The era of multiple recycling bins for cans and paper could
soon fade away, replaced by a "zero sort" alternative that
appears to be gaining momentum.
And that's exactly how things will play out if John Casella,
chairman and chief executive officer of Rutland, Vt.-based
waste hauler and processor Casella Waste Systems Inc., has his
way. His company runs 38 materials recovery facilities (MRFs),
of which six are already equipped to handle "zero sort"
recyclables that reach MRFs from curbside pickups. The East
Coast trash processor eventually expects to convert another 21
of its 38 facilities to the single-stream approach.
Rolling mills and paper mills don't need to worry about
substandard scrap quality, at least if they're buying from his
company, Casella said. "The notion that the quality of single
stream is not as good as dual stream is not correct. The
differentiating factor between a good single-stream facility
vs. something that someone is calling single stream is whether
they really have invested in technology to create a
high-quality product. We're seeing retrofits of anywhere from
$3.5 million to $5 million on an existing facility; the higher
figure is if you've got to do alterations for the
Optical sorting and sophisticated particle screens have
advanced greatly over the past few years, Casella said. Instead
of three plastic output streams, for instance, there are now
eight. Broken glass is the most worrisome contaminant, but even
that can be removed.
With no subcategories of recyclables at the home or business
generating the material, "you can right size the container.
Instead of an 18-gallon bin you put in a 65-gallon or 95-gallon
toter. You don't have the recyclables going into the trash by
midweek because there's no room in the recycling bin," he said.
"You bring up the participation (by households) and you bring
up the yield in pounds per home with that program."
One of Casella's MRFs processes recyclables from Cambridge,
Mass., which faces a decision on whether to go to single-stream
recycling when its current arrangements expire in mid-2010. The
minutes of the city's recycling advisory committee meeting,
posted on the Web, provide insights into the decision process.
One issue is that "revenue payments for recycling will decrease
because of higher sorting costs (with single stream). But if
trash tons decrease (shifting instead into the recycling
stream), the overall program will be a financial success," said
one guest from Boston's recycling bureaucracy.
The system might not fit the bill for all applications, but
with the right technology a true single-stream operation can
make the grade for the vast majority.
Waste Management Inc., the Houston-based giant of the trash
industry, began moving its MRFs toward single stream in
"It doesn't make sense quite yet everywhere, but it's sure
making sense in a lot of places," said Lynn Morgan, who
represents Waste Management in Wisconsin, where the company
recently reconfigured its Milwaukee-area MRF. "The technology
has reached the point where the task of sorting, which used to
belong to the waste generator, is being transferred to the
processing facility. Waste Management has mapped out a plan to
triple the tonnage that it recycles. One of the ways to get
there is by implementing single stream."
Other parts of the company's strategy include drop-off sites
for electronics and providing mail-in envelopes for compact
fluorescent light bulbs, which contain mercury.
The actual decision to switch to single stream generally
rests with municipalities or counties that carry out, or at
least oversee, the collection arrangements. The company's Waste
Management Recycle America unit tries to nudge communities in
"Typically we're seeing gains in household recycling of 20
to 30 percent," Morgan said, adding that it's much easier to
get businesses to recycle systematically with single stream,
particularly if a company's work force has a high turnover
rate. "It's difficult to train and coach people on more-complex
sorting systems. Single stream simplifies what employees need
to learn and what the janitorial staff needs to segregate. You
need just one large container at the loading dock."
Denver phased in single-stream recycling during 2005 and
2006. It was the region's pioneer in such a switch, so to get a
sense of how the change might play out it sent officials to San
Francisco and to Phoenix.
Charlotte Pitt, Denver's recycling program manager, said
there were four main reasons for the switch "Getting our
drivers out of the business of lifting recycling bins,
operating more efficiently, providing a container that made it
easy for us to participate and having the ability to add more
materials. We're very confident we made the right choice. We've
got more people to recycle more material. We're not seeing
injuries on our crews to the extent that we were."
Tonnage is up by 60 percent and the number of participating
customers has risen to 85,000 from 60,000 previously. Denver
residents don't get visited by recycling trucks unless they
solicit the service and request the necessary 64-gallon wheeled
Denver's 10-year MRF contract locks in payments of $33 per
short ton, minus an allowance for contamination. When prices
are unusually high, incremental revenue is split 50-50 with the
processor, calculated at year-end. That occurred in 2007 and
probably will again for 2008, thanks to high prices in the
first half of the year. But 2009 likely will be a different
story, opening with a profound slump in commodity prices.
While single-stream recycling is growing in popularity, some
operations require a more-stringent stopgap. At times,
middlemen need to be involved, as has been the case with
aluminum cans, where traditional scrapyards sometimes play a
role between the MRFs and the sheet mills.
"Mills are getting pickier," said a spokesman at
Chicago-based Universal Scrap Metals Inc. "The quality issues
become more important in economic times like we're in right
Some MRFs with adequate equipment run their lines too fast
to achieve the results that mills seek, he said. "I'm usually
buying bales of finished product from the MRF, breaking the
bales and reworking them through our cleaning system to make
them mill spec. We pay only for the aluminum that we recover
and we don't pay mill prices. But it's a no-hassle option for
people on the waste-hauler end." After all the eddy currents
and magnets and cleaning, the processing line ends with a human
check workers peering at the material to spot anything the
machines might have missed. PAUL