Large-scale single stream recycling systems averaging 900 tons per day are seeing hard times since China’s National Sword policy was implemented at the end of 2017. In order to meet strict specification requirements, U.S. facilities have had to add more workers and high-tech sorting devices to drastically reduce contamination of recyclables. Some facilities are located many miles from cities that use them, adding significant cost to the recycling process.
These problems were anticipated in the early 2000s, when single stream recycling was introduced and spread rapidly through promotion by national and regional consolidated waste hauling companies. Starting from just a few cities in the 1990s, today at least three-quarters of cities and nine of 10 of the largest cities use single stream collection and processing.
By 2007, a best practices implementation guide for processing was written by pioneer recyclers Susan Kinsella and Richard Gwertman. The detailed report focused on proper equipment capacity, sequencing of sorting materials, conveyor belt speed, overloading, tip floor surfaces and best contracting out specifications.
Two single stream recycling systems have weathered the recent marketing crisis by paying attention to these details, proving that single stream can make sense if scale and ownership are considered. The criteria for success are a commitment to optimize recovery of clean materials and not throughput.
Eureka Recycling is a nonprofit recycling enterprise based in Twin Cities, Minn. It owns and operates a single stream processing facility that handles 400 tons per working day (8,000 tons per month). The facility produces high-quality materials including glass. More than 90 percent of the materials sent out from the materials recovery facility (MRF) go to markets in the state supporting local and regional economic growth. Residuals from this single stream MRF are less than 8 percent.
All jobs at the company are above living wage levels and full benefits. Eureka also advocates for zero waste packaging, conducts education and public awareness, promotes backyard composting and manages household clothing/linens collection programs.
What makes the Eureka Recycling MRF different? Proper scale, secure jobs, triple bottom line materials marketing and company commitment to quality recycling, all in service to the goal of attaining zero waste, or 90 percent or more reduction of the waste stream.
Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit organization that operates the Boulder, Colo., County Recycling Facility, a single stream MRF publicly owned by the county and privately operated under contract by Eco-Cycle. The facility processes about 200 tons per day (4,500 per month). Contamination of incoming materials is less than 10 percent, compared to reported industry rates of 30 percent or higher, and outgoing residue averages 6 to 10 percent less than the national rate of 17 percent residue.
Glass is marketed locally, but other materials are shipped by rail and truck out of state, with preference to domestic markets. Based on a study done in mid-2018, the facility was selling materials for an average price nearly $40 per ton higher than the national average because of the quality of its materials and strong market relationships. While both the Eureka and EcoCycle facilities are suffering from the low prices currently hitting MRFs, they continue to move materials and demonstrate that strong investments in community education deliver cleaner, more valuable tons that help survive market turbulence.
These models are timely and important to agencies such as the Closed Loop Fund and The Recycling Partnership, which comprise Fortune 500 brand name companies that provide grants and loans to municipal recycling programs to support recycling infrastructure.
These consumer product corporations “want to ensure a viable recycling system for their packaging as required by Federal Trade Commission regulations,” says Gary Liss of the Grass Roots Recycling Network.
Other industry analysts point out that the consumer product companies want to avoid any further restrictions on packaging materials and are ingratiating themselves to stakeholders through its financial largess.
For recycling to break through the 35 percent recycling level, where we have stagnated for a decade, private and municipal investments need to focus on infrastructure that has a proven track record. These include investment in dual stream and properly scaled single stream processing, distributed composting, unit pricing and repair and reuse infrastructures.
Private capital merged with annual municipal budgets can form an ideal partnership for municipal recycling in the 21st Century.
Neil Seldman directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in Washington, D.C. He has been a pioneer in the U.S. recycling , anti-incineration and zero waste movement since 1974. He focuses on working with cities and businesses to recover materials from the waste stream and add value to these materials through local processing and manufacturing. ILSR has been instrumental in helping cities such as Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, and counties such as King County, Wash., and Alachua County, Fla., reject incineration and adopt recycling, composting and reuse alternatives. Seldman is co-founder of ILSR, National Recycling Coalition, Grass Roots Recycling Network, Zero Waste International Alliance and Save the Albatross Coalition. Prior to ILSR, Seldman worked in manufacturing and was a professor of political science.