Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rethinking Single-Stream Curbside Collection

Guest blog by Helen Spiegelman, Board President Product Policy Institute

I think it's time to put forward the fundamental question of what materials are suited to curbside collection and what are not.  The widespread introduction of single-stream collection (collecting all recyclable materials mixed together at curbside, to be sorted out at a sorting facility) brought us face-to-face with the challenge of collecting glass with other commodities.  I think this is the thin edge of a wedge.

Some communities and haulers are now trying to get customers NOT to put glass in the cart.  Nevertheless, in practice lots of people continue to put glass in, either because they don't know about the new rule or because they really want to recycle glass...just like they put all sorts of other stuff that they really want to recycle into the cart, which must be pulled out at the other end and sent to landfill.  Bottom line, once you open the Pandora's box of "multi-material" curbside recycling you build in inefficiencies and problems (glass is just the beginning).

I think responsible operators of curbside programs should take a hard look at their actual operations and answer these questions:
-what commodities deliver the highest payload in the system?
-what commodities incur the lowest direct costs to the system?
-what commodities create the least problems (contamination, confusion, etc.) in the system?

My strong sense is that the answers to these questions will make a good case for operating curbside programs that collect PAPER ONLY.  As soon as you introduce other stuff, you have problems.  Problems for the customer knowing what's in and what's not.  Problems for the sorting facility (usually called the materials recovery facility, or MRF) cleaning up the materials.  Problems for the markets using the commodities.

I think municipal and commercial haulers need to be really clear about who their customers are.  You are supplying paper mills and plastic convertors with feedstock -- this is recycling's bottom line.  It is time to tailor the collection system to the needs of this market - not the so-called "convenience" of residents and institutional, commercial and industrial (ICI) customers.

It will be challenging to withdraw services to residents and ICI customers that they have become accustomed to -- especially when these services have been possible because they are seen as a community service, like libraries and public parks.  But the bottom line is that trying to be all things to all people has a cost and it's time we stopped ignoring that cost.  Curbside is a good system -- for some commodities.  Let's use it for what it's good for, and find something else for the other commodities.

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