Single in Beantown

Features - Municipal Recycling

Boston has seen mixed results since moving to single-stream collection.

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April 21, 2010
Peter Stidman

It is true that the benefits of single-stream recycling have been debated from the very moment it began in California, but the arguments have reached another crescendo as of late. The voices of concern out of the paper mills may be growing stronger amid a declining overall volume associated with the down economy; mills say the frustrating persistence of contamination is causing high rates of outthrows; and municipalities generally do not maintain strong communication with consuming mills.

The city of Boston moved to single-stream recycling just before this latest disgruntlement began, engaged in a genuine effort to make “Beantown” into “Greentown.” The city chose to move to single-stream collection after a highly successful pilot program in 2007 that involved three neighborhoods.

Today, the big blue bins are approximately 85 percent deployed, but in light of a poor economy and the dip in commodity prices at the end of 2008, the financial reality is not as rosy as was forecasted when city leaders set the program’s course. The predicted payback of the program (which cost slightly more than $2 million to implement) has stretched from two years to four, undoubtedly because of the shrinking volume of waste generation, and therefore recyclables available for recovery, in the city, a side effect of the recession.

Yet the recycling rate is up, the blue bins appear weekly on every street corner, giving the passer-by a sense of orderliness that was absent before, and the city does appear to be a shade greener. The political rewards are tangible.

RECYCLING RESULTS

“We’re a year-plus into the rollout and we’ve seen an overall 43 percent increase in [curbside] recycling citywide,” says Jim Hunt III, the city’s chief of Environment and Energy Services.

Hunt has been one of the forces guiding Mayor Thomas Menino’s green-leaning administration.

“We have seen, in every neighborhood we have bins in, an improvement in street cleanliness,” he says. “People would put materials out in the old blue bins and in the cold New England environment, and stuff would blow all over the place. In that sense, it’s exceeded our expectations. We’re very pleased with our results.” Hunt continues, “The feedback we get from our neighborhoods is overwhelming.”

At the outset, Boston’s recycling rate was low. According to the city’s figures, the curbside collection rate for the first quarter of 2007 was a mere 5.5 percent. In the first quarter of 2010, that figure had jumped to 8.9 percent—a 43 percent increase in overall volume in three years. Boston also collects yard waste, which has added another 2 to 3 percent to its overall recycling rate.

Boston has contracted with Casella Waste Systems, based in Rutland, Vt., to sort recyclables collected from residents using the company’s Zero-Sort program.

According to Boston’s Recycling director Susan Cascino, there was no significant savings on collections contracts. Falling commodity prices and a lower total volume rate, rather than the revenue sharing schemes the city had in its previous dual-sort program, effectively shrank the revenue coming directly out of recycling, she says.

Before the commodity prices dropped in late 2008, Boston hit a peak of around $112 per ton for paper in the old dual-sort program. The city was taking in $500,000 to $700,000 per year on that material. Now the city pays $34 per ton for its curbside recycling, which in the first quarter of 2010 totaled from $55,000 to $65,000 per month.

Complicating the payback equation, solid waste disposal rates are high in the Northeast, currently running around $80 per ton. If overall waste volumes hadn’t fallen by nearly 10 percent in the city since 2007, effectively allowing an increase in the calculated “diversion” rate, Boston’s projected financial payback from single stream might have been longer still.

RESIDUAL RATES

And then there’s the question: “Is it really greener?” In other words, is the city saving more natural resources by taking the single-stream route? The goal in Boston is focused on diversion. But the diversion rates seen in the city can be illusory, depending on what occurs downstream.

For Casella’s part, the company’s Charlestown, Mass., material recovery facility (MRF), run under the FCR Recycling brand name, claims a 6 percent residual rate, according to FCR Market Area Recycling Manager Bob Cappadona. A team of spotters eyes every load coming in the door and tells Cappadona that Boston’s haulers bring in some of the cleanest loads around. Nevertheless, single-stream collection, by its nature, can’t be perfect.

