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Sorting out recycling programs: Which ones work best?

Plastic materials are sorted from a residential recycling stream at a material recovery facility in Austin, Texas. Recycling systems are facing challenges in many places, but some experts say it’s still growing. (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries via AP)

Plastic materials are sorted from a residential recycling stream at a material recovery facility in Austin, Texas. Recycling systems are facing challenges in many places, but some experts say it’s still growing. (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries via AP)

Changing markets and confusion over what can be thrown in recycling bins has forced some communities to rethink or even suspend their recycling programs. But many more recycling programs are working well, experts say.

The difference is partly based on which methods are being used for collection and processing.

Are you sorting paper from plastic at the start, for instance, or tossing it all in one bin? Are you certain the items going into the bin are the ones your recycler can accept? How up to date is the processing facility in your area?

“Some programs are hurting and need to adjust, particularly in the residential stream. But the majority of programs are working successfully and continuing to grow,” says Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. The non-profit trade association represents more than 1,300 companies that make, process, sell or consume scrap commodities, including metals, paper, electronics, plastics, glass and textiles.

Success or failure seems partly linked to whether recyclables are going into one mixed curbside bin for pickup (single-stream recycling) or is divided by residents into separate bins (multi-stream recycling).

Single-stream was adopted by many communities and companies because it costs less to haul. But creating one big pool of recyclables creates more difficulty later, when they must be sorted out. In addition, experts say people tend to be sloppier about what they put in a single, combined bin. That produces a lower grade end product.

Multi-stream tends to produce a less-contaminated, thus more valuable, end product.

For the past two decades, it hasn’t mattered so much because China and a few other countries were buying large quantities of low-grade, single-stream recyclables, which cost them less and could be sorted out using inexpensive labor there.

All that changed in January 2018, when China stopped accepting lower-grade recyclables. That left many communities in the U.S. without a market for the low-grade, mixed recyclables they were producing. “A total of $5.6 billion of scrap a year was going to China before the policy change,” says Wiener. In 2018, that number dropped precipitously to $3.5 billion, with most of the loss in low-grade materials. It takes time to find another home for that volume of materials, she says.

In some cases, says Dylan de Thomas of The Recycling Partnership, an industry-sponsored non-profit dedicated to transforming the recycling system in the United States, the problem is a combination of contamination and macroeconomics. “In March of 2017, mixed paper was trading at almost $90 a ton. Now it’s worth roughly zero. Almost all the recycled paper on the West Coast was going to China,” he says.

Despite the challenges of finding new markets, he says his organization has identified only 31 programs across the country that have suspended their recycling programs. Its data base includes 2,000 of the estimated 10,000 recycling programs across the country, he says.

Sorting recyclables at the front end turns out to make more sense for many communities, and the market for higher grade, pre-sorted recyclables remains strong, experts say.

Garbage, recycling options vary in Quad Cities

Prescott city code requires residents to use city services for their trash collection. Residents get a green garbage container and a blue recycling container with weekly pick-up. This “single-stream” recycling system (blue bin) means customers do not need to separate recyclable materials.

Other areas

Residents of Prescott Valley, Chino Valley and Yavapai County select their own waste company, based on criteria important to them (cost or service related).

Some of the companies serving the area include Best Pick Disposal, Patriot Disposal, Prescott Valley Sanitation, Taylor Waste, Southwest Waste Services, United Disposal, and Wingfield Sanitation. Not all of those provide recycling services.

Transfer

In the county, residents choose their own waste companies — or not. Some people take their trash to a transfer station. Eight transfer stations throughout the county are open on different days during the week. County residents pay $1 per 30-gallon bag of household trash. Larger loads, such as that filling a pickup truck bed, cost $6 a cubic yard. There are separate recycling containers for paper, plastic, small metal pieces, and cardboard; glass goes in with general trash.

Several municipalities partner with the county for local “dump days.” Visit yavapai.us/publicworks/solid-waste-division for a calendar of communities and dates.

For more information, visit Earth911.com.

— The Daily Courier

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