America’s firm embrace of single-stream recycling may end up choking the practice to death.
The city of Lewiston switched to the convenient, sort-free variety of recycling in 2013. The weight of mixed recyclables tripled in two years, according to solid waste contractor Sunshine Disposal, and customers were left feeling satisfied that their conservation efforts were making a bigger difference.
But as tonnage increased, so did poor behavior by consumers who started to pitch just about anything into their big rolling carts. The phenomenon has dogged single-stream programs nationwide.
Contamination levels increased, but many companies in the supply chain shrugged because China continued to accept millions of metric tons of mixed recyclables shipped from the U.S. That all ended Jan. 1, when China made good on a 2013 warning about contamination by banning the importation of nonindustrial plastic waste and curtailing the types of waste paper it accepts.
“They just decided to stop taking our garbage,” Asotin County Solid Waste Supervisor Stephen Becker said. “As much as the public wants to recycle and do things right, they don’t. People just don’t understand what they can put in there and how one thing can contaminate a whole load and make that end product cost a bundle of money.”
Convenience vs. contamination
Lewiston Public Works Director Chris Davies said the city has no plans to move away from single-stream recycling, because from a tonnage perspective the program is working.
“I think we’ve seen a huge uptick in recycling,” Davies said. “It’s easier because you don’t have to think ‘OK, I have to put No. 2 plastics here, No. 3 plastics here.'”
He acknowledged that convenience is leading to the contamination that is making recyclables less valuable. But he also wondered how many people would give up recycling as “too much work” if the city reverted to its old program with multiple bins where recyclables were “source separated” by consumers.
Davies said any change in the city’s single-stream contract – like reverting to a source-separated program – would originate with Sunshine. Wulf, the regional manager, said that may become a possibility.
“Eventually, depending on the volatility in the market, we may have to address that subject,” he said.
Clarkston Public Works Director Kevin Poole, a former Lewiston mayor and city councilor, said that if he knew in 2013 what would happen to single-stream recycling, he would have voted against the program.
The higher cost of such programs is one reason the city of Clarkston opted against a single-stream program in 2017. Poole said curbside recycling may come to the city in about a year, but it probably will be a source-separated program.
Currently, the city contracts with Lewis Clark Recycling in Lewiston for drop-box locations where consumers can deposit their recyclables into sorting bins. That program actually earns between $80 and $200 per month because Lewis Clark is able to easily sell the well-sorted commodities.
“There is a domestic market for those products,” Poole said. “And at least we’re generating some revenue to offset our recycling cost.”
Davies said the cost of Lewiston’s single-stream program is included in customers’ solid waste bills, and the city doesn’t subsidize its operation.
‘You can’t unbake a cake’
Wulf said Sunshine’s trucks dump the single-stream recycling they collect each day at Pacific Steel and Recycling in North Lewiston, where it is baled for shipping without any quality control. The bales head north from there to the Waste Management material recovery facility in Spokane, where the bales are cut open and automated machinery sorts the various commodities.
Those materials then are sold on the open market. That is how the process is supposed to work, but Wulf said contaminants are gumming up that flow, especially plastic grocery bags.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “They get caught up in the machines. You’ve got conveyors and all those things spinning, like shafts.”
Other contaminants, such as broken glass or greasy food containers like pizza boxes, can spread through a load and the whole thing has to be hauled to a landfill. The Waste Management facility has an approximate 10 percent contamination rate, according to spokeswoman Jackie Lang.
Lewis Clark Recycling president Mark Armstrong said contamination sometimes forces his company to bale up commodities like cardboard and just haul them to the Asotin County Landfill.
“You can’t unbake a cake,” he said. “You smash it enough times together with all this other stuff and bale it up and ship it to somebody who then tries to undo it and pick it clean into a dozen grades of tin and metal cans and plastic and paper.”
One major source of contamination in his streams is people who throw boxes into his cardboard bin without removing the foam and plastic packing inside. Armstrong said single-stream simply shifted the labor from the consumer who sorted curbside recycling onto the people who have to pick their dirty recycling clean.
Wulf said contamination is adding significant labor costs to processing because workers have to be hired to manually remove the garbage from the streams. And even when clean recyclables can be produced, it can be tough to find buyers, especially for the plastics banned by China. Those two factors are working to depress commodity values.
“So you’re fighting it on two sides, and ultimately things just get more and more expensive,” he said.
China’s ban has also damaged the economics of shipping recyclable waste. The U.S. trade imbalance with the world’s most populous country meant plentiful empty shipping containers at West Coast ports that could be filled and sent across the Pacific for as little as $300, Wulf said.
“That cheap backhaul to China is now gone because they aren’t taking it,” he said, noting that shipping the same cargo to a country like Vietnam that has the right kind of processing plants can cost $900 per ton.
Local recyclers like Pacific and Lewis Clark have been able to stay in business by diversifying and focusing on the industrial customers that offer clean recyclables in large quantities. Armstrong said one example is the plastic films that many operations use to securely wrap things like equipment and palletized goods.
At a recent engineering conference in Boise, Poole learned that waste managers there are selling bulk glass to a company that turns it into grit for sandblasting and mixed plastic to an operation that converts it into diesel fuel.
And Lang, of Waste Management, said that while the company ships material from its Spokane facility to other countries, it also has avenues to sell its commodities here.
“So we have the advantage of having long-term, established domestic end markets,” she said. “That’s been an asset for us in the region.”
Discipline at the bin
Ironically, while plastic types 3 through 7 are the commodities with the least value, they are a major reason consumers pushed for single-stream. Wulf said they wanted to realize the promise on the packaging that it could be recycled, but it wasn’t practical under the source-separated model.
“The truck would have had to get longer and longer to accommodate them,” he said of collecting various plastics. “Well, there comes a point where you can’t drive a semi through a residential neighborhood.”
So comingling of recyclables seemed like a good solution. But now that those plastics are becoming more and more difficult to sell, some material recovery facilities have actually run out of room to stockpile them and started taking them to landfills, Becker said.
One way forward is a consumer-driven approach, in which people refuse to buy products packaged in those kinds of plastics and demand simplification of other types of packaging.
“We can make recycling good, but it has to be where we demand that retailers and manufacturers use less packaging in the first place, and use easily recycled materials,” Becker said. “It frustrates me so much when you see that box 80 percent full of foam packing, or a clamshell made of plastic that has no market for recycling.”
Wulf agreed, and wondered whether the public would be willing to pay a refundable deposit on containers to encourage recycling. So-called “bottle bills” are a common way many states have increased rates of certain kinds of recycling.
Ultimately, Wulf said saving single-stream recycling does largely lie in consumers’ hands. And even though people have been conditioned to want to recycle everything, some discipline at the bin can go a long way toward helping the situation.
“Don’t assume that because the shower curtain is made out of plastic, or the mud flap, that we can recycle it,” he said. “We can’t.”
Mills may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2266.