we might have made a big mistake…

It seems the City of New Westminster has decided to move towards single-stream recycling. This means that we will no longer be separating our paper from our plastics and containers, and will be throwing it all into one bin. The bin will be exactly like our existing black (garbage) and green-lid (organics) bins, and will be designed to be picked up by the same trucks.

At the time these ideas were floated, there was little feedback from the public. I didn’t comment at the time, as I felt that I was simply not informed enough to make a useful judgement about the merits of single-stream. I actually had lunch one day with the City’s Supervisor of Solid Waste, hoping he could explain the costs and benefits of going that way. It was clear to me after that meeting that I still didn’t fully understood the issue.

I was present at City Council on April 4 of this year when Allen Lynch , a New Westminster resident and Manager of North Shore Recylcing Program pleaded with council to not go down that path, but to consider the longer-term cost and sustainability implications of Single Stream Recycling. At the time, his issues seemed real, and I was happy to hear council direct Staff to address these concerns (most of which admittedly went over my head). I was equally happy to read a report from staff a month later that seemed to address all of the issues raised by Mr. Lynch. But it still stuck in my craw that somebody with a lifetime of professional experience managing recyclables was so convinced that the City was taking a wrong path going to single stream, and the main benefits to it were explained to me as saving money on trucks. When I feel underinformed, I tend to rely on experts in the field to explain the situation, and for the fourth time in this post already, I will admit I was not well-informed enough to take a position.

There was also quite a bit of discussion with the TrashTalkers group at NWEP, with some seeing the benefit of increased diversion promised by the Single Stream, and loving the idea of going to fortnight waste collection once it comes in, while others lamented the loss of 20 years of effective Community Based Social Marketing around the use of Blue Bins – we have taught a generation to separate recyclables, and recognize the differences in materials, are we going to lose some of that? Again, there were enough sides to this issue that the TrashTalkers could not come up with a consensus opinion, and therefore stayed out of the public debate.

I realise now that was a mistake. I should have met with Helen Spiegelman.

Tuesday, I attended a meeting of Zero Waste Vancouver, where Louise Swartz of Recycling Alternatives and Helen talked about single stream recycling, and the future of Extended Product Responsibility (EPR) programs in BC. It was a too-short 90 minutes, with a lively discussion amongst the participants, and I walked away with much of the information I was so lacking during my earlier ruminations on Single Stream Recycling.

Not to bury the lead; neither Helen (who has been involved in recycling and EPR programs since they began in the 80’s) nor Louise (who runs a very successful small business collecting recyclables from businesses and institutions) think that the move to single stream a good idea, for numerous good reasons.

Let’s see if I can summarise.

The justifications for going to commingling can be broken down to three “C”s: Cost, Convenience, and Capture. You can find them all mentioned here.

Cost is usually up front, and seems to be the main motivation behind New Westminster’s shift. By commingling recyclables, the same truck can be used for recycling as is used for trash, they just hose it out between loads. Therefore fewer vehicles are needed , and fewer crews to run the vehicles. The crews never leave the truck, so you only need one person per vehicle, and no-one is out in the rain physically tossing the recyclables. There is, of course, an upfront cost to buy the bins and the upgrade the trucks ($1.3 million in the case of New Westminster) , and there will actually be a small increase in the fee charged to residents (to cover the cost of the carts), but the City will save money in the long run, if all the other assumptions in the projection hold up.

“Convenience” is the assumption that separating your recyclables is a big hassle. I guess it is hard to argue that tossing everything in one bin is more convenient for the homeowner (… ugh….)

“Capture” is related to this. The assumption is that by making recycling more “convenient”, people will do it more, so a higher percentage of the recyclables will be captured, and diversion rates (the stuff at your curb that doesn’t go to the landfill) will go up. This has been measured in places that have gone to single-stream, and there is usually a slight increase in the percentage of materials going into the blue bins compared to the black bin (in the order of 5-10%).

Now let’s look at the alternative view on these three points:

The Cost savings are amortized over 20+ years, and are based on a lot of assumptions about fuel costs, about how we as a society are going to manage our waste, about where tipping fees are going, and about the future of recycling technology, markets for recycled materials, and producer extended product responsibility (EPR) programs. This is without even getting into the sustainability arguments around externalized costs relating to the down-cycling of materials and the loss of valuable materials, but let’s save that for another day, as this is already too long a rant.

