A quest to recycle a guacamole container uncovers the complex realities of being “green” in Fayetteville.
by Sydne Tursky
My research began with recycling activist Louise Mann. Formerly a teacher, she now does everything she can to advocate for environmentally friendly policies in Fayetteville. She hosts trash classes at the library and seminars about plastic pollution in the ocean. She personally pays a webmaster to maintain a website chock-full of information about recycling and current issues.
Now that she has retired, it just gives her more time to plague the city’s administration about environmental issues. While she’s happy to discuss virtually anything pertaining to waste reduction, perhaps nothing is so pressing to her as single-stream recycling, which Fayetteville’s city council has long tried to implement.
Fayetteville currently operates a curb-sort, or source-separated, program. Residents sort their recyclables into two different bins – one for mixed paper and cardboard, the other for plastic, metal and glass. When the recycling truck arrives, recycling workers hop out and further sort the recyclables into more specific categories – steel cans, aluminum cans, glass, #1 plastic bottles and #2 plastic bottles – which are then placed in different compartments in the truck and taken to the recycling facility, where no further sorting is necessary.
Single-stream recycling is basically the opposite of curb sort. Recycling trucks pick up containers with mechanical arms, the same way trash is collected, and all the recycling is dumped into the truck together. Then, it’s taken to the recycling facility and sent down a conveyor belt, where it’s sorted by various machinery or, in less technologically advanced facilities, by people.
Single-stream recycling is less time consuming for drivers and cheaper for cities. It’s more convenient for residents, who simply throw all their recyclables into one container instead of sorting them. It almost always results in an increase in total recycled materials because of that convenience factor – in a 2016 Fayetteville single-stream pilot study, the amount of recycling placed on the curb almost doubled.
But Mann believes that single-stream recycling will destroy Fayetteville’s recycling program. Because all recyclables are thrown together and tossed around during transport in single stream, glass gets broken and ground into a grit. Any water or food waste that remains on plastic, cans or jars can seep into paper and make it non-recyclable. And because residents can throw everything in, they pay less attention to what is actually recyclable. As a result, single-stream recycling always leads to higher contamination than a curb-sort program. The pilot study revealed an 18 percent contamination rate, up from Fayetteville’s current 2 percent rate for curb-sort recycling. That means 16 percent more recyclable materials were contaminated and had to be sent to landfills instead of recycled.
“People just throw [everything] in there because they aren’t paying attention because you aren’t asking them to,” said Taylor Bridges, a University of Arkansas student who often works with Mann on recycling programs and advocacy.
Contaminating recyclables makes them less valuable and is also detrimental to Fayetteville’s “green” reputation. The city is widely lauded for its super-low contamination rate and for the high-quality feedstock – the industrial name for recyclable materials – it provides for end users, or the people who buy the city’s recycling and make it into new things.
The first draft of the 2017 Solid Waste Reduction, Diversion and Recycling Master Plan included a switch to single-stream recycling, but Mann was not about to let that happen. She personally funded a huge advertising campaign to educate the city about the single-stream issue so they could pressure the city council to cut it out of the plan. The night that the city council voted, community members motivated by Mann showed up to voice their disdain for the switch.
On Feb. 21, 2017, the council cut the single-stream initiative and passed the rest of the plan to increase Fayetteville’s waste diversion rate – the amount of waste that is recycled instead of put in the landfill – to 40 percent, doubling the city’s current diversion rate.
However, the council didn’t cut single-stream because of community rage. In fact, many city council members still express hope that single stream could be passed in the future.
“I think it’s a promising approach,” said Alderman Matthew Petty. “It’s pretty clear that the city wanted it in general.”
Alderwoman Sarah Bunch agreed, though she was concerned about contamination.
“No one wants to recycle on the front end and then have it go to the landfill and not be used for anything,” Bunch said.
She said she hopes that technology will improve in the next few years and allow contaminated recycling to be more easily cleaned and processed.
Despite Mann’s attempt to block the city council’s decision with community opposition, the city’s single-stream pilot results refuted her efforts. A survey conducted among 300 households that participated in the pilot showed that 97 percent of participants said they found it far more convenient than curb-sort recycling, and 98 percent thought single stream should be available citywide, according to the pilot study report.
Still, the only reason Petty suggested single stream be cut from the plan was because northwest Arkansas doesn’t have a high-tech materials recovery facility, or MRF, to mechanically sort through single-stream recyclables once they are collected. Without a proper facility, single stream isn’t a responsible choice. But outside of that problem, the city council seems to think that it makes a lot of sense.
The problem is that, even when items that have been totally contaminated are removed, single-stream collection still results in lower-quality feedstock for end users. In fact, most end users are vocal about the fact that they prefer curb-sorted materials to single-stream materials. Ripple Glass, the company that processes Fayetteville’s recycled feedstock, prefers Fayetteville’s glass to glass from cities that use single stream because our glass is practically pristine, said Lauren Henry, regional program manager at Ripple Glass. In 2017, the company awarded Fayetteville the Glass Recycling Program of the Year award because our glass is so clean, and all thanks to curb-sort recycling.
Unfortunately, Fayetteville seems to be steadily heading toward single stream anyways. Source-separated recycling just isn’t sustainable for a city of Fayetteville’s size, Pugh said.
“That program, really to be quite honest, was designed for a city of max 30,000 to 40,000 people,” Pugh said. “Works really well, good clean material, but Fayetteville is exploding.”
Curb-sort recycling costs too much and takes too much time, so single stream is likely the way forward, Pugh said, though he noted that city officials have been instructed not to pursue single stream in any way at present.
Check back next week for Part 3 in this series on recycling in Fayetteville. For the entire series, click here.