It probably does, but 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. What really happens after you do your part?
Not all recycling programs are created equal. Your community uses one of three different recycling processes to collect everything. Local government policies and partnerships also affect what happens to your recycling. One other recycling process proved a complete failure.
Recycling collection processes
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. That is, consumers take a load of recyclables to the center. There, they 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 process requires little or no additional sorting. 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.
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. Single-stream programs keep 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. Nor does the company that collects it need multi-compartment trucks.
It becomes much more complicated and costly after the truck dumps its contents. The recyclables go to a materials recovery facility (MRF) for sorting. This recycling process requires some combination of complicated machinery and people picking things off conveyor belts.
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 it’s spattered with ketchup an unrinsed bottle. That can happen at your home. Or if you rinse your bottles, your neighbors might not. Ketchup from their bottles soils your clean paper. Clean, office paper brings higher prices than any other paper. Contaminated, it drops in value.
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 people to separate recyclables into two categories. Others require even more separation–without requiring full source separation.
The two recycling processes are different. It’s confusing to use one term for both.
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. All the 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 build a new MRF for single-stream recycling.
It’s not all about commodity prices. Single-stream recycling requires a more expensive sorting process. It suffers higher contamination than source separation. Think of how much more expense and contamination unseparated trash entails!
The other recycling processes have good, bad, and neutral points. Not separating recyclables from trash at all 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. The choice of which recycling process to use goes along with chooing a partner or not.
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
I recently toured the MRF in Greensboro, North Carolina, owned by “pure-play” recycling specialist Re Community. It is a single-stream processing facility. Tori Carle, Greensboro’s recycling education specialist, showed me around.
Re Community separates the various kinds of recyclables and sells them to local or regional companies. 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. Likely as not, they 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 a pure-play recycling specialist 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.
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.