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Elizabeth McGowan

August 13, 2015

7 Min Read
ISRI Pushes for Ban on One-Bin Collection

ISRI considers itself a leading voice for the recycling industry. But the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries thought its chorus wasn’t vocal enough.

That prompted the trade association to launch a new advocacy Web site in late July, designed to allow its 1,600-plus members to chime in more emphatically with state and federal lawmakers on issues as diverse as taxes, transportation, metals theft, and one-bin collection.

The latter, also called mixed waste processing, puts the onus on so-called dirty materials recovery facilities (MRFs) instead of trash generators to separate recyclables from garbage because everything is tossed together into one curbside receptacle.

ISRI members oppose one-bin collection. They claim contamination caused by the mixing reduces both the quantity and quality of recyclables, especially paper, plastic and glass. It’s particularly problematic for mills that rely on unsoiled recycled paper to create food packaging and plants that need clean recycled glass to manufacture fiberglass insulation, jars and bottles.

Private-sector recyclers generate nearly $90 billion annually by selling metal, paper, plastic, glass, rubber, textiles and electronics to manufacturers that can reuse it, according to ISRI figures. By foregoing virgin materials, these manufacturers can save energy and water, reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases and preserve natural resources.

“Take single-stream recycling and give it steroids, and you’ve got one-bin,” Scott Horne, general counsel and vice president of government affairs at ISRI, tells Waste360. “Our industry has been around since Paul Revere. We always try to make the point that our members are manufacturers. They have to meet certain specifications because those buying recyclables must have consistent quality. Otherwise, quality is destroyed.”

Results of an Earth911/ISRI Opinion Poll conducted via the Earth911 site between April 16 and May 20 indicate that a majority of the respondents recognized the importance of collecting recyclables and garbage separately.

The question asked on the online poll was: “Is it worth the convenience to not separate your recyclables from your trash if when sorted after collection, it negatively impacts the amount of materials that can be recycled?” Of the 1,700 taking the poll, 75 answered “No, it's not that difficult,” 17 percent answered “I’m not sure” and 9 percent answered “Yes, added convenience is worth losing some recyclables to a landfill.”

ISRI isn’t alone in its opposition to one-bin collection. It’s joined by other members of the Recycling Industries Coalition, including the Paper Recycling Coalition, the American Forest & Paper Association, the Glass Packaging Institute, the Steel Recycling Institute, Knauf Insulation, Owens-Illinois and Waste Management.

Recently, Waste360 quizzed Horne about the evolution of one-bin recycling and why ISRI wants to be instrumental in ending the practice.

Waste360: First off, don’t members of ISRI count on you, as their trade association, to handle advocacy for them?

Scott Horne: Certainly, a lobbyist from our association can go in and talk to a congressman or senator. But it’s a well-known in Washington, D.C., that it is far more effective when a congressman or senator hears directly from a constituent because then there’s a relationship and the legislator knows it’s coming from the heart. This is really important outreach for those who are actually suffering the consequences of any particular regulation.

Waste360: Isn’t one-bin collection more of a local issue than a federal one?

Scott Horne: Our message is that this is a very local issue. What we ask members to do in any community is talk to the mayor and council members. Lots of municipalities aren’t seeing the forest through the trees. What we want them to understand is the market-based nature of commodities and why it’s important to do recycling right. But keep in mind that recycling goals and solid waste regulations are set by states, so it’s important that our members also go to state legislators. If they’re made aware of the issues, state legislators will be very influential with local government officials.

Waste360: Why bother with this campaign against one-bin collection?

Scott Horne: The best answer is because this type of collection will adversely impact a portion of our membership, and perhaps a significant amount of our membership, depending on results. You hate to see municipalities and other political entities make a multi-million dollar mistake. While it would be very easy to let them go ahead and when they fail go, ha-ha, that’s not a good way to do things.

Waste360: Is it too late to turn the proverbial trash truck around when it comes to municipalities starting or switching to one-bin collection?

Scott Horne: It’s not a runaway train yet. It’s more like that arcade game of Whac-A-Mole. ISRI and its coalition, the Recycling Industries Coalition, are trying to educate government folks on the full story. We think they’re getting the story through rose-colored glasses. We want to make sure that if they’re going to make a decision, that they make it in an enlightened manner.

Waste360: Educating citizens about recycling has proven difficult. Might recycling rates jump significantly if left to the professionals at dirty MRFs?

Scott Horne: The minute you go to one-bin collection you automatically have 100 percent participation in your recycling program. Great. But when you mix poopy diapers, broken glass and newspapers, what a MRF will recover that can be used in lieu of virgin materials will be limited in quality, at best. Much of it will not be usable and the recycling rate will plummet.

Waste360: News reports indicate that proposed dirty MRFs have failed or never gotten off the ground in counties and cities in Maryland, Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and other states. Is there any sort of pattern for one-bin collection?

Scott Horne: I don’t have hard data but it does appear that early targets are cities without curbside or with very low participation rates. Some might consider it state of the art but it’s not what it’s cracked up to be. Recycling rates have leveled off with curbside collection and people want to drive that up. Somebody got the bright idea of throwing everything in one bin. Here we are in 2015 and we’ve set ourselves back 27 years.

Waste360: You mean to the time before curbside recycling when everybody had just a trashcan?

Scott Horne: Yes. When curbside recycling was initiated back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was typically done as dual-stream. You had a trashcan, a recycling bin for metal and plastic, and grocery bags for paper. That was a great means for collecting high-quality material.

Fast forward to the early 2000s when the vast majority of urban and suburban areas had curbside recycling. It was easy to convince municipalities that single-stream recycling (all recyclables in one bin) was cheaper because you didn’t have to run two separate recycling trucks. But nobody ever looked at this carefully and, for instance, mills trying to use recycled paper found their rollers and screening systems were wearing out because of glass and other contaminants.

Waste360: Does China play a role in this debate about one-bin recycling?

Scott Horne: From 2004 to 2010, the market was on fire in China. The country needed paper desperately and was willing to take it from our single-stream sources even if it wasn’t high quality. But in 2013, the Chinese government got tired of low-quality goods, referring to it as scrap without the “s.” That led to inspection of all inbound containers of recyclables. They started seeing that certain commodities, like metals, weren’t as problematic as single-stream paper and post-consumer plastic.

Waste360: Who is advocating one-bin collection?

Scott Horne: Waste-to-energy companies are pushing this because it gives them increased BTU (British thermal unit) value. Waste-to-energy might be an energy source but it is not recycling. I am not criticizing WTE but once you burn a resource, it’s gone forever. That is not sustainable because it isn’t a beneficial recovery of resources. It doesn’t align with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Sustainable Materials Management Program and it hasn’t accomplished the goals of reducing, reusing and recycling.

Waste360: What do you make time for when you’re not focused on recycling?

Scott Horne: I treasure spending time with my family, I am an avid sports fan, and I enjoy making homemade half-sour pickles.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth McGowan

Reporter, Waste360

Elizabeth H. McGowan, an award-winning energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C., writes a weekly Industry Buzz article for Waste360. She was the D.C. correspondent for Crain Communications' Waste & Recycling News, and has written for numerous other publications since beginning her career at daily newspapers in Wisconsin. In 2013, she won the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category for an investigative series published in InsideClimate News that revealed how the nation’s oil pipeline infrastructure isn’t measuring up to federal safety standards.

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