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Shades of Green: Recycling in Fayetteville – Part 3

landfill recycling

by Sydne Tursky

For Bridges, the idea that curb sort is too difficult is the easy way out.

“From what all I’ve experienced going to city hall, the alderman and those who support single stream seem to frame their backing of single stream around what people won’t do,” Bridges said. She believes that with education, we could get people to recycle more and sort their own recycling, thereby lowering the cost of collecting and sorting it.

While the thought is noble, the single-stream pilot proved that people value convenience, and the city has no plans to require residents to fully sort their own recycling. Pugh thinks it is inevitable that a private company will set up a single-stream facility in northwest Arkansas in the next few years and contract with multiple cities to sort and sell recyclable materials.

From an economic perspective, it’s the sensible thing to do. Curb-sort recycling costs the city $326 per ton of recycled material. According to the pilot study, single stream would only cost $183 per ton. However, allowing a private company to set up shop and process the single-stream recycling at a MRF means the city would lose the revenue it makes from selling recyclable materials – $800,000 last year alone, Pugh said.

It’s a trade-off, and I quickly learned that the recycling business is full of such decisions.

“The simplest way to explain the trade-off is quality versus quantity,” said Rob Kaplan, managing director of Closed Loop Partners, an investment platform that focuses on sustainable consumer goods and recycling technologies. “If you don’t have single stream, you will hit a ceiling of participation. You will have a higher quality commodity coming out of your recycling system, but less of it.”

For Kaplan, the issue is a no-brainer. Single stream makes sense because it leads to more materials recycled overall. Since Fayetteville aims to increase its waste diversion, we need to send more materials to recycling plants and fewer to the landfill. Quality is more or less irrelevant – who cares what it’s worth, as long as it isn’t at the dump?

The kink in the plan is that recycling is a business, and cities expect to make money off the recycling they collect to balance out the cost of collecting it. That’s why I can’t recycle my guacamole container; because it’s made differently than bottle-shaped plastics, it can’t be recycled by the same process, so end users aren’t keen to buy it. Because they don’t pay much or don’t want it at all, Fayetteville doesn’t try to recycle it – recycling is still just a business, relying on supply and demand.

The problem with the recycling business is that many cities that operate single-stream recycling are now paying to recycle, instead of the other way around, and single-stream sorting facilities are also in the red because the recycling they produce is of such lower quality than curb-sorted materials, as reported by the Washington PostSince China stopped accepting recycling from the U.S. last year, prices for this lower-quality feedstock have fallen even further, because domestic end users don’t want it.. Some cities, like Seattle, have been forced to landfill recyclable materials because they couldn’t sell it following China’s “Green Fence” initiative, according to a recent Seattle Times article.

Read: Shades of Green: Recycling in Fayetteville – Part 1

It’s a conundrum, and one Pugh is aware of. His hope is that when a company sets up a MRF here to accept single stream, an increase in recycling will balance out lost revenue from reduced quality feedstock. Kaplan thinks that the market will stabilize in the next year as more domestic end users crop up and begin processing single-stream feedstock, filling the hole China left. Then, single-stream cities might be able to stop losing money. It all hinges on business, and the single-stream recycling market seems to be more susceptible to market shifts than curb-sort because of lesser quality – just ask cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., who have been paying to recycle for years now.

Pugh said that recycled mixed paper is basically worthless right now, but Georgia Pacific still bought 654 tons of the city’s paper last year for one reason – the company maintains a good relationship with Fayetteville because our recycling is so high-quality, and they want to keep buying our paper even after the mixed paper market improves. There’s a possibility that a switch to single stream and more contamination might make it difficult for Fayetteville to sell its paper and other materials, Kaplan acknowledged. Georgia Pacific was not available for comment.

It’s hard to determine which end of this deal is the best choice: more contamination, more recycling and the possibility that it might be harder to sell, or clean recycling in far smaller quantities. This decision doesn’t even take into account the environmental and economic costs of collecting, sorting and processing the recycling.

The issue is incredibly complicated. And as Fayetteville careens toward single stream and the competing factions argue, citizens with less knowledge of the inner workings of recycling collection struggle with smaller elements of Fayetteville’s recycling problems, like no apartment recycling.

