What is the goal of recycling?
Posted by Ed C on Monday, May 28, 2007
What is the goal of recycling? Seems like a simple question, but like most things when you start to look into the details it may not be so cut and dried.
Susan Kinsella at the August 30, 2004 National Recycling Coalition Conference asks the following:
Of course, this raises the question of when should we count something as “recycled”?
Is it when it’s “diverted,” even if eventually it’s landfilled?
Is it when it reaches a manufacturer, even if it cannot be used by them?
Or is it when it actually gets used to make a product?
Both the Baltimore Sun (Recycling redux) and the Examiner (“Single-stream” recycling encourages more to take part) recently published articles on Howard County recycling.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) is going to spend $280,000 on 5,000 wheeled bins that will be distributed in a pilot program in Elkridge. And if the program “works” it will be expanded to the entire county at a cost of 4 million dollars.
From the Sun:
If Howard’s planned pilot program is successful, it could show how to boost collections at a time when recycling growth has slowed nationwide.
Though the amount of trash that is recycled nationally grew from 16 percent in 1990 to 29 percent in 2000, it has risen to just 32 percent since then, according to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Environmental Protection Agency’s goal is 38 percent by next year.
According to the Maryland Recyclers Collation Howard County’s waste diversion rate was 45%.
During 2006, Howard’s recycling system took in 58,092 tons, with 24,150 of that from curbside collections, Tomlin said. The rest – things like branches, construction debris, tires, wood, electronics and yard waste – were brought by residents to the county’s Alpha Ridge Landfill. The amount collected last year represented roughly a 6 percent increase over 2005. Commercial firms, which collect trash from businesses and apartments, recycled 121,168 tons in the county, said Alan Wilcom, chief of the county’s recycling division.
Mr. Ulman is proposing to spend 4 million dollars on what amounts to 13.5% of Howard County’s recycled waste. Sure, it may be the most visible part of the program and everyone can “feel good” about recycling, but how effective is it?
One metric that can be used to measure the effectiveness of a recycling program is measuring the volume (or weight) or curb side collection will increase. The theory being that if people have larger bins with wheels, then they will recycle more. In conjunction with this is the concept of “single stream” where all recyclable materials can be mixed and collected at the same time and then separated at a special facility. A complication of the single stream collection is that it can reduce the usability of the materials. The Recycle America facility that processes Howard County’s recycled materials opened in August 2006 in Elkridge and sounds like a model facility. However, neither the Sun or the Examiner articles provide specifics about the efficiency of the plant.
A 2004 study quoted by Susan Kinsella:
In fact, AF&PA released a study in March that found that the cost for manufacturing products
increased by $8/ton when using materials from single stream processors. Even though single stream
tended to reduce the cost of curbside collection by $15/ton, it increased the overall cost of recycling
And from her conclusion:
I don’t hear people evaluating choices based on the health of the whole recycling system, only on
what each choice will do for them. But recycling is a collaborative system. All the different sectors in
recycling have to cooperate with each other in order to further their own long-term self-interest.
We need to expand our concept of “diversion” to embrace focus on quality and environmental benefits. Why do recyclers put so much focus on collecting materials and so little on what’s needed to manufacture recycled products that customers will be happy to buy? Putting the focus on what’s needed to manufacture these products is what will reliably drive the diversion from landfills that we want.
What is the goal of the Howard County recycling program? Is it enough to initially divert waste that we would send to a landfill no matter where it eventually ends up? If diverted resources end up being landfilled by a manufacturer or consume more resources to process, are we really helping the environment, or are we just making our selves feel good?
Is this the most economical and environmentally friendly way to spend our 4 million dollars? How about expanding the hours / days that the Alpha Ridge facility is open for recycling? Currently, Alpha Ridge collects 58% of our residential recycled materials, would having the facility open a few days of the week in the evenings increase participation and reduce the lines that form every Saturday? Just think of the gas savings alone.
We should not just settle for diverted. We should be able to measure and then strive to maximize all portions of the recycling chain while minimizing the cost to tax-payers. Before spending more of our money, the administration should be able to document that this is indeed the best use of these funds.