Monday, February 18, 2019

Is recycling just so much garbage?

by Rod Williams, 2-18-2019 - There have been a couple stories in the press recently about recycling. "Nashville answers call for more recycling with expansion of curbside collection," in the Tennessean says that with the help of a $2 million state grant and a match from the city, Metro will increase the frequency of its curbside recycling collection from once a month to every other week starting next year. This is welcome news, assuming separated recyclables actually get recycled and saves the city money and helps the environment.  I still have boxes of cardboard stored in my basement.  There is just Louella and myself in our household yet we create a lot of waste paper.  I still get the print edition of the newspaper and that generates a lot of waste and I order wine online and it is carefully packed and generates a lot of waste and in December my daughter sent me some gifts via Amazon which produced a lot of cardboard.

The other news item was a Tennessean article by Ms Cheap, "Plastic bags, pizza boxes and other ways you may be messing up your recycling." This provided good information about how contaminating recyclables by things like greasy pizza boxes and plastic bags sabotages the recycling effort and how the city is going to step up its education program to let people know what can and cannot be recycled. I would think this is a wise move, if I believed it mattered. What the article did not address and what I don't know is this: Does it all end up in the landfill anyway?

In the last year, I have seen several news reports and read several articles that said that China had drastically reduced the amount of waste paper they were accepting from the U.S.  Some of the stories said the U.S. was finding other markets in India and a few other third world countries.  Then I started seeing stories that China and India had also stopped accepting plastic. One article said that Thailand was still accepting plastic but had such a large inventory, they were contemplating ending the practice. Reports also said that several cities have ended up unable to sell their recylables and ended up simply land-filling them.

Markets are broad-based. If any single city is having a problem disposing of their recyclables then, the problem must be effecting all cities.  Maybe, a city can benefit from having long-term contracts but eventually if Sacramento County, California is having problems disposing of their recyclables, Nashville will have the same problem. 

To find out the status of Metro's recycling program, in November of 2018, I wrote the following letter to the chairman of the Council's Public Works Committee and a similar letter to my own councilman:
Dear Councilman _____,  

I am seeking some information that I hope you have or can get for me.  As chairman of the Council's Public Works Committee I thought you may be the person best informed on this topic.  I am wanting to know the current status of Metro's waste recycling program. There was a USA Today article in today's Tennessean that addressed the problems facing recycling. If you didn't see it you can find it at this link:Will those holiday gift boxes actually get recycled? Um, maybe.  In our newspaper it was headlined, "Changing times create big trouble for recycling," but it is the same article.

According to this article, in Sacramento County, California a year ago the city was getting paid up to $95 a ton for mixed paper and now it is getting as low at $6.50. Whereas the county was getting paid $45 a ton for plastics, now they have to pay $35 a ton to get a recycler to take it away. Other things I have read say that some firms are getting much more picky about the recycling material they will accept.  Also the future looks gloomy for recycling, since China takes most of America's recyclables and the trade conflict with China may impact China's willingness to keep purchasing it. 

What I would like to know is what change has there been in what we are paid for a ton of materials  (paper, tin, aluminum, plastic) in the past as compared to now.  I know recycling saves landfill disposal cost and that is a benefit. Have we gone from recycling being a net financial benefit to the city to it being a net liability?

Any light you could shed on this topic, would be appreciated.

Rod Williams
 My letter was referred to Public Works and got the following correspondence:
Mr. Williams,
Recent changes in how China accepts the importing of recyclable material has impacted cities and counties across America.  While Nashville’s recyclables do not tend to go overseas, the local US markets have been flooded with material no longer accepted in China which has made those local US markets more competitive.  The biggest impact we have seen in Nashville is issues regarding contamination.  Metro has to be much more vigilant in educating residents about contamination in our recycling.  A recent audit of our curbside recycling showed that a lot of residents are putting plastic bags and plastic bags full of recyclables in curbside recycling carts.  This has become concern as the bags (and their contents) can get stuck in sorting equipment, damage the equipment and ultimately end up in the trash.  Highly contaminated loads of recyclables may have to be run through the sorting equipment more than once and this does increase processing costs.  Public Works has started auditing routes, placing tags on carts with plastic bags and bagged recyclables, posting information on social media and providing information to our elected officials and neighborhoods on the problems with contamination.  At this point, Metro has had no change in processing costs but we are having conversations with our contractor and our costs may increase in the future.    
Please feel free to call or email with any other questions.
Sharon Smith, Assistant Director
While this was helpful it did not exactly address what I asked, so I followed up with a more specific request for information.
I recently spoke to someone who appears knowledgeable who told me that in actuality Nashville curbside recyclables end up in the landfill.  I understand that due to contamination, some recyclable may be unmarketable and that some may have to be disposed of by landfilling.  However, this person seemed to say that land filling of recyclables was routine and not isolated or not just a minor component. Could you please answer for me the following questions:

1. What approximate percentage of material collected by the curbside recycling program ends up in the landfill?

2. Are we paying to have someone take recyclables off our hand or are we getting paid for recyclable material?

3. If we are getting paid, what is the unit price being paid for various types of material, such as paper, aluminum, tin, plastic?

4. When is the last time a cost-benefit analysis has been done of our curbside recycling program?

5. Compared to household solid waste disposal, is the curbside recycling program a net cost or a net gain for the city.

Thank you, I look forward to your response.
Rod Williams
After another vague response, I again asked for specifics:
Dear Ms Smith,

Thank you for that information.  If you could answer for me the following I would appreciate it. How has the more stringent standards on contamination affected the bottom line on the economic effectiveness of metro's recycling program. Are the processors of Metro's recyclable products rejecting just a little more than before or a lot? Are the rejecting 10% of our recyclables or more like 90%?  How big is the problem?

Also, is Metro's recycling programs a net financial benefit or a net financial loss? Do we have to pay to have recyclables taken away or to we get paid for them?

If we are paid, what is the price for various types of recyclable material?

If there is a study or documents that summarizes the status of metro's recycling program, I would welcome receiving a copy of it. 

I never did get specific answers to my questions. If I was a paid journalist with an assignment, I would be more pushy or if I was a Metro Council member asking these questions I would demand answers.  I let it drop. I suspect if the news was good, Public Works would have been forthcoming with an answer.  Based on what I read about the status of recycling nationwide, the non-answers to my questions, and what I have been told by someone who may know, I suspect that when you carefully separate your garbage from your recyclables that it then all ends up in the landfill anyway. I don't know that for an absolute fact, but suspect it is so. If you faithfully recycle, I am not suggesting you stop doing it but don't feel so vitreous. It is probably a wasted effort. It probably ends up in the same place.

If there is a council member or a member of the press who is curious about answers to the questions I have asked, I would encourage you to seek those answers.

Stumble Upon Toolbar
My Zimbio
Top Stories

No comments:

Post a Comment