[Editor’s note: The single-stream collection and processing method now dominates residential recycling in the United States. The below commentary is from an Ohio-based recycler who continues to advocate for a reconsideration of this method.]
As of early 2017, scrap paper prices are high and recyclers can sell everything they can collect. But several other times this decade, “perfect storms” of market forces have caused difficulty for the single-stream collection method. Asia is insisting on better quality. Due to low oil prices, virgin plastic prices are low and essentially undercut some of the markets for recycled plastics. North American paper mills have become vigilant about paying low prices for shipments if quality is poor.
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 the waste companies blame the “markets” for their single-stream problems. The system was flawed to begin with because it runs against basic laws of physics and chemistry. During our 30 years in business, trying to recycle more than 35 different materials, I have learned the following truism: To get the highest and best prices (and sometimes any price), everything must be almost perfectly sorted.
KEEP ‘EM SEPARATED
That everything has to be almost perfectly sorted pertains to those laws of physics and chemistry. Copper and aluminum can’t be melted together, No. 1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic can’t be pelletized with No. 2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) plastic or No. 3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride), or any of the other plastics. Cardboard/chipboard can’t be placed in the paper pulping machine with white paper or colored paper. Colored paper can’t go with white paper. Newspaper (before being deinked) also can’t go with white paper or colored paper.
Many companies have spent millions of dollars setting up single-stream plants. But if the system doesn’t work now, you can’t blame the markets. It is also wrong to claim, as a Republic Services vice president did in an April 2015 magazine article, that “if material recovery facilities (MRFs) can’t make it, then robust recycling can’t exist.” We can testify that plenty of recycling existed before single-stream came along.
It is also wrong to blame glass for their problems, as their system complicates the glass problem. If you crush the recyclables in a trash compactor truck, much glass gets broken and mixed with other recyclables. Then it is very hard to sort. There are many markets for glass, but glass must be prepared to meet what the market demands (crushed and uncontaminated without small pieces of metals, plastics, paper, etc.).
When single-stream became popular some years ago, I was dismayed, even aghast. Treating recyclables the same way you treat the trash – in a trash truck – seemed terrible to me. I knew it would result in contamination and sorting difficulty of all the materials. Sure enough, for years many of the materials coming out of single-stream plants have been poorly sorted.
A paper broker in our state sends out a monthly newsletter. The broker wrote in December 2010, “There is a war brewing between the paper mills and the plants sorting single-stream recyclables. In the grades of mixed paper, sorted office waste and No. 8 news bales are coming into the mills looking OK on the outside, but containing 15 to 20 percent junk.” By “junk” he meant glass, plastic and metal – as well as cardboard – that does not belong in those bales. The “war” he was referring to is between the large waste companies who operate the single-stream plants saying, “We have all the volume, you have to accept it!” And the paper mills saying, “No, it’s too contaminated!”
Another paper broker with 25 years of experience stated that the two dirtiest words in North American paper mills today are “single stream.” He will not represent single-stream sorting plants or dirty MRFs because he has to guarantee to his buyers that the quality will be good. He has inspected paper coming from many single-stream plants and has found them too contaminated.
In April 2013 China initiated the policy called “Operation Green Fence” under which the country began enforcing a 2 percent contamination rule for commodity imports. Up until then China had not enforced the rule even though contamination at times ranged as high as 25 percent. Green Fence was no doubt a shock to the managers of the single-stream plants in the U.S. They had already put in expensive sorting systems for single-stream – now must they spend even more money to improve quality?
TURN BACK THE CLOCK?
Can single-stream collection and sorting overcome its difficulties? Here are my suggestions:
- If the single-stream plants run their sorting systems slower, the materials can be sorted better. Many companies say they can’t do this. Some way must be found to profoundly improve the sorted materials.
- The best solution would be to return to the two or three separated streams which we had before single-stream. This would allow much better sorting. The three streams for post-consumer plants would be 1) commingled bottles and cans; 2) commingled paper; and 3) cardboard/chipboard/brown paper. Each stream would be easier to sort than single-stream. We know sorting is expensive and time consuming, so saving here would be important in considering the costs of changing back. To shift back would require different trucks to pick up again. And another large cart might be needed at most households, although bottles and cans can be placed in blue plastic bags, which will not be affected by weather, while the paper can go in the existing large cart previously used for single-stream.
For 20 years, our company picked up in a community of 1,500 houses east of Cleveland, concentrating on those three major streams – commingled bottles and cans, newspaper and cardboard/chipboard. We did not compress the materials in a trash truck.
We took the bottles and cans to a MRF for sorting. At that time, a MRF was a plant that took post-consumer recyclables divided into those streams. A dirty MRF was one that took in post-consumer trash and tried to pull out the recyclables.
In single-stream recycling you give a residential household, or a business, a 96-gallon wheeled plastic container and allow the household or business to throw into it all its paper and bottles and cans. Then, a waste company picks up the recyclables in the container, dumps them in a trash truck, compresses the materials under thousands of pounds of pressure, thus breaking some of the glass and compacting everything together. When this material is dumped on the tipping floors of their sorting plants, they have created something very difficult to sort.
In my opinion, single-stream has injured the recycling markets. 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 reprocessors and other recycling markets that have to use the sometimes poorly separated recyclables coming from the single-stream plants.
However, all the people who have favored single-stream – mayors and city councils, township trustees, county solid waste districts – have never run a recycling company. They never had to sell recycled plastic or paper in the 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 who all thought they knew better.
Once waste hauling companies decided it would be possible to sort all the recyclables collected together in a single-stream – they decided they loved recycling and went about selling the system nationwide.
In my experience the waste companies always hated recycling – because everything had to be sorted. For one thing, the big companies had shareholders to please and had to make money. Recycling properly is difficult because too much commingling can’t necessarily be “undone” with automation. (Good systems exist, however, to sort bottles from cans with automation, otherwise it can be hard to make money on a large volume of recyclables.)
The waste companies could not afford to take a lot of time to sort their recyclables. Thus, they went deeply into trying to use technology to sort single-stream.
Perhaps the crux of the problem, to me, is that single-stream is challenged to sort just “well enough” to serve end markets. Well enough? Also, single-stream tends to encourage people to place non-recyclable materials in the mix. “I’ll just throw this in and see if they can recycle it.”
Before single-stream, for years the necessity to sort caused some trash companies to throw the recyclables in the trash, even though they had told customers they would recycle them. Waste companies were accustomed to dealing with just one commodity, trash, that can be picked up using a high level of automation. Also, it can be compacted under thousands of pounds of hydraulic pressure. With these efficiencies, it has been possible to build nationwide, profitable trash companies.
Few nationwide recycling companies are comparable to the big waste companies. Recycling is an especially challenging (detail-oriented) 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.