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Q & A

Can We Make Recycling Work?

Done right, recycling can reduce the environmental impact of the products we consume at every stage. But the ubiquitous blue bin for single-stream recycling obscures a set of tradeoffs and challenges, including contamination that complicates processing and lowers the value of recyclable materials. In addition, the economic model for recycling was shaken in 2018 when China stopped accepting most foreign recyclables. We talked to Robert Klee, a lecturer at Yale and the former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, about what we need to do to create a recycling system that works.

A materials recovery facility (MRF) in Philadelphia in 2017. Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
A materials recovery facility (MRF) in Philadelphia in 2017. Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Where do you put waste management in terms of its importance to the sustainability of life on this planet, relative to an issue like climate change?

It intersects with a lot of our major, broad environmental concerns—including climate change, land use, the health of our ecosystems, our oceans—when it goes wrong, when it’s done poorly, when it’s unregulated or unmanaged. 

And then there’s just the sheer volume. We are very linear. We dig stuff up, we use it once, and we throw it away. And all along that linear chain, you are extracting resources, which means you’re using energy, you’re creating greenhouse gas emissions, you’re processing it into materials, you’re building it into widgets, from your coffee cup, which gets used for 10 minutes, to the PVC pipe in your home, which gets used for 30 years. It has a residence time and then it almost always ends up having to be managed on the back end. And at all those stages there are water, energy, and ecosystem impacts. 

Now, roughly, the waste management side of things is 10 to 15% of our greenhouse gas emissions, if you look at it as a sector, which is largely looking at the landfills that are releasing methane, etc., mostly from organic waste. But it all depends on your framing. EPA estimated that over 40% of our total greenhouse gas emissions is from the products we use and the food that we eat and the packaging on it.

So it can be big. There’s a big opportunity to do better and to do much better at all those different stages.

How much does recycling help? Does it make fiscal sense?

Recycling does help at all stages of a product’s life cycle, particularly depending on how quickly and easily you can re-capture the material, to reduce dispersion, collection, and transportation costs. If you consider recycling broadly and add in reuse and other sorts of diversion from waste management, it helps even more. Any time that you’re finding a way to disassemble and reuse or refurbish and reuse, keep something actively being productive, you’ve avoided all of the previous life cycle steps that got to that finished product. And that’s a huge part of the chain. 

“You can avoid huge energy costs by grabbing that almost infinitely recyclable aluminum can and smelting it back down. With other things it can get more complicated.” 

When it reaches the end of its useful life and gets recycled, broken down into plastic or aluminum or whatever, there are other benefits. 

An aluminum can is a great example. There are huge energy costs to take bauxite, raw aluminum, and turn that rock into aluminum. You can avoid all of that energy by grabbing that almost infinitely recyclable aluminum can and smelting it back down. It goes right back into cans very nicely.

With other things it can get more complicated. They may have some additives or contaminants or other things that went along with them for their original use. They tend to get downcycled into a lesser-value product. A good example is the glass bottle that ends up as fiberglass. It’s a mixed, multicolor glass once it gets through all the collection machinery, but it still has value if you can capture it locally and have a fiberglass manufacturer close by, because glass is very heavy and every mile you ship it is a cost.

Ultimately there’ll be some things that aren’t easily recycled. With paper, eventually the fibers get too short to stick together. 

The variables are how much it costs to get that single, quality-consistent product segregated, collected, sent to an intermediate processor and to a final processor to get back into the starting unit for that new glass bottle, that new product. At all of those stages you need to watch out for impurities and watch out for the transportation costs and all those other things that’ll make the economics more challenging. 

What’s the relative importance and effectiveness of industrial-scale recycling versus household recycling, what we put in our blue bin?

There’s a whole lot of industrial or commercial-scale recycling that is really good and keeps things segregated. At the industrial level there are plenty of clippings and scrap and overshoot and off spec. It doesn’t get into the market. It just stays in that contained ecosystem. And that happens in commercial operations too, with office paper, cardboard and a few other things—we’re going to keep this stream really tight and collected and not let it get mixed in with the rest of the stuff.  

For household recycling, in the ’90s, there was an effort to get to the convenience of one big blue bin. It’s as easy as anyone would want. Just throw it in and let the system do the rest. 

There are a lot of things that are challenging about that. The things you throw in include glass, which is very heavy. It increases the weight and almost always breaks almost instantaneously when you throw it in the blue bin—and if it doesn’t break when you throw it in the bin, it breaks when it goes from the bin to the truck. Now you have broken glass in all the other streams of material. Glass is a rock, and that rock grinds up against all the Rube Goldberg belts and wheels in the equipment. It is making your finished product less valuable because it’s got some glass in it and it’s wearing out the machinery in MRFs, the material recovery facilities. 

