Dimino offers some stark numbers. Since 2009, the portion of PET collected at the curb nationwide has inched up from 28 percent to just over 29 percent of what’s recycled. But the yield rate at the end of the process — how much of each bale can be made into plastic flake and then into new products — has dropped from 72 percent to 65 percent. “The reclaimers will recycle as much as possible,” says Dimino, though she’s not sure how much ends up in the trash.
It’s the same basic problem with paper. National Fiber, a company in Belchertown that makes cellulose insulation from newsprint, phone books, and tax forms, won’t take single-stream material. Chris Hoch, the company’s owner, visited a recycling facility near Albany, New York, and was horrified. Along with paper in the bales, he saw the lids from tin cans and plastic bottle tops.
Single stream’s biggest victim, though, is glass. During collection, much of the glass shatters into tiny pieces. (If it doesn’t break when you drop it in your giant bin, compacting garbage trucks finish the job.) Once in a recycling facility, glass shards are sorted by size and weight — basically falling through the cracks — and end up in a mountain of dirty confetti containing broken glass, bottle caps, and shreds of paper. It resembles actual glass as much as Velveeta resembles cheese.
According to a study conducted by the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute and published in Resource Recycling magazine, which examined data from a dozen US glass processing facilities, only about 60 percent of single-stream glass can be turned into high-quality products like bottles or fiberglass. Another 19 percent is too small to be sorted — glass is separated by color for recycling — useful only for road base or landfill cover. The last 21 percent is trash. By contrast, about 98 percent of deposit glass can be recycled back into glass bottles.
Only one company in Massachusetts still buys single-stream glass, Strategic Materials Inc. in Franklin. David Hudson, a vice president at the company, says that in any given truckload, about 20 to 40 percent is residue, mostly paper, that must be discarded. “Remember that old commercial with the two guys in the back of a limo?” says Hudson. “The limo hits a bump, and one guy says, ‘You got chocolate in my peanut butter!’ and the other guy says, ‘You got peanut butter on my chocolate!’ but the result was something wonderful? Single-stream recycling is not that.” Despite this, says Hudson, his company will keep taking curbside glass. “There are a lot of industries in New England that need the glass desperately,” says Hudson. “Dirty glass is better than no glass.”
Until recently, domestic recyclers’ complaints haven’t mattered too much in the industry, because waste companies could reliably sell lower-quality products overseas, especially to China. However, China recently enacted Operation Green Fence and is refusing bales containing more than 1.5 percent contaminants. “If China says, ‘We’re not going to take bales of PET that have 35 percent contamination in them’ and ships them back, this is a problem,” says
Clarissa Morawski, an industry consultant based in Toronto and author of several research reports on single-stream recycling. “What’s going to happen? The price of processing is going to increase.”
Better processing — like slowing down the sorting or separating glass from fiber at the plant — would result in more recycling, a win for the environment. But higher processing costs would be passed on to cities. Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of environment and energy, says he’s aware of the problem but doesn’t foresee it affecting the city. Swett says emerging technology, like better optical sorters and screens, will deliver a cleaner product. But if he’s wrong, Boston’s romance with single stream could come to an unhappy end.
ANOTHER WAY CITIES increase recycling and decrease trash is to offer recycling for free but charge for the rest based on volume, a system known as pay-as-you-throw. “If I had to name two or three silver bullets in recycling,” says Collins of the Container Recycling Institute, “that’s one of them.” Hit people in the wallet, and they’ll think twice about throwing those tuna cans in the trash.
About 25 percent of Massachusetts residents live in the 137 municipalities that currently use the system. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which is pushing to implement pay-as-you-throw across the state, people using the system recycle 15 to 25 percent more and throw away 30 to 45 percent less. (The state’s Solid Waste Master Plan reports that we’re running out of landfills; capacity in 2010 was 2 million tons, and by 2020 will be 600,000.)Continued...