Closing the Other Recycling Loop: Stewardship
In the drive to expand recycling programs, it’s possible sometimes to lose focus on the very reason that the program exists.
When recycling professionals talk about “closing the loop,” they are often referring to the need to buy items made from recycled materials. But there is another recycling loop that needs to be addressed: environmental integrity.
Recycling has environmental benefits. Even the staunchest advocate of waste to energy or conversion technologies should concede that fact. But in the quest to maintain environmental purity, some recycling programs may not be examining the end life cycle of the products they are collecting. This author is not suggesting there are wide-scale problems with the environmental practices of recycling programs. However, there seems to be an overall lack of good data. Without the establishments of benchmarks, it is difficult to measure what environmental progress has been made.
Certain parts of the country are blessed with robust end markets for recycling commodities. Blair Pollock, solid waste planner for Orange County, NC (population 130,000), works for a community that “demands a high level of transparency,” in its recycling transactions. There exist financially secure final and intermediate regional markets for PET and HDPE bottles in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. There are aluminum can smelters in Virginia and Tennessee. There are also numerous smaller mills in the eastern US, which are often the destinations for steel cans. Paper collected in the Orange County program frequently goes directly to SONOCO, which typically uses the paper in its domestic mill in South Carolina, though it occasionally sends some materials overseas, depending on the markets. North Carolina also benefits from several landfill bans, including yardwaste, cardboard, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles. North Carolina also has a $2-per-ton landfill tax whose proceeds are split between cleanup of abandoned landfills and awards to cities and counties to fund a variety of programs. Under those conditions, it becomes much easier for municipalities to obtain assurances that their commodities will reach their highest and best use in the open recycling market. The commodities collected in these programs are often processed domestically and made into high-grade products.
Contrast this market situation with Texas, where landfill space is very cheap and it is still legal to landfill many commonly recycled commodities. Under these conditions, environmental stewardship becomes more difficult to monitor and guarantee. In spite of these challenges, Austin and San Antonio have each established very aggressive recycling goals. David McCary, solid waste director for San Antonio, TX (population 1.3 million), said it was critical for his city to keep and report accurate numbers, especially as they transitioned their collection methods from a curb-sort program to single-stream. “We conduct quarterly audits to determine our contamination rate, and we always subtract that amount from our reported recycling tonnage. Our educational efforts have resulted in decreased contamination rates. But we feel it’s important that we portray an accurate picture of what our recycling program is doing. I know that some cities just report their raw curbside collection figures, but we feel in San Antonio that would be unethical.”
In addition, the city is conducting an audit of its processor to verify that all eligible materials are actually being recycled.
Single-stream recycling programs continue to expand, especially in urban markets. The EPA reports that the number of single-stream programs in the United States more than doubled in just a few years. Though these programs usually increase the collected tonnage, there is also usually a high contamination rate, at least in the initial years. Not every program has the same commitment to accuracy that McCary described. Even when figures are accurately represented, there is another potential loophole.
This article is not about recyclables being secretly landfilled. Consistently, materials collected for recycling are, in fact, recycled. But there is something missing from the conversation: How and where are the materials recycled? When local markets exist for recycling processing, it certainly makes both environmental and economic sense to use them. But when that is not an option, and the materials are shipped to another country for processing, does it still make environmental sense? This author has read several greenhouse gas emissions studies with complex calculations that say yes. Of course, there are other studies that say the exact opposite.
The problem is not the differing methodologies and conflicting results, but rather the lack of open dialogue on the issue. Too often, municipalities are not even part of the discussion and have removed themselves from monitoring the end result. Contracts may contain language to ensure that items are actually recycled. But rarely do the contracts require full disclosure on the environmental practices that go into recycling the commodities. Due to the highly competitive nature of the industry, most processors are not willing to fully disclose their markets and municipalities rarely insist upon the issue. Ignorance does not absolve us of responsibility.
Similar but different environmental questions are also being raised in the composting industry. The 2008 EPA estimate for yard trimmings is about 33 million tons nationwide and 16.5 tons for woodwaste. This is a huge wastestream, with economic implications for either the compost facility or landfill that receives the materials. For decades, the growing trend was the composting of vegetative materials. And unlike in the recycling markets, the resulting compost is a very tangible local product. Yet, Florida changed its yardwaste disposal ban to allow MSW landfills with methane gas capture systems to accept greenwaste.
