Recycling needs to go dual-stream to adapt to changing demand

  • Workers clean consumer plastic shopping bags from the rollers of a machine which separates paper, plastic and metal recyclable material. ap photo

Published: 10/22/2018 3:32:26 PM
Modified: 10/22/2018 3:32:29 PM

The trash recycling landscape has shifted under the feet of many Americans. For years now, many communities in the country, starting in California in the 1990s, allowed residents to place all recyclable paper, glass, metal and plastic into one bin.

This replaced earlier “multiple stream” systems in which paper, glass, metals and plastic were sorted at the home in separate containers. The “single-stream” system is more convenient for residents and probably helped popularize home recycling. But single-stream recycling requires a processing plant and special machinery to sort the material for packaging and sale to mostly overseas customers.

Sounds good, from our end.

But under such systems, not everything is sorted perfectly and some of the bales of recyclables contain contaminants – whether real trash or the wrong type of recyclables. And now, the buyers of our bottles, cans and paper, most notably China, want cleaner product. While they were happy to accept sorted paper that was at best 97 percent pure, as of January the Chinese have set the bar at 99.5 percent pure – too high for many of the country’s current single-stream sorting plants.

The result this past year has been rising recycling costs at communities that use single-stream recycling.

Fortunately, many western Massachusetts towns have been using dual-stream recycling, which keeps paper separate from “containers” made of metal, plastic and glass. So, communities that use the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility, for example, are still able to achieve higher purity standards and have been somewhat insulated from the effects of China’s new rules.

But the resulting glut of recyclables has caused prices to plummet from levels already depressed by other economic forces, including lower prices for oil, a key ingredient in plastics.

Franklin County Solid Waste Management District Executive Director Jan Ameen says the 73 Western Massachusetts towns – including most in the Franklin County and North Quabbin region – that have used the SMRF over the past 25 years maintain lower contamination because trash is presorted before it reaches the Springfield facility.

China’s new rules have driven up costs for recycling, but we hope the costs won’t rise so high that American communities just give up on recycling. We shouldn’t go back to burying or burning massive amounts of “useful” trash that could be reused. We recycle because it benefits our environment, where we live, not because it makes money.

We would encourage our single-stream neighbors to adopt more aggressive forms of recycling. While it might cause changes in people’s habits, require consumer education and investment in new material recycling plants, in the long run this will preserve our nation’s resources and reduce future contamination.

If a big part of the problem, besides lower commodity prices overall, is sloppy recycling, then let’s establish a culture of rigorous recycling, for the good of the country and perhaps for our pocketbooks, too, eventually.

In the early days of recycling, people had to wash bottles and cans, and sort paper, plastic, glass and metal into separate bins.

Even though we in western Mass. are faring better than other communities in the Boston area and other parts of the country because of dual-stream separation, we advocate single-stream recyclers move in our direction, and that we all move even farther down the road of recycling as much of our trash as possible.

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