Waste management’s recycling challenge

A recent post from the “media room” of Waste Management, the largest waste services company in North America, provides a good summary of one of the principal challenges facing companies and organizations that provide recycling services–contamination of the product. This is a challenge that we all play a part in, as contamination of the recyclables stock begins at the collection point. That is, with what we put on the curb.

Two questions confront the citizen who wants to do the right thing and help us make the transition to a circular economy, and away from the linear “take, make, use, lose” economy. First, what can we recycle? Second, how do we recycle it?

Brent Bell, Waste Management’s vice president of recycling operations, suggests in the post that answering the first question can be something of a moving target. “Simply put, many of the items we all want to recycle are getting hard to market economically,” he says. “This impacts our business, the environment and the recycling industry as a whole.”

One culprit–and we hesitate to use that word–is the advent of single-stream recycling in the early 2000s. Single-stream collection made recycling for individual households far more convenient than before and inspired many more households to participate in recycling.

Another part of the equation, however, is the growing complexity of products and their packaging. For example, certain types of plastic packaging–the bain of our hyper-consumer society–consist of multiple different kinds of new plastic compounds, making it hard to reprocess them.

The result, says Mr. Bell, is two-fold for the recycling industry–higher contamination of the recycled goods, and following that, lower quality in the goods that are made from the recyclables and returned to market.

“Today, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses sits at around 25%,” writes Bell. “That means that roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container is actually not recyclable through curbside programs, and this creates enormous problems for the recycling economy.

“[C]ontamination significantly increases the cost to process recyclables,” he continues. “Add this to the fact that commodity prices for recyclables has fallen significantly and the financial sustainability of recycling is at risk. To put another way, not only are plastics lighter, and packaging more complex, recyclables derived from those items are being sold for less and at a higher cost to process.”

With the cost problem comes the quality problem. “Recycling contamination has a direct impact in the quality of recyclables entering the commodity markets,” Mr. Bell explains. “For example, when foods or liquids are placed in a recycling container they will ultimately saturate tons and tons of otherwise good paper and cardboard that they come into contact with. When paper and cardboard loses its quality, it also loses its ability to be recycled. It becomes trash.”

The solution? The waste management industry realizes that it has work to do, in expanding markets for recyclables and developing better sorting technologies. But we as citizens–whether running our households or managing our businesses–have a role to play too, most significantly in keeping food, liquids, and plastic bags out of the recycling bins.

Waste Management also acknowledges its role in helping to educate the public about proper recycling practices. The community has a parallel role, and that’s why we–the members of the Melrose Recycling Committee–are here. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to ask. Contact us here.

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