Recycling Futures

A year ago a bale of waste paper was worth $100 a ton, today you have to pay $15 per ton to get it taken away.

That’s not free to you, the cost is hidden in your charges.

recyclingI’m in the midst of switching waste/trash haulers for our HOA. The HOA took a vote last year to switch at the end of the contract. As it turns out the city service for the identical cart service is more expensive than our HOA hauler.

This is a big deal, especially in the era of everything by Amazon and e-commerce.

That’s missing the point though. The city service is aimed at reducing landfill needs, and quite rightly so. They charge by size of trash and composting bins, and whatever size recycling is thrown in for free.

Our current HOA service is mostly just aimed at taking stuff away. We were able to require the existing hauler into doing year-around composting, although a number of people have claimed to have seen the hauler just dump the composting in with the trash. I talked to the City Public Works Director about their service, only to find out that it ends in August next year, and right about the time we move HOA Residents to the city service, they’ll be issuing a RFP for a new 5-year contract.

It’s likely then we are going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. If we stick with the existing hauler, we’ll likely get charged more for a less than optimal service. If we switch, we are likely to be in a bigger pool, which could make recycling even more expensive when the contract is renewed.

At least the communities I’ve lived in, in America, have been lazy recyclers. Back in the mid-80’s, recycling/reuse increasing came into people’s consciousness, it was all pretty specific, especially around glass, and can recycling. Many States instituted deposit schemes, and encouraged collection and recycling. For most though, the deposit schemes never lasted, people were too lazy after a few years, and just reverted to trashing them.

Single-stream_pile_IMG_0995ed[1]
Single stream recycling waiting go to to the “Materials Recovery Facility” (MRF).
Single stream recycling was seen as a simple way to encourage Americans to recycle, it’s been hugely successful, and a disaster. Many Americans don’t even try to understand the recycling process, or even wonder how the materials they dump in their single stream recycling cart make it back into raw materials to be reused. If it’s paper or plastic, they just put it in the single stream cart/bin. Some people jam stuff in the Single stream cart, well, because it wont fit in the trash. It’s then someone elses problem.

In a move, mostly unrelated to the Presidents tariff war with China, the Chinese have so much low grade recycling, that they are no longer just accepting low grade recycling material. This is a big deal, especially in the era of everything by Amazon and e-commerce.

What’s the problem?

amazon-prime-514x383[1]
Doesn’t go in the recycling cart; Needs special service; Must have paper label removed.
Take for example that Amazon 100% recyclable plastic shipping envelopes, just like the one in the picture. These don’t go in single stream recycling. They have to be handled by speciality bag recyclers.

However, even if everyone does what we do and keep a large sack in the garage for plastic bags and take it to their specialist local collection point, in our case Eco-cycle in Boulder, it’s still not that simple.

Your amazon shipping bag has a paper address label stuck on it. Unless that label is completely removed, the bag is just another example of junk recycling. The only way to turn the bag back into recyclable plastic pellets, is to soak the bag, and then use a chemical mixture to dissolve the paper. At scale, ten of thousands per month, doesn’t make this practical. Picking the labels off is difficult and time consuming, better is just to take a pair of scissors and cut the label off and put it in the trash before putting the bag asides to take to specialist recycling. There are loads of other examples

We recently bought a new TV. Aside from a massive paperboard box, it came with a large amount of styrofoam packing material. Styrofoam needs specialist recycling, just because you can jam ito into your trash cart, don’t. It will get crushed and numerous stages and the styrofoam particles eventually end up in landfill and last 500+ years.

Don’t put it in recycling either. Just because you can jam it in, doesn’t mean it won’t end up in landfill, it will, only at twice the haulage cost. If you have a service that penalizes you for “bad materials” in recycling, you deserve to get ticketed. If your styrofoam makes it to the single stream recycling location, it will either be sorted by machine, or often by hand into the trash. That’s not free to you, the cost is hidden in your charges.

That’s not free to you, the cost is hidden in your charges.

The list goes on and on. Tires and inner tubes; shredded paper; food packing(if it has any kind of wax or plastic liner), broken drinking glasses or lightbulbs; almost anything with plastic packing tape, even cardboard.. It all has to be either stripped, or should go in the trash.

All this has to be sorted, cleaned, and then sent to the actual plant where it is converted. The sorting is expensive and  the less “pure” it is, the less it’s worth. Even bottle tops and can lids, carton tops should be trashed, they are not recyclable. In fact, pretty much anything under 3-inches can’t be recycled as it’s too small to pass through the machines.

The Market for recycling

A year ago a bale of waste paper was worth $100 a ton, today you have to pay $15 per ton to get it taken away.

Even the market for that stalwart of recycling, paper, has tanked. Formally cities were paid by the ton for the single stream recycling materials, after sorting. Now, they are paying to have them taken away.  While you can still find baled waste paper contracts for $100 or more per ton, thats waste paper at the mill, not ready to be shipped from the MRF. A year ago a bale of waste paper was worth $100 a ton, today you have to pay $15 per ton to get it taken away.

Interestingly, amid the recycling crisis, the same thing that has happened in other industries is also happening to US paper mills, they are getting bought by Chinese companies. It’s not clear what this will mean for recycling, but it will increasingly mean the Chinese are able to control the price.

What Can we do?

Be a conscientious recycler. If in doubt, throw it in the trash. Compost where you can, recycle diligently. Remember everything you put in recycling that ends up in trash costs twice as much to haul and still ends up in landfills. Even where landfills do NOT pollute the ground, or ground water, they do smell. Many things that end up in landfill will last hundreds of years.

Buying land for landfills; preparing them; managing them is an expensive business. Most people wouldn’t want to live near a landfill for just the noise of trucks coming and going, much less the smell. Yet we can’t live without landfills, the further away from our homes they are, the more it costs to haul trash there. The alternative would be incinerators, and while the science is good, the fear of air pollution is real. At least for now, landfill is the only alternative to recycling.

One of the best videos I’ve seen on single stream recycling comes from our own Boulder County Recycling Center. It should be compulsory viewing for everyone. While watching, remember, our taxes are paying for the locations, machines, energy, and people who make it “simple” for you to do recycling, via single stream recycling. Even after all this, we are now having to pay for many of the resource bundles to be taken away for re-use.

The second video covers hard to recycle and problem materials with answer son what to do with them.

Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Author: Mark Cathcart

Formerly an Executive Director of Systems Engineering and a Senior Distinguished Engineer at Dell. Prior to that, an IBM Distinguished Engineer working for the Systems Group in NY and Austin. I'm currently "retired until further notice".

1 thought on “Recycling Futures”

Leave a Reply