At the February 2010 SWANA Thinking Outside the Blue Box Conference, a presentation from Keep America Beautiful stated that about 74% of Americans have access to some type of curbside recycling program. Also, about 59% of curbside programs are provided through single-stream collection. The amount of recycling programs of any type, as well as single-stream collection is on the rise. Only a few years ago, in 2005, the American Forest and Paper Association estimated that single-stream programs were about 27% of all the curbside programs.
Usually provided through a cart system, single-stream collection can increase the convenience and the recycling capacity for residents. Although there is an added expense associated with providing the carts, the cost savings from collecting recyclables through single-stream can be significant. When the commodity prices for recyclables dropped substantially, many recycling programs turned to single-stream collection as a way of reducing operating expenses. According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) there are an estimated 160-plus single-stream material reclamation facilities (MRFs) in the United States today. That’s more than double the figure of only four years ago.
However, this convenience for the resident comes at the expense of the processor. While residents can mix all the materials together, it is the MRF that has the responsibility for sorting the materials. The mixture of materials requires additional employees, sorting belts, and other equipment for processing. While the processing expenses are increasing, the resulting quality of the materials processed is decreasing.
Single-stream recycling is not as good as other collection methods in isolating high-quality materials that are ready to be produced into new items. CRI published a study in December 2009 on the environmental and financial effects of single-stream recycling. The full report is available at www.container-recycling.org/assets/pdfs/reports/2009-SingleStream.pdf. It reports that the typical modern single stream MRF has an efficiency rating of about 85%. In other words, about 15% of the materials go to the wrong place, such as containers being mixed with fibers or the reverse. Buyers of recycling materials typically have no use for any contaminants in their purchased load. Although the soda bottles that were inadvertently mixed with the paper load could potentially be recycled, the reality is that they are often discarded. Most single-stream recycling programs report an increase in tonnage over dual-stream programs. However, that overall increase needs to be offset by the actual figures of what is being recycled and not just collected.
Processing inefficiencies only accounts for one portion of the created residue. The handling of glass within a single-stream program is responsible for many other contaminants. While glass breakage may occur during all types of collection, when it occurs mixed with other materials, the result is devastating. Glass chips embed themselves in fiber products, lowering the resale value and limiting the use of both the glass and fiber products. The CRI estimates that only about 40% of all the glass collected in a single-stream system is actually recycled into new glass bottles, and 20% is used in low-end products such as road base. The remaining 40% of all glass collected in single-stream programs ends up in landfills. By contrast, 90% of the glass collected from a dual stream system and 98% of the glass collected from a bottle deposit system is made into new glass bottles. Most European recycling systems collect glass separately from other items to eliminate these problems.
Single-stream recycling is shifting some of the wastestream instead of actually reducing it. By analyzing only raw collection figures, it is not possible to determine if single-stream is actually increasing the amount of feedstock available to make new goods from recycled materials. This author is not suggesting we stop recycling; rather we should make intelligent choices based on real information and not inflated figures. Instead of soothing our environmental soul with high recycling-collection figures, we should demand equally high end-product recycling figures. A similar problem of shifting waste may soon also be facing the organics industry.
Currently there are 23 states that prohibit some type of organics disposal in a solid waste landfill. According to the US Composting Council, about two-thirds of the solid wastestream is some type of organic material—yard trimmings, food scraps, woodwaste, paper, and paperboard products. For years, there has been a rising trend in the number of yardwaste composting programs, both voluntary and mandated. The infrastructure for foodwaste composting is still in its infancy, but it is growing. However, the growing number of composting programs is facing a challenge. Some landfill advocates are recommending a return to burying greenwaste. They argue that since energy can be made from landfill gas, it would make environmental sense to bury yardwaste as an attempt to recover energy from its decomposition. Is landfill gas a “green” energy source? It depends on whom you ask. The best use of materials always depends on your definition. Since organic waste does not contain methane, this author doubts the benefits of landfilling yardwaste. While composting is not completely aerobic, it will produce little if any methane. Composting is a natural activity that occurs even in the absence of humans. But as a modern industry, compost has been manufactured for only about three decades. The emergence of the landfill gas industry and the growing interest in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will have unknown effects on the future of composting as an industry.
