The following commentary is from Cleveland-based recycler Richard Bole of Recycle Midwest. It is a follow-up to a previously submitted essay of his from early 2017.
A “perfect storm” of market forces has been in place in recent years that is devastating the single-stream collection method. Asia is buying less and insisting on better quality. North American paper mills are paying low prices if quality is poor.
Due to low oil prices, virgin plastics (derived from oil) are low and may come to market even lower than the price fetched by recycled plastics. In that kind of market, only quality recycled plastics and paper have a chance to be sold. Single-stream plants too often don’t have the quality needed in these conditions.
Yet it is tiresome to hear waste companies blame the recycling markets for their single-stream problems. The system was flawed to begin with because it runs against the basic laws of physics and chemistry. Over our 27 years in business, trying to recycle more than 35 different materials, we have learned the following truism: To get the highest and best prices (and sometimes any price), everything must be almost perfectly sorted.
THE NECESSITY OF SEPARATION
That everything has to be almost perfectly sorted is because of basic laws of physics and chemistry. Copper and aluminum can’t be melted together and No. 1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic is not intended to be consumed as pellets along with No. 2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic or No. 3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or the other plastics. Cardboard and boxboard can’t be placed in the paper machine with white paper or colored paper. The same is true of newspaper – it can’t go with brown paper or colored paper.
When single-stream became popular some years ago, my company and other long-time recyclers were dismayed, even aghast. Treating recyclables the same way you treat the trash – in a trash truck - would be a terrible way to handle them, and would result in contamination and subsequent sorting difficulty. We know sorting is time-consuming and expensive, so sorting commingled materials compressed together would make it even more expensive.
In single-stream recycling, you give a residential household, or a business, a 96-gallon container and allow people to throw into it all paper and bottles and cans. Then, a company picks up the recyclables, dumps them in a compactor truck, compresses the materials under thousands of pounds of pressure, breaking some of the glass and compacting everything together. When this material is dumped on the tipping floors of sorting plants, something very difficult to sort has been created.
The problem in our industry is that not all waste companies’ single-stream sorting plants have been sorting recyclable materials well. This is injuring the recycling markets and has caused some consuming companies to stop using recycled fiber or scrap. While I acknowledge that residents in communities, mayors, city councils and others like single-stream (it is easier), the people that don’t like it are paper mills, plastics processors and other recycling end markets that have to use poorly separated recyclables coming from some single-stream plants.
In April 2013 China initiated a policy called “Green Fence” under which it began enforcing a 2 percent contamination rule for commodity imports. Up until then they had not enforced the rule even though their contamination rate ranged as high as 25 percent.
Green Fence was no doubt a shock to the managers of some single-stream plants in the United States. Most had already invested in sorting systems, and then they were confronted with spending even more money to improve quality. In 2017 China initiated a new program, “National Sword,” demanding even better sorting and higher quality material. Subsequent policies demand even tighter contamination restrictions.
TURN BACK THE CLOCK?
The best long-term solution would be to return to the three separated streams we had before single-stream: 1) commingled bottles and cans, 2) commingled paper and 3) cardboard/boxboard/brown paper.
Each stream would be easier to sort than single-stream. We know sorting is expensive and time-consuming, so saving sorting costs this way would be important considering increased costs in collection. Different trucks will be needed to pick up again.
At curbside, another bin might be needed for some customers, but bottles and cans can be placed in blue plastic bags that will not be affected by weather. For the postconsumer market, the solution is relatively easy. Paper can go in the existing bin previously used for single-stream and the bottles and cans in a blue bag.
This involves more collection, but oil prices are likely to remain low for an extended period (thank goodness), and Asia may not buy as much as before for a long time, if ever. And, what Asia does buy is likely to require higher quality levels.
If single-stream plants run their sorting systems slower the materials can be sorted better. Many companies say they can’t do this due to the volume needed to be processed. Still, some way must be found to profoundly improve the sorting up front. Reducing contamination in incoming loads could help. Another consideration is to negotiate with communities to raise prices if they wish to retain single-stream while offering an alternative lower fee for collecting in three separate streams.
For 20 years our company picked up from a community of 1,300 households east of Cleveland, concentrating on those three major streams. We did not compress the materials in a compactor truck. We took the bottles and cans to a materials recovery facility (MRF) for sorting. At that time, a MRF was a plant that took postconsumer recyclables divided into those streams. (A “dirty MRF” was one that took in postconsumer municipal solid waste and tried to pull out the recyclables.)
While we acknowledge that residents in communities, mayors, city councils and others like the ease of single-stream, the people that don’t like it are those ultimately paying for the material (paper mills, plastics processors and other end market consumers). As well, many of the people who have favor single-stream – mayors and city councils, township trustees, county solid waste district staff – have never run a recycling company. They never had to sell recycled plastic or paper in the commodity markets. They probably never considered the role of chemistry and physics in the process of recycling. Companies like mine pleaded with county officials and city councils before and during the single-stream changeover.
In our experience, many waste companies have always disliked recycling, because everything had to be sorted. Big waste companies have shareholders to please by maximizing profitability. The process they are most familiar with involves just one commodity, trash, that can be picked up using a high level of automation. It then can be compacted under thousands of pounds of hydraulic pressure. With these efficiencies, it has been possible to build worldwide, profitable trash companies.
Many of these same companies could not afford to take a lot of time to sort their recyclables, thus they committed to trying to use technology to sort via single-stream.
Even the best technology can struggle to sort well enough for the current market conditions. So, we have come full circle. Now these same waste companies are struggling with recycling again.
In previous down markets, the necessity to sort combined with lower-value markets caused some collection companies to throw the recyclables in the trash, even though they said they would recycle them.
Recycling is an especially challenging business because of the sorting requirements. And the sorting requirements are due to the laws of chemistry and physics. Those laws aren’t going to go away soon. Therefore, the best solution is go back to the three streams listed above.
The author is the owner of Recycle Midwest, Cleveland, which has been in business since 1989. The company collects, separates and sells more than 35 recyclable materials. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.