Over the years, cities and towns have found ways to make recycling virtually effortless for us. Most places in the country have curbside pickup. You put the recycling out with the trash, it gets hauled away for free, and you get to feel good about it. It’s the right thing to do.
But the reality is, recycling doesn’t work because we believe in it. It works because it’s an industry. You might be keeping that plastic bottle out of your trash bin, but the commodities market keeps it out of the landfill. That plastic bottle is cash in someone’s pocket.
But what happens when the way we recycle no longer fits the rest of the equation? Where does our trash go when our partners aren’t buying?
In the late twentieth century, the U.S. was in a frenzy over the threat of pollution. The Keep America Beautiful campaign was in full swing, and the 1971 “Crying Indian,” PSA was played so often that stations repeatedly wore out the film. In 1987, the Mobro 4000, a garbage barge carrying six million pounds of trash, travelled for five months and was rejected by ten ports. It came to be the roving symbol of our waste problem. In 1991, the Dow Chemical Corporation launched an educational production called “Recycle This!” and toured schools across the country with a message of reducing, reusing and recycling at all costs.
There was talk of landfills running out of space at a rapid pace, of the nation in a solid waste crisis. Recycling was touted as a kind of moral obligation to planet Earth -- and something we could all do to contribute. And municipalities began to scheme up the best way to get the most amount of people recycling the most amount of stuff. In 1989, single stream was born.
Single stream, also known as “fully commingled” and “single-sort,” means you can throw all of your recyclables into one bin. The days of sorting paper from plastic from glass -- the days of worrying about recycling -- were over. The process was cheaper for cities and towns and easier for individuals. Recycling companies across the country invested millions in updating their facilities. The system spread like wildfire across the U.S.. Today, it’s a gold standard in the industry. But that might be about to change.
In 2017, China announced a program called National Sword. It is, in effect, an import ban on certain recyclables. Some post-consumer plastics and unsorted paper will be rejected entirely, while bales of acceptable material must be at least 99.5-percent pure -- meaning that a bale of cardboard must be almost entirely cardboard. The errant piece of junk mail or plastic bag could spell rejection at port. Which is a problem, because China is the world’s top importer of trash. They take a third of the United States’ exported recycling, for example. And the nation’s favorite mode of recycling -- single stream -- is incapable of meeting that standard.
National Sword was put into place because the country wants to focus on domestic recycling operations. And because all of those contaminated bins we handed off to them meant they were stuck with our residual trash -- which, occasionally, means hazardous waste. When Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, spoke in October of last year about the future of China, he used the word “environment,” more than “economy.” They country doesn’t want to be our trash can anymore.
At a MRF -- that’s “Materials Recycling Facility” -- in Portland, Maine, many tons of commingled recyclables arrive daily. They’re hefted onto a conveyor belt and begin the sorting process. Puffs of air, controlled by computers, eject different plastics off of the belt and into the appropriate bin. Giant spinning rubber cogs bounce paper from plastic and glass. Loads are sorted and resorted, with employees positioned strategically to pluck the odd shoe or half-eaten apple from the river of waste.At the end of it all, a massive green baler spits out a 1- or 2-ton tightly bound cube. And then that cube is picked apart.
“Someone put this stuff in the recycling bin. We’ve got a wood pallet, we’ve got a pillow. We’ve got a giant thing of styrofoam, we’ve got a Christmas wreath.”
Katrina Venhuizen is the Environmental Educator here at EcoMaine. She points to a pile of refuse on the cement floor next to a bale. Another employee is sifting through the layers of cardboard for any other offenders.
“These things are not recyclable,” Katrina explains, “but they come to us and humans pick them out by hand.”
Katrina call this “Wishful Recycling:” it’s when you throw trash into the bin because it feels better than throwing it in the trash. And this wishful thinking is turning the recycling industry upside down. That moment when you pause with some plastic wrap, or an old Barbie, or maybe a battery full of toxic chemicals, and throw it in the recycling? That trash is called contamination.
Contamination is the red sock in the washer full of white shirts. It’s the plastic grocery bag in a bale of cardboard. It means that a bale has to be sorted through before the material can washed and melted down or shredded into pulp. And the way most of us recycle -- single stream, commingled bin-style -- it leads to plenty of contamination.
And, for a long time, contamination wasn’t that big a deal for American MRFs. Because the people who buy those bales of material, and turn them into new stuff, they’ve been okay with the contamination rate coming out of most facilities. Of course, China isn’t playing ball anymore. And that means that recyclers like EcoMaine, which has MRFs that produce a contamination rate of 3- to 5-percent, need to find buyers elsewhere.
Industry in Crisis
Tony Belanger is the Director of major Accounts and Municipal Services at Pinard Waste Systems in New Hampshire. He’s had his finger on the pulse of this shift for awhile now, and he calls this shift the dirty little secret of the waste industry.
“It’s been bad for a couple of months, it’s getting worse. Once it gets really bad, people are going to start screaming when their budgets are upside down.”
The cost of recycling has gone up. And that’s because, as China’s National Sword carries on, other smaller recycling markets are flooding. Combine that with low oil prices making plastic very cheap, and the value of commodities is taking a hit. And that trickles down to the cost of recycling itself.
“I mean, it’s out there and people in our industry are well-aware of it,” Tony says, “But until it hits home with somebody, like a municipality or a big corporation or something like that, someone who’s got some lungs, it just doesn’t get out to the general public or to anyone else.”
Tony explains that a recycler might face a cost of $100 to process materials at a MRF like EcoMaine. But maybe it’ll only cost him $70 to drop it off at the dump. It’s no contest -- the dump wins out. Even in those states where it’s illegal to landfill recycling, certain counties have started providing waivers that allow certain plastics to be dumped rather than sorted. So why haven’t we heard about this?
