Sort it Out
● By Style
The question was posed more than a decade ago, as recycle fever spiked nationwide, and a 1996 New York Times Magazine cover story declared that yes! “Recycling is Garbage.”
The essay savaged environmentalists and their beloved recycling movement, dismissing it as “the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.” Admitting that recycling certain materials for certain reasons made sense, the reporter nonetheless argued the “simplest, cheapest” solution to our garbage problem was to bury it in an “environmentally-safe landfill.” That the only individuals who benefit from recycling programs — aside from the guilt-ridden — are politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations and waste-handling corporations.
Richard Shaw, environmental specialist supervisor for the City of Folsom, disagrees. “I don’t want to entertain political subjectivity. I just look at it practically. Recycling saves natural resources, saves money, and creates industry commodities out of waste. My experience is that 99 percent are on board with what we do. It’s a job creator; it protects valuable resources; it reduces our dependency on natural resources; it produces tradable commodities; it’s an economic engine in and of itself. It’s the way of the future.”
The City of Folsom’s Recycling program generates revenues of approximately $605,000 annually and employs about 40 individuals. And as of now, it’s the law: recycling is mandated by legislation – AB 939 and most recently AB 341 – which requires 75 percent of garbage be recycled by 2020. Folsom trash is hauled out to Sacramento’s landfill; 25-30 tons a year at the cost of $25-$30 per ton.
Recycling costs vary year to year and are market-based. (Recycling also removes much of the heavier materials from garbage, like glass – lightening the load.) Sean Bigley, government relations analyst in environmental utilities for the City of Roseville, explains how recycling costs are strictly controlled. “Our recycling program complies within the limits of our budget. We’re allotted an amount to spend on this program each year and that’s what we spend.” In turn, the program produces an annual revenue of $488,000. In a city boasting that two-thirds of their waste is recycled for reuse, sorting is done from “one big bin” by machines and then by hand at the Material Recovery Facility. What’s left is hauled to the landfill, located practically next door. (You can view the process at onebigbin.com.) “The machines are pretty good at sorting the material,” Bigley adds. “There’s been a great deal of advancement in the recycling industry, even just in the past few years.”
The recycling trucks themselves are far more eco-conscious, designed to run greener and meet fuel emission standards, Shaw explains. Landfill gases are being converted to energy as well. “Sacramento County does it, but not everybody does it; it’s expensive.” The process, or plasma gasification, is exothermic combustion (of water and carbon dioxide) energy in the form of heat, transformation of carbon to a fuel gas. Ideally, high temperatures and a lack of oxygen result in no tars, dioxins and less than one percent of the waste can not be reproduced.
Both Bigley and Shaw agree that recycling is rewarding work: “There is a sense of self actualization in helping the environment. Look at corporate America – Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club. Big companies want to be green. This is smart, green sells. There is economic incentive there.” Plus, Shaw adds, “We’re on the cutting edge of new technology.”
Even those religious about recycling agree the best solution all-around is reducing waste before it becomes waste in the first place. Drinking out of cans instead of plastic bottles, for example: aluminum cans are back on the shelves 60 days after recycling. They are the most recycled item in the U.S. Because so many are recycled, aluminum cans count for less than one percent of the total U.S. waste stream, according to the EPA. And you can recycle it repeatedly!
Plastic is difficult to recycle. Still, recycling plastic saves twice as much energy as burning it in an incinerator. It’s important to know what the numbers on plastic bottles mean in terms of their “recyclability” and which types your city can handle: Number “1,” or PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate, including soft drink, water and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers, etc.) is the most common — it’s cheap, lightweight and easy to recycle, with a low leachate risk.
It’s true that trees are planted to replace those cut for paper use; however, these do not replicate the intricate habitats for particular plant and animal species, damaging the ecosystem. Each ton (2,000 pounds) of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4,000 kilowatts of energy and 7,000 gallons of water; resulting in 64-percent energy savings, 58-percent water savings, 60 pounds less air pollution (although paper production and recycling contribute significantly to water pollution). Aside from logging on (a 2007 Javelin Strategy & Research Report on online banking determined that 16.5 million trees were saved as a result), you could stop the flow of junk mail, more than half of which is tossed, unopened. (DMAchoice.org provides information to help you do this.)