What is the best and highest use of vegetative materials? It’s somewhat cynical but realistic to say that financial considerations will yield different answers.
What actually constitutes waste and how to best use or dispose of the material has been the focus of many new initiatives. Zero waste often plays a role in those discussions. This author recently attended a “zero waste,” concert in the park. How did the organizers achieve this wonderful feat? On the day before the event, they removed all the waste receptacles from the park, garbage and recycling alike. I suppose in the most literal interpretation of the term, since no waste stayed at the event, it does qualify as zero waste. It certainly does not embody the sentiment of what industry professionals consider to be zero waste. But there isn’t a consistent definition of what zero waste entails among the industry professionals, either.
This past February I had the opportunity to attend SWANA’s “Thinking Outside the Blue Box” conference in Los Angeles. This year the conference took a much different approach than in past years. Rather than the traditional technical sessions, there were panel discussions on zero waste. What made the conference interesting was the vast variety of viewpoints that were addressed. Conference organizers made a special effort to ensure there were speakers who didn’t typically attend a recycling oriented conference. This allowed for engaging discussions and helped to showcase the variety of differing viewpoints in the waste management industry. As an industry, we need to have more of these discussions without the rhetoric that the position we advocate is the only solution, be it recycling, WTE, or some other conversion technology.
There is another basic conversation on integrated waste management that is not taking place, and that is the consumption side. Reduction of the consumption of resources plays an essential role in reducing overall waste. With the exception of plastic bags, there has not been much of a commitment to reduce consumer consumption. When the economy constricts and personal budgets become slimmer, waste reduction occurs on a natural basis with little intervention from marketing experts or government officials. We see the direct evidence of reduced consumption in dropping landfill tonnage. But it is difficult to measure reduced consumption on an individual basis, and not much educational effort has been devoted to this topic. Many programs, say that “reduction” is the most important step in the 3R hierarchy, but very few communities devote their educational dollars to such an idea. As funding becomes even tighter, it’s even less likely that there will be a concentrated effort to promote reduction. And that is unfortunate because, as a society, we are still quite trashy.
For instance, electronic gadgets continue to become obsolete at an accelerating pace. “This year, we have seen a 48% increase in e-cycling searches in our Recycling Directory,” says Corey Lambrecht, president of Earth911. In the absence of a national electronics program or funding fee, retailers and municipalities have created their own hodgepodge of take-back programs.
It’s debatable if mass consumption is driven by customer demand or antiquated business processes. For example, over 555 million phone books are distributed each year in the United States. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “local governments and consumers spend approximately $54 million a year to dispose of phone books and an additional $9 million to recycle them.” In some communities, it’s common to receive multiple editions. Seattle and San Francisco have both introduced proposals that may limit phone book directory distribution. The Yellow Pages Association and the Association of Directory Publishers prefer a voluntary means to reduce unwanted directories, and have a launched a national opt-out website for directories, which can be found online at http://www.yellowpagesoptout.com/.
Some products in the special waste category, such as tire and electronics, are benefiting from the increasing popularity of advance disposal fees. These help to fund the proper disposal of what otherwise would be very costly programs. But generally, other household hazardous wastes (HHW) are not as fortunate. HHW programs are very expensive to operate in comparison with the amounts of materials they collect. They are very popular with residents but are facing an uncertain future due to budgetary issues. Several programs have reduced their frequency of operation or have placed limits on how much material can be accepted. In Arizona, for example, Mohave County limited the amounts of paint and motor oil that residents could bring to the HHW program and dropped electronics completely this past November.
Pharmaceutical collection is another costly program, complicated by many regulatory issues. Earth 911 reports that over 4 billion prescriptions are written each year in the United States and that about 40% of the medications distributed in a hospital setting go unused. The Safe and Secure Drug Disposal Act (S 3397) was signed into law by President Obama in October 2010. This slightly eased the regulatory burden but did not totally eliminate it. Nor did it address the costly issues.
There is a critical need to further develop our domestic recycling processing capacity. Without the assurance of widely available local feedstock, manufacturers have little incentive to invest in creating products made from recycled materials. We know that recycling works. As a country, we need it to be working here. To paraphrase Tip O’Neill, all garbage is local.
Author's Bio: Josephine Valencia is the former director of SWANA’s Recycling and Special Waste Technical Division. She is currently the assistant director for San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department.
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