Glass in single-stream has always been recognized as a big problem. There have been some policy interventions to try to either break it out into a dual stream or try to get the majority of it out of the blue bin. 

“The recycling infrastructure here in Connecticut was largely built in the early 2000s—and it was built for newspapers.”

The other blue bin problem is that recycling infrastructure here in Connecticut, in the Northeast, was largely built in the early 2000s. And it was built for newspapers. In 2000, in Connecticut, MRFs processed about 18 million tons of newsprint. That dropped to 2 million tons by 2015.

That is a radical shift, largely due to the iPad. And then you add shifts in consumer tastes—such as the Greek yogurt boom, which has flooded the MRFs with hard-to-recycle. and low-commodity-value, polypropylene—#5 plastic. Again, not what they were anticipating when they built the MRF infrastructure. And the coffee K-cup, which is even smaller, even more problematic—the smaller you get in the big blue bin, the harder to actually grab it and then more likely it will end up at the back end as a mixed contaminant with glass.

There’s glass at the end of most material recovery facilities—you can tell it’s glass because it make sounds like glass, but it’s mostly bottle caps and K-cups and other bits of plastic and small bits of paper in a sort of glass milieu. It’s almost completely unrecyclable at that point. 

The packaging people are constantly changing what they’re doing. So these machines have to try to shift as people’s tastes do, whether it be for individual-serve yogurts or coffee pods or whatever. 

Plus you add lightweighting, which is in general a good thing. When those original MRFs were operating in the 2000s, they would need about 48,000 or so plastic water bottles to get a ton of PET, which is a very valuable commodity. Water bottles have gotten really thin; they now need over 90,000 bottles to get the same ton.

Those thin water bottles are great in some ways. It’s less weight we’re driving around. Its overall lifecycle is better. But from the material-recovery point of view, they’re trying to find the commodities that are valuable enough to pay for the whole system. There are just a handful of things that, depending on where the markets are, are valuable enough to cover the cost of everything else. Those PET bottles were one of those things, but now they got to collect twice as many of them to get the same value. 

“The big blue bin is often taken as an invitation. ‘Oh, this lawn furniture is plastic—it must be recyclable. Or this propane tank; it’s metal. I’ll throw it in there.’”

And everything you just described with the broken glass and the little K-cups is actually the best-case scenario, when people are actually following what’s on the list of recyclables.

You bring up the topic of wishful recycling. Yes, the big blue bin is often taken as an invitation. “Oh, this lawn furniture is plastic—it must be recyclable. Or this propane tank; it’s metal. I’ll throw it in there. Or this rubber hose…well, I would guess rubber is recyclable. I’ll put it in.”

All of those things are big problems. Plate glass is another one. All those things are potential disruptors to the people who are working on the other end. Same with the plastic bags: Plenty of people put their recyclables nicely in a plastic bag from the grocery store and throw it in the blue bin. But that plastic bag wraps around all the wheels and gears of the MRF and requires them to shut down the line for 30 minutes every three hours and have someone climb in there and pull them all off.

What we did in Connecticut was to try to educate people about what really belongs, what’s in and what’s out. That’s a key part of this. To tell them that, yes, that plastic bag is recyclable, but only if you bring it back to a participating retailer. They take any bag, actually—bread bags, dry cleaning bags. All of those film bags are recyclable and they often get turned into things like Trex decking.

Do you think that given all of that, that the big blue bin is still the most effective way? Should we continue down the big blue bin path? Or go back to separate streams? 

That’s been the European approach to this. The challenge when you start making multiple streams is how many times you can drive around and collect it. Because you don’t want to start driving trucks six days a week. Or you need multi-capable trucks, which is a different sort of investment. There are some European communities that do a color-coded bag system. 

Where I struggle a little is that recycling is actually one of the few participatory environmental things we all do at a personal level. It’s something that our kids learn in school. It’s something that makes you feel like you’re doing something for the environment.

Now I think there are interesting tools to encourage better recycling and better overall waste behavior. Pay as you throw is one of them, which is in over 40% of the towns in Massachusetts, a number of towns in Maine, some in Rhode Island, and two in Connecticut. 

Waste is the last unmetered utility; for most people it’s buried in their taxes. When I had two young kids in diapers, I was generating huge amounts of waste, and my neighbors in their 70s were paying the same amount even though I had probably six bags of garbage and they had half a bag. That makes no sense. 

