Apparently Houston has an annual “great idea” contest, or something similar. I subscribe to a couple of recycling listservs, and a member posted a link to the contest with a request that we vote for the recycling idea. I’m always searching for better mousetraps, so I sped over to the Houston site to find out what this next great new thing could be, and was surprised to find that it was a throwback to the days of yore. It’s called “One Bin For All”, featuring the idea that you could dispense with source separating of recyclables, trash, yard waste and all that, and simply put it all in one bin. Heck, that’s how we did it when I was a kid, and it all went to the (open) landfill.
Houston seems to think that it has a better mousetrap with its assumption that Waste Management, Republic Services, or a similar big waste management company will sense the vacuum here and rush in to build a new, beyond state-of-the-art material recovery facility (MRF) that will happily and cheaply sort all this stuff out. My response to this post was: “One Bin for All. Nice idea, we’d all love to see it happen. But first, show me the MRF. Sounds like a Dirty MRF to me. We separate trash from recyclables now to reduce contamination. How the proposed MRF handles the pint of pasta sauce spread all over the paper and boxboard will be key. Show me the MRF.”
Several other responses were along similar lines. Others pointed out a return to the “easy to throw things away” mentality that we’ve been pushing so hard to change into “Think before you toss”. With the easy to throw out option, you stop asking manufacturers to make items that can be readily recycled, because everything simply disappears down the same hole. This process is not going to increase Houston’s waste diversion rate; I’m betting that it will actually decrease it. The claim that this process will increase diversion to 55% initially, and eventually to 75%, really requires a suspension of disbelief.
Recycling is a tough business. After the recyclables (well, we hope they are all recyclable) disappear into the bin and the truck, they do not magically turn into new products. The MRF is key, with a combination of people and equipment sorting the various plastics, metals, papers, cardboard and such. A great video of a MRF in action can be seen here. Many MRFs are not as sophisticated as the one shown here, so fewer items are recycled, or additional people power is required for the sort line.
Recycling won’t work unless there is a market for the materials. These items are commodities, and value goes up and down. Once the value of a particular material drops below a certain point, the market disappears, and suddenly the MRF operator is stuck with a bunch of material that can’t be sold. Additionally, as the video notes, buyers want specific types of items, and they want them free of contaminants that can foul up their manufacturing processes. That creates two challenges for us.
Contaminants come in many forms. One, as mentioned in my comment, above, is foodstuffs, oils and similar contaminating plastics, cardboard and paper products. Toss a quart of used oil into a bin of paper, and the value of that paper goes to zero: off it goes to the landfill. Another is the challenge of dissimilar materials in one discarded product. A good example is the type of disposable “warm-up” jacket used in our ORs. Made of spun polypropylene, it seems that they’d be an excellent candidate for recycling. Until you notice that the stretchy cuffs are of a different material, as are the snap closures. The buyers don’t want these various materials; they’ll take only the polypro without the snaps and cuffs. As it is impractical to cut out these items, the warm-up jackets are landfilled.
So is Houston’s “Better Mousetrap” for real, or is it a sham? I can tell you that our vendor, Allied Waste (part of Republic Services, the second largest waste operation in the US), opened up a new, state-of-the-art MRF in the East Bay several months ago, and they still don’t want contaminants in our recycle bins. The new MRF does a better, more efficient and more automated job of sorting out the recyclables, but it hasn’t opened the door to more types of recyclables, and it doesn’t want our trash. We still have to do a good job here.
Houston, you have a problem.
Do something Green today!