The convenience gains are frankly ridiculous in New Westminster. Currently, the City asks that you separate your “garbage” (black bin) from your organics (green bin) and your recyclable containers and paper (blue box). We further ask that you separate your clean paper and newsprint from your containers by putting it in a blue or yellow bag along with your blue box. With commingling, you will still need to separate your “garbage” from you organics, and put your recyclable containers and paper in a blue bin. The only difference is that you can toss your paper in with the containers without having to put them in the bag first: hardly a massive time saver, and hardly a saving of hours of careful thought as people look at an object and wonder if it is a newspaper or a plastic container. So the increased convenience is a marginal gain at best.

However, what we lose by gaining this convenience is huge: and this is where the big lie comes in. Theoretically, there is an increase in “capture”; people will recycle more due to a mostly imaginary increase in convenience. However, this gain at the curb is very quickly lost at the Material Recovery Plant (MRF), and now we enter the murky world of Residuals.

Your recycled materials, either out of your blue box (plastic, metal and glass) or your new commingled blue bin (plastic metal glass and papers) go to an MRF to be sorted. (if you paper went in a blue/yellow bag, it is alreadt separared, so it goes through a separate process). At the MRF, the metal is removed using magnets and/or density-sorters, and the plastic and paper are sorted partially be mechanical means, and partially by hand. I wrote last year about touring one of these facilities in Iowa, but our MRF is in Surrey. Your recyclables are separated and bundled for shipping off to wherever they will be reprocessed (which is another whole separate Blog topic). At least most of it does. Some of the material that shows up in the MRF is not recyclable, either because it didn’t belong in the recycling in the first place (plastic bags, PVC, wood, BeeGees cassettes, etc.) or because it has been so contaminated and mixed with other materials it cannot be recycled (think a newspaper pressed up against a half-empty yoghurt container in the collection truck compactor). Depending on who you ask, and how you count, the residual rates in the MRFs can range from 5% to 50%. That is a big range. Clearly, even the most modest residual rates will offset any increase in “capture” you got from increased curb-side use. It also does not include the “down-cycling” component, that is the material that comes out of the MRF as much lower quality than it went into the blue bin, and consequently, cannot be used again for its original purpose.

The worst part is this residual rate going up (the 50% end oft he range as opposed to the 5% end) is largly the result of mixing fibre materials with containers, which is the only result of the New Wesmtinster’s commingling initiative! Of the materials being collected for recycling, paper is the one material that is at highest risk of being contaminated by other materials, and it is the material whose value as a commodity in the recycling market is most closely tied to its quality. A few shards of glass or a single sheet of soft plastic can turn a Tonne of paper fibre into a liability for the receiver, and can be stripped of its entire value. This is why the City currently asks you to separate your paper from the other products in the Blue box.

But it gets worse. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but Allen Lynch was quick to point this out at New West Council. As of May, 2011, The Province of BC added “packaging and printed paper” to their EPR regulation. That means that all packaging materials and all printed paper will be managed through an industry-led extended product stewardship program, the same type of program that now makes the producer responsible for refillable bottles, cans, tires, computers, paint, and all those other things you can take to a recycling facility and dispose of at no cost to you (because you paid for the recycling when you bought the product). What does this mean for the commingled recycling? Will the City get paid to collect the paper? Will the city send a bill to the EPR program operator (Encorp, or whomever)? Will all packaging (recyclable plastic and non-recyclable plastic, including films and blister packs) be mixed in with the paper? If so, how will we separate them? Simply put, the answers to these questions arw not known yet. The main point Allen Lynch was trying to make in April was that it may be irresponsible to throw a lot of money down this path until we know where it is going!

OK, one more point, just to throw gas on this fire. What happens to these MRF residuals? Traditionally, they go to the landfill, like the rest of your black bin trash, or potentially into the new incinerators that the region wants to install. However, with increased diversion, with an EPR program on packaging and paper, with organics in the Green Bin, there will continue to be less and less black bin trash. The fuel source for these incinerators is going away, even before they are built. However, residual waste from the MRF is excellent incinerator fuel! With the organics and wet materials out of it, it is low moisture, with the metal sorted out at the MRF, you are left with paper mixed with plastic film, heavy plastic, and a bit of broken glass: this shit will burn great! This I where the cynic says: The entire commingling move is a back-door way of diverting otherwise-recyclable materials to incinerators!

People who know me know I am not a conspiracy theorist, I always default to Hanlon’s razor. However, the implications of commingling are both unclear (in the real costing and in the fact that the metrics for diversion vs. residuals are very muddy from any City that has gone that way), and crystal clear (what the fate of the materials you put in your blue bin will be). The case for commingling is so poorly made, that I am waiting to be convinced that there is a sustainability component that I am missing. And while I wait, we are spending millions buying trucks and building incinerators.

