Recyclers are sorting out the positives and negatives of mixed-waste processing to decide if placing trash and recyclables all in one bin can significantly increase recycling rates, as proponents claim, while keeping scrap commodities clean and marketable, a worry of its opponents.
By Megan Quinn
It sounded like a win-win scenario for scrap processors, consumers, cities, and busy households: A process that would collect all waste and recycling in one bin, then send it to a facility to sort the valuable recyclables from the everyday food and residential waste. Households would no longer have to sort their waste from their recyclables, and communities would have fewer trucks on the road. Private companies take care of the recycling and waste separation so cities do not have to pay capital costs to build facilities. Recyclables would go on to further processing, while some of the remaining waste would be converted into alternative energy to power cars or office buildings, saving cities money and landfill space.
In cities where few residents recycle, proponents say such mixed-waste collection and processing automatically increases recycling participation and recovers recyclable materials otherwise lost to a landfill. Yet most efforts to operate such programs to date have been unsuccessful. An Alabama facility, touted as the high-tech model for the future, shuttered after just 18 months, citing low commodity prices for its closure. In 2013, Houston won a $1 million grant to help build a state-of-the-art mixed-waste facility, but that project has since stalled. In Indianapolis, city officials were excited for a new mixed-waste operation that would work in tandem with the city’s existing waste-to-energy facility, but the deal was mired in legal battles. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in February that city officials broke competitive bidding laws by extending a pre-existing contract instead of opening the process to other bidders. Other mixed-waste plants in places such as Ohio also have recently closed.
Despite the closures, proponents say the model offers plenty of benefits if set up correctly. Today’s low commodity prices may have hurt chances for mixed-waste operations to stay afloat, they say, but the concept is still viable for the future, as long as future business models can account for periods of low prices.
Opponents, however, say there’s another reason mixed-waste processing facilities have closed: The practice contaminates certain otherwise-recyclable materials because they are commingled with food waste or other refuse, which renders those materials useless for resale as scrap commodities. Because of that, they add, mixed-waste processing does not increase the amount of recovered material that is actually recycled, even if plenty of recyclable material flows through the mixed-waste facility every day.
(Just as recyclers have varied opinions about mixed-waste processing, they also have different names for the process: Some call it one-bin collection, while others call it a dirty MRF because it intentionally handles both waste and recyclables, in contrast with a traditional MRF, which only handles recyclables.)
With lawsuits, closures, and stalls on some of the biggest mixed-waste processing centers in the United States, recyclers and cities alike are wondering: What is the real future of mixed-waste processing?
Touting a Bright Recycling Future
When Infinitus Energy (Plantation, Fla.) rolled out its state-of-the-art, $35 million Infinitus Renewable Energy Park in Montgomery, Ala., in 2014, CEO Kyle Mowitz touted the program as a great way to increase recycling and create alternative fuel. With just one bin, residents wouldn’t need to worry about separating their recyclables from their trash—instead, the high-tech facility would do the work for them. Plastic, metal, and fiber would be pulled from the stream to be recycled, while some organics, such as food waste, would become a compressed natural gas product that would fuel city trucks. The facility promised to achieve an 85-percent recovery rate for recyclables by the time it was fully operational, and it hired about 100 people.
When the doors to IREP opened in April 2014, the city of Montgomery touted the instant results. Recycling participation levels, which had been about 32 percent, automatically increased to 100 percent, since anyone who was already throwing away cans and bottles was now sending them to a place where they had a chance to be recycled instead of going straight to the landfill.
In the first year of operation, word spread about IREP’s success. News outlets described the facility as innovative and cost-saving. “It was the poster child for the one-bin [approach], and it was held up as a model for the future,” says Scott Horne, ISRI’s counsel and former vice president of government relations. Yet the well-regarded facility closed in October 2015, just 18 months after it opened. So what happened?
Montgomery spokesman Griffith Waller says low commodity prices were to blame: IREP’s business model called for separating waste from recyclables, then selling the recyclable material on the commodity markets, but Infinitus couldn’t get enough money from the materials to keep up with the facility’s costs. Now that IREP has been shuttered, the city is working with Infinitus to transfer the facility’s title. Waller says IREP was good for the community because it significantly increased recycling participation, and while there’s no clear picture of what comes next, the city is optimistic about the facility’s future. “City officials have received significant inquiry from other operators and are open to proposals—especially those featuring efficient and cost-effective solutions,” he says. “We’re in the process of discussing those now.”
