New 1-Step Recycling Program Hopes to Decrease Landfill Capacity by 40% Within One Year of Implementation

Posted In: News, Local,   From Issue 803   By: Robert E Martin

15th January, 2015     0

As of January 1st – at the kick-off of this brand spanking New Year – a new baby was born. Residents in Saginaw County, along with all of the other 34 member communities serviced by the Mid Michigan Waste Authority – now have a new NO-SORT Recycling Curbside Program in place that is revolutionary on many levels and designed to take our region into the new millennium with a program that supporters predict will reduce landfill space and increase recycling streams by 40% throughout the region.

Residents can now mix all allowable recyclable materials together in the same recycling container, along with all plastic resin types #1-7, with the exception of #6 foam materials that need to still be thrown away. Additionally, there is no longer a requirement to use official recycling bins. To handle more recyclables, swap out your recycling bins for 33 gallon or smaller cans marked with a huge letter “R” or a “Recyclables Only’ sticker, available from your community office or MMWA.

This is no small feat. Now you can mix all allowed paper glass, metal and plastics together in your recycling container, with no sorting required. After emptying and rinsing all containers, they can simply be thrown in the bin. Removing labels is not necessary, plus plastic and metal lids can be recycled, along with cardboard boxes and paper items.

According to MMWA Director Monica Duebbert, although single-stream recycling has been around for several years, its progress was largely driven by whatever technology was developed in the processing plants. “I keep my attention focused in the world for new trends and technological changes happening with collection processing, because we always want the have the best and most viable system that works for us here in the Great Lakes Bay region.”

Up until now data unveiled by research into single-stream recycling was not pleasing. “When areas went to single stream they also had a significant upswing with the amount of contamination in their recyclables, especially when using standard 18-gallon recycling bins,” she explains. “They aren’t that big and its easy to fill them in a one week period, so when many areas went to single-stream recycling, the bins would easily get overflowed. And when it starts looking like trash, it starts attracting trash.”

But over the last couple years, Monica started reading reports containing more encouraging information. “It seems the best combination to go to is a no-sort system, which is achievable if residents are allowed to have larger containers. This makes it more conducive for recycling because it has a better capacity. This is why we’ve always allowed any 33 gallon container, or smaller, for recycling. By using a 33-gallon bin it almost doubles the capacity, so we are minimizing contamination issues from having a smaller container becoming exceeded over a one-week period. This was interesting to me and made us move closer to our goal.” 

Although one-stream recycling has been around for a good 15 years, not many communities adopted it. “Chicago had its largest recycling area in the Plainfield area and went to single-stream,” relates Duebbert. “They were touting it as the largest in the country, and it does make sense for large metro areas to adopt this approach. But just because the technology exists doesn’t mean operating the program will provide a clean stream.  If you tell people they can recycle all these items and 20% of the material showing up at the plant is non-recyclable, members get fined, so in essence you are paying twice if material is considered residue at the plant and it needs to be shipped to a landfill.  Right now our contract says we must provide a 10% or lower contamination volume and we presently are at 5%, which is very low.”

“This is one reason we work so hard at public education,” she continues. “Our recycling program has a very comprehensive list of materials you can recycle. Many programs will not accept glass and we take not only clear, green and brown glass, but also ceramic plates and drinking glasses. We even accept plate glass, so if you break a window, you can put the pieces into a recycling bin. Almost nobody else does that.”

“By offering a comprehensive program and moving to no sort recycling we’ve also expanded the types of plastics we will accept. Before we were limited to plastic #1 and #2, which are the most common ones that beverage containers, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles are packaged in. These two together make up about 80% of the plastic package stream by weight, so we capture a lot of it.”

“But now we’ve added plastic containers #1-7 and the only one we don’t allow is plastic #6, which is what foam items and packing peanuts are made from. These are a nightmare to sort and the space involved with consolidating this material, because it doesn’t weigh much, involves a higher cost to freight a bunch of air. It gets really expensive and is not cost effective to haul to places that are close to the manufacturer of that material.  However, any plastic with a stamp numbered 1-7 on it people can place in their recycling bins.”

Indeed, the only items one cannot include in your recycling bin are garbage and unmarked plastics, so according to Duebbert, “if you’re not sure about whether an item is acceptable or not, it’s better to throw it away than contaminate your recycling container. Most of what we consider trash can go into the bin and it doesn’t have to go into a trash can.”

As for paper items, many people are concerned about recycling paper goods – especially incoming mail out of concern for identity theft – but shredded paper has always been acceptable to recycle, so with the larger capacity containers, paper can be mixed with plastic, tin, cardboard, and other items. “If people shred and put their paper in first, then add other items, it helps compact the paper as it goes into the container,” notes Duebbert.

