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'Wishful recycling' mucks the works

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 21. 2018 8:22PM
In Keene, humans and machines combine to sort materials that travel on a conveyor belt. (Courtesy)

You recycle faithfully, putting all your plastic containers, glass bottles, paper and cans into a bin that you faithfully put out at the curb each week.

And if you have any doubts about whether something is recyclable, you put it in anyway, figuring the experts on the other end will sort it out.

So you're feeling virtuous, even a bit smug, this Earth Day. But the recycling industry is in trouble - and you might be part of the problem.

Mike Durfor, executive director of Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA), says recycling is "on life support." And there's plenty of blame to go around.

"It's all our fault; it's all China's fault; it's all single-stream's fault," he said. "It's a combination of all of those."

Until recently, about 30 percent of American recycled goods were shipped overseas. Most of that went to China, fueling that nation's economic growth. But last year, China announced it no longer would accept the quality of recycled materials the U.S. was sending there.

Here's why. Over the past decade, many communities switched to "single-stream" recycling, collecting all recyclables in a single bin, to be sorted at Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). The idea was to increase the recycling rate by making it easier for folks, relying on technology to sort the goods at the other end.

It worked for a while, Durfor said.

Single-stream generates about a 33 percent recycle rate, he said. But the recyclables were being contaminated by other waste that was mixed in.

"It's awfully hard to unmake an omelet," he said.

Take a messy pizza box, for instance. If you throw it in with the rest of the cardboard, it contaminates the whole load, he said. Once that happens, that load has to be trucked to the dump - at a cost to the community.

And it's not just pizza boxes. Garden hoses, plastic bags and engine parts have all gummed up the works, he said.

It's what experts call "wishful recycling."

Costs on the rise

Now, China's new policy has set impossibly high standards for what materials it will accept. So the bottom has dropped out of the market and recyclables are piling up across the country while municipal managers scramble to find new markets.

The good news is that smart people are working on solutions.

Michael Nork is an analyst for the solid waste management bureau at the state Department of Environmental Services. "We were hoping by 2018 we wouldn't be having conversations about whether recycling makes sense economically," he said.

One solution is finding new uses for materials that used to go to China, Nork said. There are some emerging markets, such as Vietnam and India, but they can't match the capacity China used to absorb.

There's another problem, Nork said: The existing infrastructure isn't designed to deal with new packaging materials, such as plastic films and multi-layered cartons. "The reality is ... these MRFs were only designed to handle consumer packaging and food packaging," including boxes, bottles and cans, he said.

So not only are recycled materials less valuable than they used to be, but the costs have gone up as the rate of contamination has been creeping up over the past decade, Nork said. "Everything that ends up in the bin that's not supposed to be there ends up costing money and time," he said.

Glass is an especially vexing problem; it's heavy and it breaks, which can contaminate other materials. The last bottling plant in Massachusetts that used recycled glass closed down last month, further reducing demand.

Nork said some waste management companies are offering towns better rates if they leave glass out of their recycling loads. Hooksett recently announced it will no longer accept glass for recycling.

In contrast, some communities are looking at new markets, such as using crushed glass in road materials, Durfor said.

Mark Gomez, environmental programs manager for Manchester, said the current agreement with Pinard Waste Systems "provides financial protections to the city that have mitigated the impact of China's new policies."

But he agreed the current recycling model "faces very strong headwinds."

When Manchester introduced curbside, single-stream recycling in 2012, Gomez said, "We saw an immediate 30 percent increase in recyclables placed for collections." Recycling increased by 1,450 tons during that first year; the city now picks up nearly 7,000 tons of recyclables a year, he said.

But, he said, "There's also no question it has resulted in cross-contamination that both shifts the cost of sorting from residents to the materials recovery facilities and devalues the products that the MRFs are able to pull out from the mix."

Gomez said both the public and private sectors need to be involved in finding a sustainable model for recycling. In the near term, he said, "Municipal programs will need to be designed in a way that is more responsive to market forces."

'Moon shot' needed

Duncan Watson is assistant public works director in Keene; he runs the city's recycling center and transfer station. He's also president of the board of trustees for NRRA.

Watson has called for a "moon shot" to fix the ailing recycling industry.

He likens single-stream recycling to the first rockets that went into orbit. "It was pretty cool, but we obviously wanted to go to the moon," he said. That turned out to be far more complex than sending a rocket, but we eventually got there, he said.

Likewise, he said, the recycling movement is in the early stages.

Having residents sort their own recyclables is an obvious solution; it keeps items separate, which makes them more valuable, Watson said. That works in New Hampshire's smaller towns, where a weekly trip to the dump is a social institution, he said.

But residents of larger communities depend on the ease of curbside pickup and single-stream recycling, he said. "They just want something they can do thoughtlessly and conveniently," he said. "That's what recycling has to be and this is where the technology might ultimately save us."

At the Keene recycling facility, humans and machines combine to sort materials that travel on a conveyor belt. Once the items are sorted, managers work hard to find manufacturers that will take the material to make into new products, Watson said.

The problem is that not enough materials can be recycled today, he said. "I'm putting in a lot of effort to get 25 percent of the waste stream diverted right now. I want 90 percent."

His moon shot? Watson envisions a "one-bin" solution in which all household waste goes into a single bin that's picked up and taken to a large, multi-sort facility that can handle any and all materials. Some prototypes are already being tested, he said.

Someday, he predicted, "Anything you ultimately throw away, whether an orange peel or an aluminum can or a piece of paper, will ultimately find its way to a higher purpose."

Another promising solution, Watson said, is to "co-locate" manufacturing facilities that repurpose recycled materials on the same campus as sorting plants. "I'm absolutely convinced this is not only possible but economical and achievable," he said.

He's not suggesting the town dumps need to close, Watson stressed. "I just think that ultimately it's going to have to be a combination of that local thing combined with the genius of the technology that is available to us now," he said.

Nork, too, is optimistic. "There is a silver lining in that, when there's a challenge, it often brings an opportunity for people to get creative and find new solutions," he said. "In the long run, this is going to force everyone to think hard about how to make a better mousetrap."

The consumer can make a difference as well, by choosing products with minimal or no packaging, and supporting companies that use recycled content in their products, Nork said.

"At the end of the day, one thing that every individual has control over is what they put in the recycling bin," he said.

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