Susan Carmichael, director of the Montgomery Clean City Commission, an intergovernmental agency funded in part by the city, agrees that IREP’s strength was its ability to rapidly increase the city’s recycling participation rate. Montgomery and Infinitus worked hard to make recycling a priority, but in the end, the IREP model was flawed, she says. One problem was that the paper often was not clean enough to sell. “If you can’t sell your product at all, it doesn’t matter if there are [hundreds] of markets. ... You can’t have a dirty MRF and expect to sell your products,” she says. For the other recyclables, such as plastics and aluminum, Carmichael says a combination of low commodity prices and low volume made it hard to make the operation profitable. One reason IREP’s aluminum volume was low, she explains, was that some Montgomery residents chose to hold on to their aluminum cans and take them to a scrap facility so they could earn money for the metal.
Another problem was that the population is simply too small to generate the volume of recyclables needed for IREP to make a profit, she says. Montgomery has about 201,000 residents. In larger cities such as Indianapolis, with a population of 852,866, mixed-waste processing “may very well work.” Although she liked the idea of one-bin collection and mixed-waste processing in Montgomery, especially its convenience for residents, and she hopes a mixed-waste facility can succeed in the future, she says planners should consider how to increase recycling while also making money. IREP’s closure has left Montgomery residents with few recycling options, Carmichael says. Without mixed-waste processing, residents have to “go out of their way” to take their recycling to specific community drop-off points on the first and third Saturdays of the month, she says. She believes the best future outcome for Montgomery is to hire a private company to provide single-stream curbside pickup of recyclables.
Can the Numbers Work?
As Carmichael suggests, economic viability is one big factor in deciding whether mixed-waste processing is a good fit for communities. A study from the American Forest & Paper Association (Washington, D.C.), published in 2015, looked at myriad economic considerations behind one-bin systems. Elements such as a community’s size, its recycling rate, the recycling market, and disposal costs all factor into whether a mixed-waste model will be successful, it states. For example, a hypothetical community with a large population, low recycling rates, high disposal costs, and a period of high scrap commodity prices might find mixed-waste processing economically viable. Yet a smaller community that already has high recycling rates and low disposal costs might find single-stream recycling a better fit, especially if scrap commodity prices are low, it says.
Up-front costs are another factor to consider, the AF&PA study says. Overall, mixed-waste processing systems pose a higher up-front cost because they can require constructing custom facilities or acquiring custom equipment. Communities considering a mixed-waste model might want to add it to an existing single-stream or dual-stream recycling program. That way, residents still separate most of their recycled materials from their waste, but a mixed-waste processing facility can pick out any valuable recyclables that might have accidentally made their way into the trash, the report says.
Some recycling businesses, such as Sims Municipal Recycling (New York), believe mixed-waste processing could be an effective method for finding recyclable materials that do not make it into the recycling bin. It is considering investing in such systems in the future. “If you can take the waste that is left over after recycling programs, and extract additional recyclables, then you have avoided them going to landfill,” says Tom Outerbridge, the general manager. Yet Outerbridge is not recommending mixed-waste processing as a replacement for more traditional recycling programs.
Several recycling organizations, including ISRI, have issued statements opposing one-bin collection and mixed-waste processing as a replacement for other recycling programs. The main opposition has to do with the amount and quality of recyclable materials—namely paper—that can be sold as scrap commodities after going through the mixed-waste sorting process.
In 2014, ISRI released a policy statement that criticizes the one-bin approach, saying it jeopardizes the quality of recyclables because they are mixed with liquids, food, or other waste, which in some cases could destroy their value as feedstock for new products. If recyclables such as paper or plastic become contaminated, they end up being diverted to landfills or incinerators, which lowers recovery rates and hurts the environment, ISRI’s policy states. “Since the quality of the recyclables as specification-grade commodities is essential, ISRI opposes the commingling of recyclables with solid waste or mixed-waste processing in a one-bin system where all solid waste and recyclables are placed together with no separation prior to recycling,” it states.
