in the United States. And so recycling is making jobs in this country.”

Many people, she acknowledged, believe that a lot of recycling simply gets dumped in the landfill. She said,

If Re Community were to spend all of their time processing these materials and baling them up, they would be losing money by sending them to the landfill. Because they would have to pay to dump it at the landfill. I promise they’re not sending anything to the landfill that they can sell.

I am well aware that many recycling programs simply sell their end product to agents, who likely as not sell it overseas. It is also true that some places, when commodity prices are very low, find it less expensive to pay the tipping fees at the landfill than store their bales and wait for commodity prices to rise.

Trash haulers make their money hauling trash. If they operate a landfill, they may make more money from that than from recycling. Jurisdictions who do not partner with recycling specialists cannot claim that all their recycling stays local and creates jobs.

But most of them probably landfill only what never should have gone in recycling in the first place.

Each jurisdiction has its own list of what you can and can’t set out for recycling. Be sure to put all acceptable recyclables in your recycling container. And nothing else.

The money in recycling has vanished; what do states, cities do now? / Jon Frandsen. Pew Charitable Trusts. March 29, 2016
Santa Rosa recycling program resumes / Anne Delaney, Pensacola (Florida) News Journal. September 14, 2016
Single stream versus source separation recycling / Michelle Lovrine Honeyager, Recycle Nation. March 13, 2015.

Photo credits
Recycling bin. Some rights reserved by City of St. Petersburg
Recycling drop-off center. Kansas City, Missouri Public Works
Recycling bales. Some rights reserved by Lisa Yarost
MRF diagram provided by Re Community. © Atomic Wash. Used by permission.

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