All Er Nuthin

One of my favorite characters from the musical “Oklahoma” is Ado Annie, the girl who, well, “can’t say no.” Will Parker, one of Annie’s beaus, on the other hand, believes in exclusivity. His way or the highway. As he proposes marriage, he lets Annie know that it has to be “all ‘er nuthin.” Of course, he expects to still have his “freedoms,” the old double standard.

In the end, Annie accepts the proposal, but with reservations. It is clear that a compromise is expected in this pre-nuptial agreement, but by whom and to what degree, we’ll never know. What is obvious, however, is that in spite of their flaws and conflicting behaviors and expectations, neither Ado Annie nor Will Parker can, nor are they willing to, go their separate ways.

In the recycling industry, this same dilemma exists in the relationship between the source of materials and the end user. Just as with Will and Annie, from the origin to the final disposition of the material, there are outside influences on the relationship forcing each party to continually beg for compromise.

Back in the Day

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the decision for a community to recycle was more straightforward for municipal officials. Not to diminish the political angst, the budgetary challenges and the overall risks that they faced, but the choices were limited. The processing methods dictated that individual materials were separated at the source, or at a minimum, the point of collection.

Except where regulatory initiatives dictated otherwise, materials designated for collection had local accessible markets. Therefore, the supply and demand side partners had fairly intimate relationships, with very clear expectations for the product delivered and subsequently, the price paid.

An “all ‘er nuthin’” scenario prevailed. Unlike Ado Annie, it was easy for end-users to “just say no” to materials for not fully meeting their standards. The risk and cost to meet these criteria fell squarely on the communities, and those who collected, transported and initially processed the materials.

Enter the 21st Century

It is safe to say that things have changed. Public and private sector investments in an assortment of collection and processing technologies, which allow for recyclable materials (and in some instances waste) to be stored and transported together for later sorting. The development of these methodologies expanded the recycling infrastructure and made curbside recovery available in places once thought to be unreachable.

The availability of diverse technologies contributed significantly to the growth and success of the recycling industry. Similar to Will and Annie’s dilemma, the notion of choice complicates the relationship between those who generate, gather and process the material, and those who ultimately purchase it for reuse.      

New concepts and advancements in mechanical and optical sorting are continually evolving. At the end of the day, each of these processes and their hybrids has earned a place in the recycling hierarchy.

The Bottom Line

We all know that recycling isn’t free. The struggle for where on the supply chain the most significant costs must be absorbed, continues to rage on. Fuel, labor and shareholder expectations along with increasingly demanding municipal contracts dictated that the front end of the recovery sequence – collection and transportation – could no longer bear a disproportionate share of those expenses. The costs didn’t go away, they simply shifted up the food chain to the mills and manufacturers.

We’re at a crossroads, where emerging technology will continue to be the justification for compromises, trade-offs and an opportunity to reduce overhead. By helping communities understand how to best implement these systems, we could resolve a lot of issues and balance the costs throughout each stage.

The latest contenders are the current iterations of mixed waste material recovery facilities.  Will they become viable as the primary recovery option, or will they be relegated to a supporting role of sorting post-recycling waste, and targeted sources like multi-family, institutional and commercial? Outside factions would like to influence the outcome. However, performance and productivity will determine to what extent these operations succeed at one or more of those functions.

We’ll huff and we’ll puff and . . .

Thus far, the reaction from a recent and loosely organized group of industry players has been the cry of Armageddon – lots of scary sounding sound bites and predictions.

They have issued statements that would ask us to believe these mixed waste processing facilities are weapons of mass material destruction and have gone as far to issue an absolute decree that this process is not recycling. Nobody from the group has coughed up statistics to validate the statement that all materials are rendered useless for recycling. In other words, zero material is marketed and at the end of the process line there are 100% residuals.

Admittedly, degradation does occur in these systems; more for some material, less or none for others. However, if you value credibility, the accusation cast is risky business. 