ISRI’s Plastics Division, however, voted at the ISRI2016 convention in April to give the policy another look. Members of a new materials recovery facility group will discuss the position’s wording to see if it can clarify ISRI’s stance on using mixed-waste processing as a method for recovering additional recyclable material after other recycling processes, says Maite Quinn, business development and marketing manager for Sims Municipal Recycling. “It’s a very broad statement right now, and we were interested in getting into what that means. … I don’t think ISRI is against [recyclers] processing waste that is otherwise going to the landfill in order to recover recyclable materials,” Quinn says.
Even as some ISRI members dig into what mixed-waste processing could do to supplement existing recycling systems, others still say the practice is less than ideal. Horne says one-bin collection increases the recycling participation rate because more recycled materials enter the sorting facility, but that doesn’t mean more recyclables are recovered to be reused as new products. Many who tout the benefits of one-bin collection “only talk about the participation rate,” not the latter, he notes.
Other organizations that have opposed plans for mixed-waste processing include the Texas Campaign for the Environment (Houston), which protested Houston’s “One Bin For All” strategy. The program would have hired a private contractor to build and run the mixed-waste facility there. The group says mixed-waste processing unnecessarily contaminates otherwise clean recyclables. Another group, the Indiana Recycling Coalition (Indianapolis), protested a plan to build the Indianapolis facility. Executive Director Carey Hamilton says contamination is a key concern. Mill buyers and other companies that buy recycled materials want high-quality, clean feedstock, she says, and many are wary of the quality of materials that come out of mixed-waste processing systems. They look for sources that have a reputation for cleaner yields instead. “As the [recycling] industry has been focusing more and more on quality, that is a sign that one-bin is not a good solution for effective recycling,” she says.
The Paper Problem
Some opponents of mixed-waste processing say the practice is particularly harmful for one commodity: paper. Paper is a valuable commodity that has fared somewhat better than other commodities during the downturn in prices, Horne says. There’s a lot of it in a typical household recycling bin, too: The average bin contains 25 to 35 percent paper by volume, the AF&PA study says. That abundance of recyclable paper can be a precious source for mill buyers, Horne says, especially those who make 100-percent-recycled paper from specific feedstocks. But paper loses its commodity value once it gets wet or dirty. Some mill buyers are wary of buying paper that has come from a mixed-waste processing facility because of concerns about contamination during the recycling process, he says.
George Chen, president of G&T Trading International Corp. (Clifton, N.J.) and a past president of ISRI’s Paper Stock Industries Chapter, says his company does not trade paper that comes from mixed-waste processing facilities. Most of that paper ends up being “really horrible quality,” he says, and bales of paper from those sources are likely to be rejected by both domestic and international buyers. If his company buys paper from curbside-collected sources, it prefers to get paper from dual-stream collections. “Even single-stream [collection and processing] can’t always sort out paper well,” he says.
A recent survey Resource Recycling Systems (Ann Arbor, Mich.) conducted on behalf of ISRI confirms that some paper mills are not wild about buying fiber from mixed-waste processing centers. The survey collected opinions from 41 paper mill buyers in North America who source recovered fiber for their mills. Of those surveyed, 25 percent say they buy some material from mixed-waste processing centers, but less than 10 percent of their required tonnage comes from this type of center. Of the 25 percent that do buy from mixed-waste processing centers, 70 percent say the paper quality is worse than most other recovered paper, and 90 percent have had to downgrade or reject paper from that type of source at a higher rate than recovered paper from traditional MRFs, the survey says.
That leaves the other 75 percent of surveyed mill buyers who say they do not buy any recovered fiber from mixed-waste processing centers. The top reasons respondents give for not buying the material mostly cite quality concerns such as contamination, odor, or low quality. The material also has a higher level of prohibitives and outthrows than their acceptable levels or has too much moisture, some respondents say.
ISRI says the study is the first that specifically asked recovered-paper buyers about their ability to successfully use paper from one-bin programs, but RRS adds that the survey had a small sample size and should not be used as the only data point to form opinions about mixed-waste processing facilities.
