Monday, March 16, 2015

Single Stream Processing Results... a little over a year in.

We are biased. There is no way around it, our company founders and current board members have been in the recycling industry pretty much their entire lives. They have some pretty solid feelings on single stream but as I've suggested, many times now, the people had spoken and we needed to make the change. The change that communities, companies, and residents alike were all requesting are demanding. We reluctantly purchased the equipment, increased the staff, and had our sales team reach out to the haulers and local businesses... we successfully process single stream materials. It's been more than a full year now and we have some additional insight, which I don't think shocked any of us.

1. Increased volume does not equal increased recycling. This is another topic I've covered on this blog before, so many townships or companies advertise that since beginning single stream collection they have witnessed a significant increase in the recycling participation. The only problem is that many times they forget to publish (or most times even look into) their residual or waste rate. Out of the additional tons of material that are collected for recycling what percentage ends up downgraded to garbage, ultimately finding it's way to a landfill (and potentially taking a little recyclable material with it)?

2.The less that people need think about their recycling typically results in less thought about what they are placing in their recycling bin. Everyone's lives seem to be more complicated than they desire. In an attempt to make things more simple people try to multi-task, which sometimes works very well... other times... not so much. Full containers, food waste, or grease soaked pizza boxes just cannot be recycled in a standard recycling stream. Even great materials recovery facilities (MRF's) have limitations and just because something is recyclable does not mean that it is collected or processed in your area. On the other hand, some items that we receive make it pretty clear that no thought was given at all when the items were tossed in the blue bin; diapers, pet waste, tires, and mattresses are some pretty clear recycling bin violations.

3. It's all about how it's packed. Bags, bags, bags... I place my recycling in bags because throwing it loose in our recycling bin creates a gross, stinky bin (and yes, I rinse my recyclables). An even larger reason for using bags is that we do not have curbside collection where I live (we are rural). I need to transport our household recycling to our local collection center. For us, our size vehicle, and the large amount of material we recycle it is essential that we place our recycling in bags (but boy do I know what a pain bags are). Whenever possible skip the bags. The bags that get broken during transport get wrapped around the sorting screens and require frequent cleanings (which means more time and labor). The bags that survive need to be opened by hand (which slows the entire process) and are typically thrown away (none of these options are great). If you can skip the bags, please do.

4. Broken glass doesn't make good toilet paper and shredded paper doesn't make good plastic pellet. Once you mix some things together there is just no separating them (at least completely). Weather does play a GIANT role in this one but once paper or plastic gets wet and glass breaks no amount of sorting gets all the glass out of the paper or plastic. These unwanted passengers are going along for the ride and creating challenges along the recycling pathway. These unwanted hitchhikers make the reuse of items more challenging and have left end users looking for ways to combat their presence.

5. Weather can be brutal. Here in Pennsylvania, we don't live in a dry, constant climate and that creates some hurdles for single stream processing. In spring and summer we hit rainy spells and the material gets wet (wet material clogs our screens and allows contaminants to cling). In fall and winter we run into freezing, snow, and ice which leads to frozen and wet material (that clogs our screens and allows contaminants to cling). Even material that is sorted perfectly (which is an awesome exception) can be challenging to process when weather decides to step in and play a role. The ideal situation would be that all recyclables stay covered and dry but unfortunately, we know that is not always an option.

6. The recycling program is only as good as its participants. Recycling coming out of two homes (even if both are single stream) can vary greatly depending on who is monitoring the bin and its contents. My mom used to run all the recyclables through our dish washer.. we certainly do not need that level of cleanliness (and in order for water preservation I don't really recommend it) but rinsing your bottles or jars clean does help and eliminates peanut butter or chocolate syrup from sticking to once clean paper. Again, follow the instructions of what is and is not accepted by the local collection center; although recyclable the facility your material goes to might not be able to effectively process the material and instead throws it out.

7. Our "product" quality has paid the price. Our facility and staff has always prided ourselves in providing the highest quality recyclables or raw material for end users. We continue to strive for the highest quality material possible but since processing single stream our material has undergone a real, measurable downgrade. Newspaper and office paper  (grades that we used to frequently produce) rarely exists and much of what we now sell to end users is a slightly dirtier combination of the two; mixed paper (a lower grade paper product). It is still being recycled (so that's all good but the end users/products are more limited).

Please remember, having goals of a waste free house are commendable, and achievable if done correctly. Before beginning to throw new items into the recycling bin, be armed with the knowledge of what your location collection center accepts.  Even if the desire of a household is to recycle every possible item (YAY!), placing items in the bin that the recycling facility cannot handle doesn't mean it'll be recycled. If it is not accepted, collected, or processed at your collection site it will likely be thrown away (no matter what the bottom of the bottle says). Which means despite our best intentions, if local collection or drop off instructions are not followed, it will still end up in the landfill and take other items (that could potentially be recycled) with it. Plastic grocery bags, produce bags, toilet paper plastic wrap, and other like items can be recycled (easily) BUT this recycling needs to happen by taking them to the proper collection site ( which you can find online in your area. It is very important to know what your local collection center is able to take and process. No matter how frustrating, if they cannot handle the item, it is not a good idea to place it in your bin. Do some research,  find out what your local collection center takes, and research where you can take the other items that they do not. If you cannot locate a local center that will take these "other" items consider eliminating them from your shopping list.

So, those are our thoughts.. what are yours?

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