“Some of the residents are just not as educated as to what they can and can’t put in a bin,” Cappadona says. “You might get a dog chain or a bowling ball,” he adds.

And then there’s the real end game, the consumers of the collected materials. Of these, the most complaints historically have been from paper mill operators, and that is no different in New England, particularly with the overall decline in recovered fiber.

 “I’ve got two daughters, and they never read the newspaper,” laments Johnny Gold, senior vice president of North Shore Recycled Fibers, Salem, Mass., a division of The Newark Group, a producer of 100 percent recycled paperboard and paperboard products. “We can’t afford to be picky.”

Of course, by the time material reaches The Newark Group, it can be difficult to tell which town it came from, and even determining the actual differences between suppliers can be difficult.

“It all depends on whose single stream we’re buying it from,” says Gold. “We own 50 percent of a joint venture where we run a small single-stream operation—about 15 tons per hour. And we’ve spent an enormous amount of money on sorting machinery. Our product is pretty clean … but I can tell you right now [outthrows] get as high as 20, 25 percent with some of the other [suppliers]. The problem with single stream is you’re unscrambling a scrambled egg.”

Gold estimates that the best of his single-stream suppliers incurs as low as a 6 percent outthrow rate at the mill, but more commonly he says the rate fluctuates between 12 and 25 percent.

“Glass is still an issue, but plastic bags are the No. 1 problem, and they’re not supposed to go in the bins,” says Gold, adding that consuming mills in Asia have inexpensive labor available to re-sort incoming material, creating an uneven playing field for U.S. recovered fiber consumers.

So far, Boston has focused its public message on what can be thrown into the blue bins, having added rigid plastics into the mix with the introduction of single-stream recycling. But, as of yet, the city has not embarked on a significant marketing campaign detailing recycling contaminants, such as plastic bags, waxed coffee cups or other items. Unlike towns such as San Francisco, Boston does not include a list of the unacceptable materials along with its list of recyclable materials. Sources say that could be because there has been little regular communication along the recycling chain since Boston began the new program.

Cappadona says millage loss reports were not available, and city officials, though they got acquainted with Gold and his peers when they first began investigating the switch to single stream, are not focused on the problem of paper contaminants.

“In 2007, we talked to these mills, and it was clear that things were good,” says Cascino. “They knew they were going to make more money with more volume. Now times are tough, and everybody’s getting more selective and they’re talking about quality.”

She adds, “Anyhow, we have taken the plunge, and residents love it.”

DIGGING DEEPER

Instead, the city’s focus is squarely on boosting the recycling rate in any responsible way they can. City officials face heavy competition from Western cities like San Francisco that boast residential recycling rates as high as 50 percent. But, according to Hunt, Boston has fewer tools in its toolbox.

“In New England we’ve got a different mindset, and environmentalism is not as deeply instilled,” Hunt says. “And in other communities—you look to San Francisco, you look to Seattle—the residents have paid for trash services.” He continues, “In Boston its part of the municipal services that property taxes are expected to pay for.”

This spring the Community Advisory Committee for Climate Change, appointed by Mayor Menino, is looking at new ways to make Boston greener. Using electronic keypads, residents voted to support or oppose an array of environmental questions—including a handful on recycling.

Residents overwhelmingly supported the collection of organic compost from kitchen waste but were split on a potential pay-as-you-throw scheme. Meanwhile, Hunt looks to the possibility that the city will adopt a zero-waste goal to hasten improvements.

In any case, Boston is reporting happiness with its venture into single-stream, even if it is apparent now that it’s not the knight in green armor it appeared to be in 2007. It is likely now that the city will move on to other methods for improving its still relatively low recycling rate. And a looming question remains over whether the environmental benefit was worth the means it took to gain and maintain it. Even if Boston reaches the 58 percent increase in recycling that was indicated by its early pilot program in its Roslindale and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods, it isn’t clear how the contamination rates will mitigate the volume boost the material-hungry recyclers hoped for. And, most importantly, volatile commodity prices make it uncertain how much benefit single-stream recycling contributes to the municipality’s financial bottom line.