I will come back to this theme in later posts. Mostly, I am confused about what we do next to deal with this issue. In New Westminster, we will be moving to commingling in 2012 unless we can prove to the Council prior to the November election that this is not the way we want to manage our recyclables. It is also an open secret that our Mayor is very interested in having a garbage incinerator installed in our City, in spite of the loud and ongoing public opposition to the idea.

To be continued…

12 comments on “we might have made a big mistake…

  1. If you didn’t realize it, your to late to make a difference now.

    Way to go NWEP Trash talkers !

    Thanks for giving K.D. a free ride while you were busy trash talking Translink.

    Keep up the good work !

  2. Thanks, Anon. Please let me know what you did in the meantime to make a positive change in your community…

    Look, I am not the NWEP. I am a member of the NWEP. The NWEP is a diverse group of people with jobs, families, and lives. Sometimes they get ahead of issues, sometimes issues get ahead of them. Such is life when you are a group of volunteers.

    Notably, there in only a small overlap between the Transportation Group and the TrashTalkers, so the idea that the TrashTalkers were distracted by TransLink is off the mark. As I noted, we did discuss this issue at length over several meetings, but didn’t feel we were informed enough to provide useful input a the time.

    Also, nothing I have written above has been discussed with the TrashTalkers, and as such, they are strictly my opinions. I know a few of the people in that group will disagree with what I have written… so I’m sure the next TT meeting will be interesting. Drop me an e-mail with your contact, I will make sure you are invited, as it sounds like you are really keen to help out and have lots of useful input. /sarcasm

  3. I guess what confuses me about the co-mingling debate, is that it seems with our blue bins we’re already co-mingling. But throwing the newspapers and cardboard in with the bottles and cans is just weird, and certainly not a convenience in my mind.

    I would agree that we should be moving away from co-mingling, but I find that a fight to preserve the status quo is simply fighting for the wrong thing, since its pretty inadequate.

    When I lived in europe in the ’90s the place were I lived had full source separation of materials and so moving back to blue bins seemed like a big step backwards.

    Part of the problem, I believe, is that we don’t value the products of recycling and so its hard to tell the difference (economically) between separated or mingled recycled goods. Not sure you can fault the City for this.

    However I do believe that in the future, separated recycled products will have greater value.

  4. Right now we already comingle glass, plastics, and metal. So we are talking about is the (possible) extra cost of comingling glossy paper, newsprint, and the bluebox contents.

    A “big” mistake would be one that causes a large increase the amount of money it costs to recycle – ie. a large increase in my taxes, or that causes rcycling rates to suddenly tank.

    Presumably the City has done some homework on the cost front. If the difference were immediately obvious and large we wouldn’t be having this debate. So almost by definition this can’t be a “big” money maker/saver.

    As for recycling rates, I don’t think dumping everything in a blue bin is going to make the slightest difference in recycling rates.

    We need to be pushing for composting and recycling for multifamily units, that would have a far larger impact.

    Further comments on separation:
    Metal is easy to separate out with a magnet. A system of deposits immediately motivates people to save their cans and bottles, and spawns an industry of binners. Separation problem solved. You could do the same with paper as well. The stuff that isn’t marketable (dirty paper, broken glass) will then rapidly be the minority.

    Recycling plastics is a joke, it doesn’t really happen. PET is the only plastic that can be “cycled” in any way (which is why it’s subject to deposit!). But once PET gets made into fleece it’s landfill-bound. PE and PP can be turned from containers into bags, but after that it’s the end of the road.
    Hard toys and polymer blends (any food wrap) are not recyclable. You can maybe turn them into “polywood” (not a big market) but then it’s the landfill after that. It is too expensive to recycle styrofoam.

    The machines that make plastic items are very particular about what they will take before getting plugged up. It is not currently possible to “clean up” used plastic, or to “separate” blends, and there is no economic reason to start working on technology to do so. I, for one, have a hard time believing that there will ever be a market for this stuff.

  5. The average consumer – not avid concerned citizens such as yourselves – still need all the help they can get in order to participate in recycling programs and to stop putting recyclables into the waste stream. Having to source-separate adds a step and co-mingling elimanates steps. Your supposed residual or contamination rates stated in your argument are inflated and there are many buyers of the resultant recycle commodities that are currently buying from single stream collection processers (MRFs). If they are happy with the results of single stream or co-mingled processing – then you should be too as they set the pace and standards in the industry as the end user of what our municipalities are collecting.

    Additionally, as average size of new homes (condo’s, etc) get smaller and space concerns get bigger – consumers will likely happily trend towards using less bins to manage their waste.

