How to keep up with the evolving recycling system

Looking back at packaging over the past 25 years, a lot has changed. There is a great deal of discussion in the recycling community about the "evolving bale," a reference to changes in the material mix over the past decades. Over that time, there have been declines in newspaper, glass, steel and aluminum. These are the commodities that the U.S. municipal recycling system was built on.

As we have witnessed the decline of the newspaper, we have also seen the growth of single-use packaging and a convenience-is-king mindset. Needless to say, consumer behavior has changed and is reflected in the way we recycle. Due to the economics and added convenience, the U.S. largely has moved away from source separated to single stream recycling (all recyclables in one bin).

The dirty truth about the single stream

The result is a greater volume of recyclables collected but with more contamination due in large part to a more complex material stream. Part of this complexity is from the growth and diversity of plastics. They are 12 percent of all waste generated in the U.S. The consequence of the changing waste stream has been a flattening of the amount of municipal solid waste generated per capita. It represents a de-linkage in the amount of waste generated relative to gross domestic product and is due in large part to the shift in the U.S. material mix from heavier (paper, glass, steel) to lighter materials (plastics) and a general dematerialization of society as the digital revolution continues to grow.

While packaging was evolving, material recovery facilities were too. It used to be that every municipality owned its own, but now a good portion are privately owned. MRFs originally were designed to recover paper and rigid materials and were technologically pretty basic. Today's MRFs resemble a Rube Goldberg device of screens, conveyers, magnets and technologies that move at dizzying speeds to make order out of chaos.

The shift in material mix along with single stream has had a profound impact on MRF operations and on the commodities they produce. For instance, the well-meaning consumer who reuses a plastic bag for recyclables is unknowingly introducing a material that causes operational nightmares. There used to be a number of paper grades. Some almost have disappeared. Paper bales are now frequently contaminated with plastic.

From the bin to …?

On the positive side, we now recover a variety of PET grades, HDPE and mixed rigid grades. One consequence of a lightweighted waste stream is that a higher volume of material needs to be processed to create a ton of recovered material along with losses due to residue and contamination that are higher today than in the past. So the lightweighting of the U.S. waste stream actually has had something of a perverse economic impact at the MRF.

Attention is needed. Signals from paper companies unhappy with the declining quality of paper from recycling programs. China's Green Fence is an industry-wide challenge to the quality of materials coming out of the U.S. and the need to examine our system and practices. To maintain a strong recycling system, the economic value of commodities must be preserved and quality is core to that value.

Credit: Becky Snyder via FlickrValue comes from upstream considerations such as how to design packaging for bale value, consistent education of consumers and keeping them informed of recycling best practices while renewing our attention to best practices in collection systems (convenient access and carts) and continued upgrading of MRFs with next generation sorting technology. Material manufacturers, converters, brands, retailers and municipalities, consumers and MRF operators all have a role to play.

And then there needs to be some reality about the continuing pressure for more convenience at a reduced cost. Mixed waste processing, or a "dirty MRF," is where trash and recyclables are comingled — which could seem like the ultimate single stream — yet in reality is a fall back to practices used in societies with no habit of recycling and that recycling best practices have been targeting for years to eliminate. While metals and a limited selection of plastics can be recovered, the quality of material entering a dirty MRF is highly contaminated because it is mixed with wet wastes such as food and chemicals. Little of the paper can be recovered, and no high-value products can be made from it. Paper and paperboard are almost 30 percent of what is generated in any community, so convenience comes at a high cost in terms of lost quality and resources.

More concerning is associating recycling with trash. Equating them in the minds of consumers takes away the signal about valuing materials and eliminates essential feedback for consumers. In a world of scarce resources instilling stewardship is essential to more sustainable development. Increasingly, research shows that recycling makes consumers feel good, reminds them their actions matter and collectively makes a difference. If we evolve consumers out the recycling value chain, recycling loses.

Top image of recycling symbol by dotpolka via Flickr.