Monica says that a good litmus test to use for the new one-stream system is whether or not the item you are packing can fit into the container; and whether the item packed can be picked up by a person. “Many people have outdoor plastic play equipment for their children, but that can’t be recycled because it won’t fit into a container.  The same is true with boxes. They need to be broken down and cut to 2x3 pieces currently before being placed into the container, but we’re checking with the plant to see if we can increase that size a bit.”

Legacy & Costs • Viewing Trash as a Resource

Currently Mid Michigan Waste Authority contracts with the Re-community Plant on Dutch Parkway for disposal of all their recycled collections, which in turn bales and exports the materials to four plants in the metro Detroit area that function more like transfer stations. 

Amazingly, however, there are not as many collection centers across the country as one would imagine. “We have two that are independently owned in Saginaw valley,” explains Monica, the other being the Recycle America plant on Washington that backs up by the GM facility. It’s a big plant and three times the size of the processing plant we currently use, but Midland and Bay counties do not have a MIRF. Tuscola has a small one, Shiawassee has nothing, and Genesee County has one, only I’m not sure if it’s back in commission.”

“That’s the reason a lot of areas in the state have not established residential recycling programs, because they need a place to send and sort,” states Monica.  “It’s cheaper for them to sort than having garbage workers do it at the curb, which is why in the early years you would see multiple sorting containers within the trucks. It’s also why that practice ended.”

Once the collected items are baled into individual streams they are sold off to processors. In the case of Plastic #1, for example, it will be cleaned, shredded, melted and extruded into pellets that are then sold to manufacturers. “I know that Ford has a lot of car parts they make from recycled plastics for internal components,” notes Monica. “So there are multiple steps involved and it’s amazing to find out how many resources are saved recycling plastic resins, metals and glass.”

“Rather than going to virgin sources for these things, using recycled items saves electricity, gas, and transportation costs,” she asserts. “Extensive life cycle analytic studies have shown that the cost difference between virgin feed stocks verses recycled goods is considerable. Plus it helps drive job creation because for every ton of material that is recycled, four jobs are created. With a landfill only 1 job is created.”

Duebbert is hoping that the within one year, the move to one-stream recycling in the region will mirror that of contemporary communities across the nation and result in a dramatic increase in the amount of people recycling to nearly 40% during the first year of implementation.

“We have 35 individuals communities with rates that vary from community to community,” she explains. “Some are diverting 20% of their waste stream into recycling and others only 6%. But from the data we’re receiving and extrapolating onto our area, my hope is that our recycling will increase 20 to 40% within one year.”

“When the data came in 2012 that communities moving to single-stream had less than 10% contamination factors, I spoke a lot with my Board about it as something we should consider,” relates Monica. “But when the collection vendor said if we made the move they could hold cost increases down, then it make sense on all fronts to move forward this way.  If we can conserve natural resources, save landfill capacity, and drive job creation, it’s a triple crown of wins. The bottom line is that this will save us money.”

Monica also believes that the United States will reach a point where it actually becomes more viable to excavate and mine landfills for buried plastics and metals that have not degraded than it will be to move to virgin sources for manufacturing. “We will start mining landfills to recover plastics, metals and glass, because plastics come from petroleum products and producing virgin stocks of these items are both labor and pollution intensive activities. Maybe 50 years down the road it will make more sense to excavate than produce new.”

“This is the reason we call our new facility the Community Resource Recovery Center, notes Duebbert. “The items that comprise our trash actually consist of resources; so the question becomes how do you manage it? Do you throw it away so it has no more life?  Technologies and trends are driven by geography. We’re land-blessed here and in the far west, where we have tipping fees that average $27.50 per ton in Michigan. But on the east coast they’re at $115 dollars. Oregon is already at $85.00. Consequently they look more vigorously at other technologies that allow them to eliminate their landfill space.”

“You need the motivational drivers to get people to adopt the behavior,” she adds. “Some people want things super easy and don’t wish to do any sorting, which is why this latest move to One-step recycling is huge. It encourages behavior that’s always going to become more important as the years go by.”

“We’re really excited about this and have looked at it from all levels to make sure its right for our membership,” concludes Monica. “We’ve distilled things down to the simplest participation one could possibly envision.  You don’t need a sticker, you can just mark or paint a big large ‘R” on your bin; but if members do want stickers, they can obtain them here at the MMWA office or from their communities.”

“Plus you no longer need an ‘official’ collection bin. We looked at the barriers to recycling through surveys and the two big reasons people don’t recycle is either because they don’t know about the program, or because they don’t have a bin. By not requiring an official bin, we’ve just mowed down the second biggest barrier to recycling.”

“But when you’re dealing with 203,000 people it can be a challenge to get the word out. Essentially, the message is simple: all you need is a 33 gallon bin, mark the bin with a sticker or a large ‘R”, and have a paper shredder. Put the paper in first and then pile cans and everything else on top of it.” 

The fact this service is available in our area is huge news.  Now do your part to make our region, as well as our country, a greener environment to live, work, and play within.

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