Pictured above: Mark Badger, Canada Fibers, presents on challenges with single-stream recycling today.
Single-stream recycling is a collection method where households can put everything in one container at the curb. During Recycling Today’s Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference in Chicago, Nat Egosi, president of RRT Design & Construction, said this method is nothing new, but only about half of the recycling programs in the United States do single-stream recycling at all.
Egosi said there are some clear benefits to single-stream recycling collection.
“There are significant savings in collection,” he said. “It’s helped to keep down cost of recycling. Finally, it provides more access to households and more recycling as a consequence. It’s allowed for automated collection. Another benefit is safety—drivers aren’t getting out as much, so it’s safer with less injuries. And there’s convenience, people like it.”
Several material recovery facility (MRF) operators shared their experiences with single-stream recycling, explaining the pros and cons to it, as well as changes that they have made to it with stricter contamination requirements.
Since the National Sword policy was first implemented, Bob Cappadona, vice president of recycling at Casella Recycling, Boston, said Casella has had to move materials to secondary markets such as Indonesia and Thailand. With stricter goals for contamination and the state of Massachusetts requiring recycling, Cappadona said Casella had to make some operational adjustments at its MRFs this past year.
Cappadona said the company has added retrofits where needed to reduce contamination down to 2 percent prohibitives. He said the company has added OCC screening retrofits in order to capture smaller boxes and achieve better value for cardboard. The company will also consider adding optical sorting in future upgrades to clean out fiber products.
Another key to improving single-stream recycling is education—Cappadona said education could help to reduce contamination from coming into MRFs. To date, he said some of the worst contaminants he has seen at MRFs include plastic bags, film plastics, lithium batteries, clothing, cords, ropes and food waste.
Cappadona said Casella launched a #RecycleBetter campaign to educate community members on what is recyclable to reduce contamination levels at MRFs. The campaign has been promoted on social media, the company website and in print ads.
Recycling & Disposal Solutions of Virginia
In recent years, Recycling & Disposal Solutions of Virginia has been hit hard with the backlog of paper coming into its MRFs as a result of changing policies and stricter contamination standards. Joe Benedetto, president of Recycling & Disposal Solutions of Virginia, said he thinks the industry is in a part of a 10-year cycle right now.
“It seems every 10 years we have a catastrophe and then recover,” he said, adding that there are a few things MRF operators can do when these cycles occur.
He encouraged MRF operators to communicate more with customers through open dialogue when these cycles occur.
“There has to be a working relationship with customers,” Benedetto said. “[Customers] understand that even if a product is collected, if it doesn’t get recycled, at the end of the day, that’s not recycling. So, we are trying to educate [customers] on commodities that can be recycled and tell them how markets are changing.”
Benedetto said Recycling & Disposal Solutions of Virginia is working with municipalities to increase education to community members so that they know what can be recycled. Currently, he said Nos. 3-7 plastics are not recyclable at his company’s MRFs, so there has been a lot of education around those items.
As a smaller MRF operator, Benedetto said his company has not invested much in adding new technology to improve contamination rates. However, the company has added more laborers to help with sorting.
“We have not spent money on some of the processing equipment to upgrade our MRFs,” he said. “It’s been suggested to us, but we’re still trying to understand the dynamic, changing market. Until we understand that, as a smaller company, we’re working to preserve cash flow. Once we know where we’re headed, we’ll add new equipment.”
Mark Badger, executive vice president at Canada Fibers, Toronto, reported that there are several challenges for today’s MRF operators, such as overcoming the addiction MRFs had to sending materials to China.
“Since the National Sword policy came down, it was like a bad trip for everyone in the industry,” Badger said. “The game of pass the crap is over.”
There are also the challenges of MRF operators determining what materials should be recycled and dealing with high contamination rates coming in, he said.
“Try creating something with 0.5 percent contamination in it when you have 30 percent contamination coming in the door,” he said. “We have to get [contamination] under control.”
Badger listed a few solutions to these challenges, including the following:
- MRF operators should invest in technology as a way to eradicate contamination and meet the strict purity specifications.
- MRF operators should assist municipal customers to reduce confusion on what goes in the curbside bins.
- Research and innovation should be done to find new technologies and methods to address challenging waste streams.
- There is a need to develop new domestic markets for recovered materials.
- MRF operators should communicate with government agencies and lawmakers on ways to drive a more circular economy.
City of Phoenix
The city of Phoenix is not new to single-stream recycling—Rick Peters, deputy director of public works for the city of Phoenix, said the city has one of the oldest single-stream recycling plants in the United States, which opened more than 25 years ago.
Peters said the city’s MRFs are experiencing the same issues with contamination as other MRFs across the U.S. To address those issues, he said the company is focusing on education and infrastructure investment.
To educate community members on what’s recyclable, Peters said the city placed “Oops!” stickers on recycling bins when they had contaminants in their bins. He said the first week of this initiative, about 72 percent of people received the “Oops!” sticker. After five weeks, though, he said only 29 percent of people received that sticker.
“We’re encouraged by those numbers and will continue to focus on getting quality from the inbound,” he said.
Additionally, Peters said the city is looking to invest in optical sorters and other new technology at its two MRFs to reduce contamination.