One of the infomercial pieces uses the desperate notion that diapers and kitty litter might touch the recyclable material, inferring that somehow, this might be unique to the process in question. In presentations, the message includes innuendo that products using recycled content from the process will be the source of personal health related issues. (I am not sure how on one hand, supposedly nothing gets recycled, but on the other, the feedstock for the scary recycled content product is a result of the process.) If you’ve ever managed a recycling collection program, you know that, regardless of the method, recyclers encounter carcasses, medical waste, excrement and other nasty stuff. This is not a phenomenon of recyclable material being mixed with trash, and they know it. 

A full frontal attack like this, on any one element of the recycling community, rings hollow. First rule of salesmanship - don’t offer bold detractors about competing products or interests. It only serves to discredit the source and redirects interest to the other product or service, particularly if those boisterous claims go unsubstantiated.  

These collective tactics are reminiscent of the grass roots campaigns once intended to halt the progress of other technological advancements in our industry. Slinging mud gets everybody dirty. C’mon folks, as professionals, to resolve a concern, we can do better than that.

It would be more convincing to illustrate the impact a process has on a material by material basis. Downplay that negative rhetoric with a demonstration of how alternative technologies should be used most appropriately to support the preferred system, and it will leave a positive lasting impression on communities currently considering change. It is easier to take the high road, when presented with sound, well thought out explanations and plans.  

Day of Reckoning

Political pressure has heightened competition among cities to attain inflated recovery goals. Regulatory initiatives have broadened the scope of materials collected.  In fact the very composition of the waste stream has altered the types, weights and volumes of materials available for recovery, some with more promising markets than others. Global outlets commonly compete with domestic markets for our materials.

As much as end users would like to turn back the hands of time, the “all ‘er nuthin’” scenario has run its course. We need to be forward thinking. Like Will Parker, commodity brokers now operate under a set of double standards. On one hand they hammer home the message that only pristine materials are suitable for their needs, but it is not out of the ordinary for them to seek out, accept and pay for “tainted stuff” on the side, because they must.       

The conflicting standards have not gone unnoticed downstream. When faced with recovery goals that may have doubled or tripled overnight, what’s a community, hauler or transporter to do? Will they find it beneficial to stay faithful to their longtime partner’s stringent guidelines? When they realize the relationship can withstand a few indiscretions in quality, will they entertain the temptations of seemingly attractive alternatives? All joking aside, these are billion dollar questions being debated in the chambers of local governments across the nation. Their decisions will have a rippling effect all the way to China.

Reality Check

Aging equipment in mature programs often triggers change. Where recycling rates have flatlined, infrastructure changes have been shown to jumpstart recovery and participation significantly more than incentive programs and education combined. Technology has advanced, in part, because we have yet to come up with an educational tool to overcome human error, disinterest and malaise. By catering to the lazier side of our nature, however, we have made significant inroads resulting in increased participation and recycling rates. That’s why, when they need a program fix, communities “can’t say no” to greater container capacity and added convenience for their residents. Both form the catalyst for the growth of mixed material processing whether it be dual stream, single stream or mixed waste.

The stakes are high, particularly for domestic markets. If you want quality materials, show me the money. Like it or not, to an elected official responsible for this year’s fiscal budget, lifecycle analysis doesn’t always factor into the decision making process. There are certain commodities that simply don’t provide sufficient monetary incentives for all communities to collect source separated, or collect at all. With flagship materials shrinking away, these low market materials will represent a greater proportion of the recyclable stream. Their constituents make it difficult, if not impossible, to justify the extra costs to meet industry standards for these materials, when there is no payback.

Without container deposit legislation, and unless end users can up the ante, there is minimal hope conditions will change in the foreseeable future. These circumstances explain why many communities never look past mixed material options.

Positive Outreach

Instead of hiding behind innuendo, special interest groups and the businesses they supportc should invest in the development of mechanisms that help local governments evaluate when and where certain applications should be introduced in the collection and processing chain. An “all ‘er nuthin” approach that excludes available options is not necessary for the best return on their investment. That means not only improved recovery rates, but material quality and value as well.

Even Ado Annie and Will Parker were able to compromise and put their selfish interests aside to make their relationship, as a whole, better. Trade and non-profit recycling organizations, working together with equipment manufacturers, processors and commodity brokers could do the same to preserve our industry. “Oh what a beautiful morning” that could be.

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