The New York Times dismissed recycling as garbage back when people were using dial-up Internet connection and AOL. Since then, studies have proved that recycling is not the best thing for the environment, but it’s better. And while nothing is as cheap as landfill, recycling is becoming cheaper. And the more people recycle, the cheaper it gets. On average, it costs about half per ton more to recycle trash as compared to sending it to the landfill – and more than twice the cost of recycling to incinerate it. Not to mention, it takes less than half the energy – 10.4 million Btu (British thermal units) – to create products from a ton of recyclables, 23.3 Btu from “virgin” materials. “Life-cycle analyses,” conducted by scientists, compare recycling to raw-material production, landfill use and incineration. This significant increase in energy required proves detrimental to the environment, long term, in every case.
DO THESE FIVE “FACTS” ABOUT RECYCLING GARBAGE PASS THE SMELL TEST?
Much of what we believe about recycling is based on half-truths. In 2008, Popular Mechanics Magazine revealed these half-truths in a detailed report.
Landfill space is limited. The U.S. has two decades of capacity left in landfills that already exists, says NSWAM (the National Solid Waste Management Association). But that varies state to state. The northeast has the least available. Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Rhode Island have less than a quarter of our national capacity. Many states are eager to accept landfill revenues, but transporting tons of garbage to areas with more room is hardly inexpensive. Tipping fees in the land(fill)-squeezed Northeast total 70 bucks a ton (the national average is $34). Landfill space may not be scarce nationwide, but economically it makes more sense for some states to reduce. Landfills have other issues; the methane gas poisons the air, groundwater sources are contaminated and contamination can leak into the soil (leachate). They’re expensive to clean up once it becomes necessary for a landfill to go.
Those massive recycling trucks burn energy and pollute the planet. For starters, there’s the argument that garbage trucks do, too. And the trash has to be picked up one way or another. But more to the point: newer recycling trucks collect garbage and recycling at the same time, and are becoming more and more eco-efficient. Bins are designed to self-dump. Municipal budget crunching limits recycling pickups — these occur once or twice a month. Recycling done smart – less often, cost-efficiently — has proved worthwhile for some U.S. cities.
Recycling is just a way to make cities/“big (local) government” rich. Cities tend to be locked into long-term contracts and tipping fees that protected from the wild wide that was the recycling market for years. Cities pay to have their recycling collected, sorted and transported, as opposed to getting the money for the recycling. With the accepted – in many cases the mandated—practice of recycling, a once volatile market has stabilized. Lock-ins allowed cities to recycle within budget, but now that the value of recycling no longer fluctuates and the value of recyclables has increased, cities that locked in lose out. It is only as contracts are renewed and renegotiated that cities can enjoy revenues from their recycling programs. Cities generally provide individuals with mercenary incentives to recycle. That’s green green in your pocket, not your mayor’s.
It costs too much to have to sort the materials by hand. New technologies have introduced “single-stream” material recovery facilities; in the U.S. we had just 70 in 2001, but by 2007 we more than doubled that number (160). Machines do most of the sorting. Steel is magnetized, aluminum is deflected by “eddy currents,” infrared identifies valuable plastics. These are pricey sorters, but the costs of sorting and curbside collection are lower, and the recycled material value is increased.
Plastics aren’t recyclable anyway. Plastics are complicated. It’s hard to know what the numbers mean, so consumers often throw them into the wrong bins. It’s true that most of it winds up in the landfill. But new technology, such as “optical sorting” is increasing the types of plastic that can be acceptable for recycling by determining the chemical makeup of the material and sorting it accordingly. There’s also an increasing market for recycled plastics, as this material can be transformed into a variety of products. Recycling plastic saves twice as much energy as burning it in an incinerator.