Because of a lack of available space, especially at student apartments near campus, curb-sort recycling for apartments is not feasible. At complexes with hundreds of units, there would be far too many containers littering the side of the road, and the sorting would take so long that a garbage truck would be blocking narrow roads near the university for hours.

The only real solution for apartments is a version of single stream that excludes glass – residents can bring their recycling down to what is effectively a large dumpster in the parking lot, and no glass means far less mess. Seven apartment complexes have this type of on-site recycling – the rest of the dozens of complexes in Fayetteville are either unwilling to pay the per-unit fee for recycling, or they don’t want to give up their valuable parking spaces to a dumpster, said Tim Campbell, a recycling attendant at the recycling center on Happy Hollow Road.

Hannah Peck lives at Varsity House, which does not have any on-site recycling. Every week, she or one of her roommates drive their recycling down to one of the city’s two recycling centers and sort it. It takes time they don’t really have, but they do it anyways. Peck didn’t know anyone else in her apartment complex or any other that drove their recycling to the center.

It makes sense that there aren’t many people who do that – not everyone thinks as much about their impact on the environment, and everyone hates inconvenience. So when a lack of apartment recycling leads to thousands of people whose only recycling option is to drive their recyclables to a recycling center, it shouldn’t be a surprise that 29 percent of Fayetteville’s trash could be recycled right now, but it was sent to a landfill instead because it was more convenient than recycling, or residents didn’t know it could be recycled.

The city is working to improve apartment recycling, food composting initiatives and recycling education, Bunch said. These are important steps forward if Fayetteville wants to continue progressing as a regional environmental leader. It is undeniably good that the city recognizes and makes an effort to improve our recycling programs.

But the truth is, our city could be doing so much more. Pugh admitted that the 40 percent waste diversion goal is going to be incredibly difficult to meet, even with increased recycling education and composting. If, as Pugh said, Fayetteville wants to be the best at waste diversion, the easiest thing to do is mandate recycling to decrease what goes to landfills and recoup that 29 percent of lost recyclables. Many cities nationwide are already doing this, and far more, like taxing or banning plastic bags at grocery stores and restaurants, banning some materials that aren’t recyclable and mandating composting.

“There are so many more creative ways that we as a community in NWA can protect our planet and still go about our lives,” Bridges said.

Read: Shades of Green: Recycling in Fayetteville – Part 2. 

Santa Barbara, California, population 91,000 – Fayetteville has a population of about 84,000 – prohibits residents from throwing away recyclable materials, allows curbside recycling of batteries, provides services for residential composting and already requires at least a 40 percent diversion rate, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. If a city barely larger than Fayetteville can do it, why can’t we? Apparently, Fayetteville lawmakers are afraid to mandate anything because of the political ramifications, Pugh said.

Mandating environmentally friendly policies would be good for the environment, but it’s also critical for human health. Officials are afraid to offend conservatives by limiting personal freedoms, but if we continue to let the planet be destroyed, officials will have to limit personal freedoms anyways to make sure the human race survives, said Kendrick Hardaway, a University of Arkansas senior studying biological engineering and sustainability.

Issues like air pollution, plastic microbeads and global warming are already having massive effects on public health – pollution leads to asthma, microbeads work their way into the water and then into the fish we consume and global warming leads to more intense hurricanes.

Perhaps it even goes beyond recycling. Recycling is in no way a bad thing, but it also isn’t a solution to the waste problem.

“Recycling is good, but there’s only a limited amount of things you can take for recycling,” Pugh said. “What if you didn’t produce it to begin with? Then you don’t have to deal with it.”

I was bummed when I found out why the guacamole bowl wasn’t recyclable, but I was more bummed to realize that I shouldn’t have bought it in the first place. I should do every little thing I possibly can to reduce my own negative effect on the world around me, and that means limiting not just how much I throw away, but also how much I recycle. Before I buy anything, I should consider the cost of getting rid of it and think about something Taylor Bridges told me: “Every piece of trash you throw away is contributing to the heating of our planet.”

Fayetteville could implement this ideology too; politicians could stand up and mandate environmentally friendly policies for the sake of everyone and our planet. If the city aims to be environmentally progressive, it should be. Fayetteville will not be environmentally progressive until we recognize that recycling isn’t the only way to be green.

We have to start thinking beyond the guacamole container.

Click here to read the entire three-part series on recycling in Fayetteville.

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