Monday, June 22, 2015

"Recycling" vs. Real Recycling

Interesting article in the Post today about the woes of the American recycling industry, which is losing money despite subsidies from local governments:
Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system. . . .

Many of the problems facing the industry can be traced to the curbside blue bin — and the old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be. Anyone who has ever tossed a can into a bin knows what’s supposed to happen: Anything recyclable can go in, and then somehow, magically, it’s all separated and reused.

The idea originated in California in the 1990s. Environmental advocates believed that the only way to increase participation in recycling programs was to make it easier. Sorting took time and was messy. No one liked it. So-called Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs, were created to do what consumers wouldn’t.
And the mechanical sorting done in such plants does work to a considerable extent. But it doesn't work perfectly, so the products that come out are contaminated and therefore of lower value than pure paper or aluminum would be. Glass is a particular problem:
From the start, it was hard to argue that glass should have been allowed in the curbside mix. It’s the heaviest of recyclables but has always been of marginal value as a commodity. In the rough-and-tumble sorting facilities, a large share of it breaks and contaminates valuable bales of paper, plastic and other materials. Today, more than a third of all glass sent to recycling facilities ends up crushed. It is trucked to landfills as daily cover to bury the smell and trap gases. The rest has almost no value to recyclers and can often cost them to haul away.
For some products, especially cardboard and aluminum, recycling saves so much energy that it is always a good idea. For others, such as steel and paper, it saves enough to be worth doing most of the time. But for others, especially plastic and glass, there just isn't much environmental value to recycling. I have always been dubious of the "recycle everything" approach, because burying some things in landfills isn't really so bad, especially when you consider the energy used trucking all that heavy glass around the country. I would rather see us focus on recycling the things that are worth recycling, and raising the value of the stream by having people sort it themselves. But I guess that would go against the value of getting everyone involved in recycling, so maybe in the very long run the current approach is better. It costs a lot, though, and it is not getting cheaper.


G. Verloren said...

The Japanese system for dealing with waste and recycling seems to work pretty well - but it does rely heavily on their ingrained cultural values of community and civic duty, with sorting being handled by individuals. (They even sort their garbage, not just recyclables.)

The curious thing about Japanese waste management is that it's all very ad hoc and patchwork - it occurs entirely on a municipal level, with wildly varying rules and requirements based on location, often detailed in pamphlets that are dozens of pages long.

Some locales have pretty simple rules, while others are hugely complicated and exacting - for example, requiring not that only trash of a certain kind be sorted into bags of a certain color, but that they be specially approved bags that might only be sold and accepted locally, and that one writes an assigned identification number on the bag with the correct kind of pen. Such rules are on the extreme end of the spectrum, though.

That said, there are certain aspects of the Japanese system that are worth looking at for adapting to our own. Certainly sorting out our garbage and recycleables would often be helpful, although our very different cultural senses of duty and community would get in the way of our motivating many people to do their part.

But there are other practical measures we could adopt as well. The Japanese incinerate much of their trash, which to our ears sounds like a terrible polluting idea, but they employ "fluidized bed combustion", which is a surprisingly clean, cheap, and space efficient way of burning trash - and they often pair it with Waste To Energy electrical production. And while burning trash isn't as good as composting it or recycling it, it's still much better than landfills. Almost 70% of Japanese waste is incinerated, while in America roughly the same percentage goes into the ground, where it will cause problems for generations to come.

They're also much better about giving people places to put their trash other than in their own homes or the curbside. Japanese communities all have outdoor trash collection areas, purposefully made accessible by foot to as many people as possible, and typically gated or netted off to keep out wildlife. Even the number of public trash cans themselves is higher, and certainly more varied to allow people to sort their rubbish even while walking around town.

Collection is also handled differently - while there's still the usual weekly pickup for certain types of trash that, the fact that people are expected to sort their garbage means that other less volatile waste can be picked up less frequently - some every two weeks, some monthly, and even some only one or two times a year.

That said, I again must emphasize the cultural aspects that play a massive part in Japan's waste efficiency. They, as a people, simply care more about their trash - in large part because they have no spare land to use for landfills, but also because they have very exacting societal standards of public cleanliness, tidyness, and avoiding wastefulness. If we were somehow able to import those cultural values to some degree, that'd go a long way toward helping us deal with our own tides of garbage.

leif said...

I wish thermal depolymerization (TDP) had or could take off, not with an emphasis on waste-to-gasoline as had been touted, but simply as a scalable alternative to incineration or landfilling.