Another segment of the waste industry that will be facing several challenges is pharmaceuticals. Due to advances in screening technology, the presence of pharmaceutical waste in water and soil is being detected in all parts of the world. From 1999–2000, the US Geological Survey (USGS) sampled 139 streams in 30 states for contamination by pharmaceuticals and other personal-care products. The USGS found these contaminants in 80% of its samples. The chemicals detected included human and veterinary drugs, natural and synthetic hormones, detergent metabolites, plasticizers, insecticides, and fire retardants. Several utilities continue to do their own testing and have found similar results. Adult-level dosages of these medications were not found in the USGS study or any subsequent study. There are no known effects on humans from exposure to these low-level pharmaceutical residues. However, low-level exposure of pharmaceutical contaminants can affect the endocrine functions in animals. This is evident in the increasing number of fish that possesses both male and female characteristics, a condition known as intersex.
Pharmaceutical waste enters our water supply through two methods: direct disposal and human or animal excretion. Direct disposal has been in the news quite frequently. There have been some special-event collection programs to provide a safer disposal mechanism for unused and unwanted medications. There are several different federal and state agencies involved in the distribution and disposal of pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, these agencies seem to exist in a vacuum and don’t communicate with each other. The results have been infrequent and expensive collection programs.
As a source of pharmaceutical waste, natural excretions have not received as much publicity as improper disposal. However, this source of waste is perhaps more significant. Julie Becker from the Women’s Health and Environmental Network was a speaker at the SWANA 2010 Thinking Outside the Blue Box conference. She stated that only 20%–50% of the medications taken by people are metabolized by the body; the remainder is excreted in its original state. The medical community has been researching how to increase its manufacturing efficiency. But those improvements have been focused solely on the production process. There seems to be no research being conducted on improving the rate at which drugs are metabolized, or changing their chemical composition to become inert after going through the digestion process or other human bodily functions.
Although there is a worldwide growing trend in extended producer responsibility, it would be a radical change in American public policy to assign disposal responsibility and related cleanup costs to the drug manufacturers that created the medications. Though the idea of charging drug makers for the costs of cleaning pharmaceutical waste seems impossible, there have been equally radical ideas in the marketplace that have come to fruition. Several decades ago, who could have predicted that the tobacco industry would be held responsible for tobacco-related illnesses?
Assigning disposal responsibility to the creator of a product is on the rise. Some industries have created voluntary programs to address their wastestreams. The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., found online at www.call2recycle.org, and the Thermostat Recycling Corp., found online at www.thermostat-recycle.org, are two well-known programs funded by the companies that make their respective products.
The growing awareness of the large volume of electronic waste and its potential hazards will likely increase the prevalence of manufacturer-funded take-back programs, either on a voluntary industry basis or a mandated state-by-state basis. The EPA estimates that over 3 million tons of electronics are landfilled each year. Evolving computer technology means that computers are typically discarded about every three to five years, which will further increase the amount of electronics for disposal. Dell, online at www.dell.com/recycling, and Best Buy, at www.bestbuy.com/recycling, have two well-known voluntary national programs for electronic waste recycling.
Even when not specially linked to an extended producer-responsibility program, many companies are placing a stronger emphasis on green products and green marketing. Some claims are of a dubious nature, with little facts or impartial verification of claims. Other claims are serving a real consumer demand while benefiting the environment at the same time.
Consumers are seldom willing to pay extra money for environmental claims alone. However, consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for products that provide additional benefits.
There is also a greening of many business practices taking place behind the scenes that has little to do with public marketing. Many companies are finding that good environmental decisions can make economic sense. UniqueCreationsFactory.com is a custom T-shirt and tile business. For its manufacturing, it chose to use a printing technology known as sublimation, as opposed to the more traditional screen-printing technique. When asked why, the owner said it was due to the chemical usage. Screen printing uses harsh chemicals in production and even more toxic chemicals to clean the equipment. Sublimation was a better choice for the environment, but it was also a better choice for the business owner who was seeking to limit disposal expenses.
In a perfect world there would be zero waste. Everyone would reduce the amount of stuff they generate for disposal, and there would be an environmentally friendly outlet for the few waste products that remain. Unfortunately, we are a long way from that utopia. The latest economic recession has prompted some reductions in consumption. But overall, we are still a trashy society. Many of the products we use every day are designed to be easily replaced. Although “extended producer responsibility” is starting to enter the common lexicon, there is still a large mental disconnect between the acquiring of new goods and thinking about the disposal of such goods.
Our industry needs to make predictions about the future of waste and plan accordingly. A combination of regulatory, zoning, and political requirements has increased the time it takes to site and build solid waste management facilities. As a result, our planning timetable has increased to decades and not just years.