Since paper is precious—and fragile in the waste stream—Horne says recyclers should have good methods in place to make sure paper is as clean as possible to maintain its chances of being sold as a commodity. Dual-stream collection achieves the best quality because paper products are collected separately instead of getting mixed with other recyclables, Horne explains. In places where dual stream isn’t available or possible, single-stream recycling—collecting all recyclables together—is the next best option, he says. One-bin collection of both recyclables and trash is the least effective strategy for preserving paper quality, he says.
Proponents of one-bin collection, however, say it collects a higher volume of paper products than other approaches. The AF&PA study supports that assertion using data from hypothetical city models: In mixed-waste facilities, “the processing equipment is capable of physically separating higher percentages of paper,” it says. The study says the quality of that paper cannot be guaranteed, however, and “there is not a strong market for soiled paper.” A single-stream MRF does a better job of producing clean, recyclable paper than a mixed-waste facility, even if those MRFs collect less paper overall, it adds.
There’s still some debate about whether or not mixed-waste processing negatively affects the quality of other commodities, such as plastics and metals, Horne says. Some recyclers have said the materials might be more contaminated than if they were collected from a typical single- or dual-stream MRF, but other recyclers have told Horne that plastics and metals can be cleaned more easily and aren’t as adversely affected, he says. AF&PA’s study says the most common plastics recovered in the mixed-waste stream, PET and HDPE, typically were recovered for sale, along with some other types of plastics, depending on the market. Some metals also were recovered and resold, but the study says a typical residential waste stream has only about 5 percent metals.
Mixed Waste Across the Country
While Montgomery goes through its post-IREP decisionmaking, other cities are making their own plans for mixed-waste facilities. In 2014, Indianapolis was on the brink of opening a new mixed-waste processing facility called the Covanta Advanced Recycling Center. The plan was to pair it with Indianapolis’ existing energy-from-waste facility, which Covanta has used to convert solid waste into steam power since the late 1980s. On its website for the proposed mixed-waste facility, Covanta promised Indianapolis residents an easy way to dispose of waste while promising to recover between 80 and 90 percent of recyclable materials. The facility would create 60 full-time jobs and increase recycling by 500 percent, Covanta said, plus the company would pay the full $45 million for the facility, leaving none of the capital investment costs to Indianapolis.
That deal has yet to go forward. In February, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the city violated competitive bidding laws when it awarded the contract to Covanta. Since then, Mayor Joe Hogsett has pledged to make any future negotiations or plans more transparent. Mayor’s office spokeswoman Taylor Schaffer says the Covanta deal started before Hogsett took office, and the new administration suspended the deal even before the court of appeals decision. Now, the city is “in the process of working through questions” the community might have. There is no timeline for when the city will announce a new plan, she says.
Hamilton of the Indiana Recycling Coalition says the court decision was a win for recyclers, who not only were left out of the bidding process, but also were left out of broader discussions about how to improve Indianapolis’ recycling infrastructure. Hamilton wishes the city had planned more public meetings and talked with recycling companies and organizations before rushing into the Covanta deal. “We don’t think a competitive process would have resulted in a one-bin solution,” she says. The coalition also protested the terms of the proposed contract, arguing it would have been difficult for other companies or organizations to propose improvements to Indianapolis’ recycling setup. If Covanta had won the contract in 2014, it would not have expired until 2028, “precluding us from having effective recycling solutions until after that time,” she says.
Hamilton applauds the new mayor for suspending the Covanta deal and helping initiate community conversations on recycling. In Indianapolis, only about 10 percent of residents recycle, “so we need to have a broader conversation about what we can aspire to,” she says.
Sorting Through the Future
In cities where few residents recycle, one-bin collection and mixed-waste processing still could be a good fit, says Carmichael of the Clean City Commission. Yet weak scrap commodity markets and changes in city leadership have affected the chances for mixed-waste processing to be effective so far.
In Houston, a city of 2.2 million with just a 6-percent recycling rate, even a $1 million grant and $50,000 of in-kind support from Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge has not been able to get its “One Bin For All” project off the ground—at least, not yet. In December, the city released a 10-page progress report that says the plan is still on the table. A contractor will privately finance the project, but no timeline has been set for when that might happen. In an interview with Houston Public Media in January, newly elected Mayor Sylvester Turner says he is not moving the project forward yet. Instead, he must focus on more pressing concerns: the city’s financial challenges—and its potholes.
Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.