Well, Tony says, we’re just not paying attention. “I’ll be honest with you. Not a lot of people care to know the inner workings of the waste industry.” He says that people “have this picture in their head of the little triangle on the bottom of a beverage container and say look at that, I’m buying something that’s reusable or recyclable and that’s the romantic part of it.”
One majorly unromantic part of it? Our wishful recycling -- and plastic grocery bags are offender number one in this -- throws a wrench in the operation. To some extent, we’re the ones making our recyclables un-recyclable. And the fallout of this may soon hit home at the local level.
Mike Durfor, the director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, explains that municipalities are facing a dilemma.
“The price went from $35/ton to $70/ton for a week, and then it went to $90/ton the next week. And folks that are trying to budget for that are really caught. Because they can’t. They can’t foresee that kind of cataclysmic impact on the recycling markets.”
Budgeting need to happen at a lot of levels in this process. The town for a waste hauler, the waste hauler has to budget for collection, the MRF for sorting and shipping. And all of this worked, because recyclables had a decent value. Towns were sometimes looking at $0 contracts because the hauler and facility were making money by selling the recycling itself. But, in this upset, that money isn’t coming in anymore. And it means that taxpayers are going to take a hit.
“We had a discussion yesterday with a municipality,” Mike says, “they’re paying about $105 a ton for single stream recycling. And at the same time, they have a contract for their municipal solid waste, their trash, for $68 a ton. So, if it’s going to cost you $105 over here and $65 over there, you’re probably going over there. Especially if you have a tight budget.”
Some recycling programs have already starting asking residents to leave certain things out of the bin. Marion County in Oregon has banned shredded paper, egg cartons, milk boxes and most plastic from the single stream bins. Madison, Wisconsin has banned plastics like 5-gallon bucks and children’s toys. In the Australian state of Victoria, a waste hauler suspended collection entirely. Ireland, who was used to exporting 95% of their recycling to China, warns that they’re on the brink of a waste management crisis.
The Problem With Single Stream
That little recycling symbol seemed for so long to carry a kind of environmental currency and the guaranteed value of not showing up in a landfill. But these materials have literal monetary value, in a complicated market. And the way that we’ve gone about recycling -- single stream and wishful pieces of trash -- isn’t helping things.
And though single stream does increase recycling rates, one recycler in Cleveland, Ohio has been saying for years that the system doesn’t serve the market. Richard Bole owns Recycle Midwest. He’s been in the business for 28 years, and he runs a facility that very carefully sorts all material.
“Over the years,” Richard explains, “I have learned this, what I call a truism, which is that get the best prices in the market and sometimes any prices at all, you have to have everything almost perfectly sorted.”
Richard pointed out that China has been pushing for cleaner recycling for awhile now. National Sword is just the latest in their insistence on a better product. And either way, he says, this is a commodities market. Recyclables will, ultimately, always have to be sorted really well to be worth something.
“With the low oil prices, low plastic prices, means that the only way you could possibly sell the recycled product is by having everything almost perfectly sorted. Now, going to single stream,” Richard says, “where you throw everything together and then pick it up in the trash truck and compress it and break some of the glass and treat it like that is not a way, in my view, to treat recyclables.”
Richard wrote an op-ed for an industry magazine saying he was aghast when single stream was introduced. It’s treating recyclables like garbage, he says, and that doesn’t make any sense.
So, to Richard, it’d be no surprise that some of our recycling isn’t just being handled like garbage. It’s becoming garbage.
Trash into Treasure
And as far as landfilling goes, we’ve got the space for it. Arkansas, for example, has said it can go about 600 years before its dumps run out of space and they need to build another one.
But Mike Durfor, with the NRRA, insists that now is a great time to get into the recycling industry. Because there is a silver lining to all of this, as it turns out. It’s a chance to build a different, stronger system that can withstand shifts. And while it might sound counterintuitive, the solution to this whole mess might be to double-down on the logic of single-stream… and to get rid of seperate bins altogether.
“There are a number of initiatives around the country that are looking at things like one bin,” Mike explains, “where all your trash and recyclables would go in together, and they’re specifically designed to deal with that type of contamination, whereas the facilities that are just designed for recycling only aren’t. And that’s what causing them a problem.”
Mike says this one-bin system would require better, more magical, more Willy-Wonka-esque MRFs that were specifically designed to really, truly get the contamination out. The process is praised for being easier for consumers, and increasing recycling rates and diverting nearly all trash from the landfill.
“Single stream plants are trying to remake an omelette after the egg’s been cracked. [The one bin systems] tout their process as saying, there's no such thing as waste. There’s only materials that can be reused. And that’s how they design their facility. And like I say, they put a lot of investment into the equipment to get that separated out.”
Mike says the one bin system is working in some countries in Europe. But in the U.S., it’s still pretty new. And that’s intimidating. It takes buy-in from politicians and from the community. A one-bin MRF in Montgomery, Alabama went bankrupt a few years ago, and an attempt to institute the system in Houston, Texas died after years of research and negotiating.
So in a way… this is an opportunity for someone to step in a build a better recycling system… one that can crank out a genuinely clean product at a reasonable price…
Or, it’s a opportunity for landfills. After all, we didn’t start them… but they’re always there if we need them.
Outside/In was produced this week by:
Outside/In was produced this week by Hannah McCarthy and Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Erika Janik, Taylor Quimby, Justine Paradis, and Jimmy Gutierrez.
Special thanks to Jess Nolan and Jared Starr.
Music from this week’s episode came from Blue Dot Sessions.
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
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