Ask Eartha: Recycling can make your head spin
Ryan Summerlin March 12, 2014
Last week, we touched the surface of glass recycling 101 for both single-stream and source-separated recycling streams. This week, we’ll dive a little deeper into commodities and recycling issues.
Before we get started, I want to remind the folks at home about why we recycle in the first place.
We all understand the implications of sending our waste (or what I like to call “resources”) to the landfill. In response, recycling conserves natural resources; reduces damaging extraction processes; saves the energy needed to obtain raw materials; and diminishes pollution problems (electronics, household hazardous waste, batteries, tires, etc). So, yes, recycling is a great thing and is something we should wholeheartedly support as citizens of the planet.
Recycling changes via industry or community decisions can be frustrating and downright disheartening. Believe me, I understand. Recyclers want to recycle everything they can. For example, the recent changes with glass in single-stream is going to be a slow and difficult transition, especially for local businesses and homeowners associations.
We have to keep in mind that most recycling changes at the community level do have a “bigger picture” goal in mind. The decision to remove glass from single-stream was based on the fact that we saw a major contamination issue (glass) impacting single-stream recycling. By removing the contaminant, we can improve recycling operations and ultimately create a better, cleaner service. That should be the goal of every recycling program — to recover “clean” and useable materials to be made into new products, essentially closing the loop (“bottle to bottle”).
That being said, recycling options and opportunities are often at the mercy of both internal and external factors such as:
Industry and markets: Industry and recycling markets dictate what can or can’t be accepted for recycling programs across the country.
If markets fail or certain commodities lose their value, the impacts are felt industry-wide. We rely on local manufacturers to take clean recyclables so they can be made into new products. If the technology or markets do not exist locally for certain items (that is, single-stream glass and 1-7 non-bottle plastics like Styrofoam and clamshells), these items may be shipped overseas or thrown away because there is nowhere else for them to go.
On the other hand, markets also play a role in specifying the price or value of commodities when it comes to the consumer. When you choose to buy recycled products like 100 percent post-consumer office paper, you are supporting recycling programs everywhere.
Collection capacity: What and how recycling is collected is often defined by waste-hauling equipment and companies. For example, it would be great if compostables and recyclables were collected for free from all households and businesses in Summit County. At this time, it’s not financially feasible to operate such programs. There’s a lot of time, equipment, fuel and manpower needed to run collection programs.
The good news is that collection programs often develop based on customer desire or need. Haulers do listen to their customers, and if there is demand for a particular service, they are more likely to consider offering it (separate glass collection for single-stream recycling, for example).
Another issue is the ability of recycling programs to bail certain commodities so they can be shipped to local manufacturers. If certain products are too time consuming or costly to sort and bail, they become a barrier for the entire recycling operation.
Source-separated materials provide the most value and least amount of contamination issues to recycling programs, because the recycling stream has already been sorted by participants at drop-off centers. Conversely, single-stream glass has become a major contamination issue for bailing equipment, operators and manufacturers and must be removed.
Stay tuned as we continue to talk about glass and recycling issues in the next Ask Eartha.
The High Country Conservation Center has partnered with Summit County government to provide education and support on recycling issues. If you have questions about glass recycling, please let us know. We’re here to help! Contact HC3 at (970) 668-5703 or visit our website at www.highcountryconservation.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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