  6. Mr. Johnstone, my name is Ed Walsh and I have been in the waste and recycling business for 20 years. Our company currently operates the single stream processing facility in Surrey. I am concerned with the comments you have made and the assumptions have drawn base on what appears to be miss information.
    50% contamination is not feasible and our current contamination runs between 5-7%.
    your current three stream collection operates at 5% contamination. There are many benefits to single stream including reduced collection costs and max diversion from the landfill. If you are interested in having a tour of our facility and having a discussion on the benefits of single stream please call our office 604-599-8151 #114

  7. One at a time! I love to comments, as I think I made clear in my post, I am trying to learn here, and love the input!

    @Andrew: I agree, the convenience increase is marginal. Seeing as the City has committed to the blue bins and trucks, perhaps the way forward is to remove the paper from that stream, use the bins as we use boxes now, and create a separate stream for the paper products (suited to however the EPR program for printed paper goes out).

  8. @KB:
    The increased cost with adding paper would be in the lost value of the product coming out of the far end of the MRF. I’m afraid the City’s research on this topic has been concentrated on up-front costs, and not longer-term sustainability (but I stand to be corrected here).

    Further notes: not all metals can be separated by magnets, only ferromagnetic ones. Aluminum, copper brass, etc. need to be removed from plastics without magnets, but that said, it is technically not that big a deal.

    As for recycling plastics, you are right to point out the differences between “recycling” and “downcycling”, but the technology for both is always improving, and as we enter the post-peak-oil phase of the world’s economy, the cost benefits of expensive plastic recycling technology changes. I do believe we will have a market for this stuff, once the alternatives become more expensive, and plastic becomes too valuable to burn.

  9. @Anon,
    See above comments: the implied increase in convenience is marginal, and we are looking here at turning a ~30L blue box into a 240L blue bin… hardly “less bin to manage”

    As for residual rates, my only point is that the increase in curbside “capture” must be offset by any potential increase in “residuals”, or we are not comparing apples to apples. See comments below!

  10. @Ed

    Thank you very much for your input, I am the first to admit I am still in the information-gathering stage here, and appreciate the feedback.

    I did not mean to cast dispersions about your plant, I was basing my comments on easily-researched info on the web (and the internet is never wrong! Right? Huh?). The point is there is a wide range of claimed and actual residual rates, and those vary based on collection systems, the sophistication of the recycling populace, the social marketing around recycling, and the viability of resale markets.

    That said, you say 5-7% for your facility. Does this number change if paper and containers are collected separately or together? Does the value of the product going out the door change if the paper is separated at the curb? Would there be a significant benefit to removing all glass from the commingled stream? Finally, does any of the 95-97% recovered include material bound for incineration? I don’t mean to be challenging, I am actually curious.

    I wonder if we could arrange a visit for the TrashTalkers. I know a couple have already toured your plant, but a few others might be interested. I will survey them for interest at the next meeting.

  11. @KB – I think a big mistake is one that uses a larger carbon footprint to recycle, rather then money. I also disagree that plastic should end up in the landfill. Apparently they have technology to turn it into Ultra Sweet Crude so it can be further refined or incinerated.

    @Andrew – I agree with you. We have figures on what a ton of scrap paper, scrap steel or colour glass is worth. But with a co-mingled product, how do you define what a quantity is worth without knowing its composition after expending energy to sort it. What is the tipping fee at Ed’s company ? They are in the game to make a profit. Trucks in and trucks out ? Sounds like a larger carbon footprint, rather then the city selling premium sorted commodities.

    @Anon323 – I think the whole thing should revolve around the companies selling products to ensure minimal packaging, rather then putting the onus on the consumers. We are basically forced to purchase waste. Like the box your tube of toothpaste comes in. Pure waste.

    I consider incineration preferable then land filling, as the transportation footprint of trash is greatly reduced, and land fills produce more GHG emissions over a longer time frame. We defiantly need to push for onsite composting. It doesn’t make sense picking up organic waste that is mostly water, like grass clipping and kitchen scraps. What a big mistake we have made.

  12. Anon, The Carbon Footprint has to include the entire life cycle of the goods, and recycling of plastics clearly delays the input of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, as does a well designed landfill with the putricibles kept out.

    Unfortunately, we do not have the ability to regulate packaging sold on the store shelves, that is Federal jurisdiction, and I don’t know if you noticed, but sustainable initiatives that reduce the need for oil production are not high on the priority list of the current federal government. However, the EPR programs should provide economic incentives for companies to reduce the packaging waste.

    We could get into the landfill vs. incinerator debate, but I’ll save that for a future post. The footprint for landfilling is only high because we decide to export our trash piles to distant lands instead of taking responsibility for them locally. If I had my druthers, every municipality would have their own landfill, and it would be illegal to export garbage across municipal boundaries for the purposes of landfilling.

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