Pay as you throw is a way to actually bring in those normal incentives that have us turn off our faucet when we’re brushing our teeth or turn off the lights when we leave the room. You actually can manage your waste better and actually drive more things potentially into recycling streams or reuse streams or a composting organic stream.

With pay as you throw, you have a differential cost for everything that is in the trash. Waste costs more; the recycling is either free or, even after the China Sword policy, has a lower disposal cost than trash. That works in New England where the tipping fees for waste are still higher than they are for recycling. There are places out west with cheap landfills where recycling now costs more than waste.

You mentioned China. What was the role of China in the recycling system before the National Sword policy in 2018? And how have things changed?

They were the recipient of all of our junk. Particularly from the West Coast, there developed a symbiotic ecosystem in which ships filled with 40-foot containers would come here from China with Chinese goods, and they would need to get the containers back. Why not fill them up with our waste recyclables for the back journey? That seemed like a cheap and easy way to move our recyclable material to someplace that was willing to take it. At that point, China was ramping up and needed raw material and was willing to take almost anything, including things with perhaps 20% contamination, and do their best to process what they could. It was over 3,000 containers a day in 2017. A whole system developed in China to process all of the U.S. and other Western waste. 

Then China developed and had their own middle class, and said, “We don’t have to take this crap anymore.” In 2013, what was called the Green Fence imposed a 1.5% contamination limit on those containers coming back, down from 20% contamination, which caused a drop in the commodities markets and a glut of material stuck in the U.S. that needed to find a home.

Eventually they relaxed and things went back to normal. But then the China Sword came in 2018 with a 0.5% contamination requirement, which is literally almost impossible to reach. The highest quality still went to China, and most of what was normally flowing from the West Coast bled into Indonesia and India, and the Philippines, and then Thailand and Malaysia. So 90% of it was still getting managed and processed, but at least 10%—and it’s 10% of a large number—was stuck filling up warehouses in California, some of which was being landfilled. 

“Towns used to enjoy free recycling, or maybe even had a profit-sharing agreement. Now there is a flat cost for processing recycling.”

Some communities decided, “Yeah, we’re getting out of this.” They made the news, but it was only a handful, really. The majority of recycled material is still being processed, though now at a cost to the material recovery facility. They’re paying to get rid of it. They don’t make as much money for the few things for which there is still a value, because there’s now a lot of those things in the market.

That’s led those waste haulers and managers to have to renegotiate their deals with towns. Towns used to enjoy free recycling, or maybe even had a profit-sharing agreement where they would get $10,000 or $20,000 for whatever the commodity is sold for. Now there is a flat cost for processing recycling and that cost is $100,000, $200,000, $300,000. 

Things still get processed. They’re doing what they can—tweaking the design, slowing the equipment down, increasing the amount of hands-on to pull things out, to go after the highest value and really be very selective. “This has value—let’s focus on aluminum or cardboard or PET bottles and let most of the rest go.”

What can help make the system work again?

You could invest in different ways: new infrastructure, an infrastructure to pull organics out, new MRF infrastructure, things like robotics. Another big one is the European and Canadian approach, which is to put the responsibility for the end of life, particularly for packaging, on the producers of those packages, which shifts all the costs off the municipality and onto the original producer.

The maker of your coffee cup now has to think, “OK, this is a paper cup with a plastic lid. At the end of life I’m responsible for both of those things and their ultimate recycling and the government entity will charge me based on the materials I choose on the front end.” Those charges go to run a central organization that takes over the management of the collection and the processing. That can be an innovative approach that brings the efficiencies of businesses to bear, where they get rid of some of the inefficiencies of every town doing a different system. They can design a system that actually is good enough to get K-cups if that’s the thing that they want to get at.

As an individual, what should I be doing? Should I follow the recycling guide from the state religiously? Or is it better to pull certain things out and bring them back to the store? 

I joke that I only drink beer in aluminum cans. That’s my personal contribution to reduce the amount of glass in the system. 

I think from an individual perspective, get educated—really understand what goes in and out. Every jurisdiction that has recycling will have that type of information. It’s not always easy to find it. Find opportunities for reuse, particularly of things that don’t go in the blue bin. There are plenty of places for your textiles. They can go to Goodwill and even if they aren’t wearable, they will be recycled through the Goodwill system into carpet backing or filler. The plastic film bags, the bread bags, the newspaper bags—major retailers in Connecticut and I think elsewhere are willing to take those at the front of their store. 

And advocate for the pay-as-you-throw programs to create incentives to drive larger change. That’s a key missing ingredient.

Interview conducted and edited by Ben Mattison.

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