Many Americans have been drilled since childhood that separating the paper, plastic, cans and bottles from the trash is an unequivocal benefit for humanity. With the help of an extra bin on the curb, the thinking has gone, much of our waste can be saved from environment-choking landfills and put back into a closed-loop cycle that slashes our carbon foot print.
But the math has always been more complicated than that, and it’s never been simple to turn trash into gold.
The high cost and carbon footprint of recycling programs, paired with falling prices for even the most valuable recycled products (such as aluminum) has led Jonathan Greenspan (former operator of the San Miguel Area Resource Recovery Transfer Station Park recycling center in Illium that closed in January 2015), to go so far as to declare that “Recycling is dead in America.”
Greenspan is not alone in his pessimistic outlook for the future of recycling. Indeed, even at the dawn of America’s recycling boom New York Times journalist John Tierny was critical of the concept, concluding in a 1996 article that “Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups – politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations – while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems.”
In October, Tierny wrote again in the Times, to declare, “when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.”
Studies show that the energy consumed by a recycling plant versus one that produces the same materials from virgin materials is typically lower and the green house gas emissions are generally less, but the full recycling process – from your home to a sorting facility to a processing plant to a market – can reduce and even reverse that benefit.
The benefits of recycling are further tempered by the recydling industry’s financial woes as it struggles to sell what it reprocesses. Because of the inherent inefficiencies, margins are narrow and businesses survive only when they are subsidized by pickup fess.
In rural areas such as Colorado’s Western Slope, the benefits and costs of recycling are strained further by long transit distances and low population densities.
Bruin Waste Management and Waste Management currently haul much of the Western Slope’s recycling to sorting facilities in Montrose. Both carriers are vying for a contract for Telluride’s residents that will be renewed in April 2016.
At a pre-bid meeting for that contract on Nov.12, members of Telluride’s town staff and council discussed with representatives from both companies how to increase efficiency and make the process more commercially viable in this challenging climate, but the discussion was overshadowed by a harsh reality.
In recent months, the price of aluminum, typically the most profitable recyclable, has fallen from $.80 to $.37 per pound.
Todd Brown, Town Council member, concluded that recycling, “is not economically feasible or carbon footprint feasible in Telluride.”
“I think it will turn around again. Hopefully in my lifetime. But the reality is that we have been saying that for years, and it just hasn’t gotten better.”Telluride Environmental and Engineering Division Manager Karen Guglielmone
Telluride wasn’t always so sour on recycling.
Back in 2008, Greenspan opened the nonprofit SMARTS Park with a vision of sustainable, local and environmentally friendly recycling for the region. His vision hinged on finding local uses for recycled products. He dreamed of grinding our glass to melt snow and lay the base for new roads. Paper could be mixed with yard waste and turned into compost to replace the loads often brought from Canada. With the right technology and governmental support, our garbage could even be turned into electricity as is done in Sweden, he hoped.
But that vision never matched the market in the region. Even as Greenspan poured money into the project, he was never able to get enough demand or volume sustain the business.
In mid-2014, Greenspan started laying off his 52 employees. By January 2015, he had closed SMARTS Park altogether. “When it doesn’t pay the bills, you have to take the shortest journey out,” he explained.
Greenspan estimates that there are still 150 bales or 112 tons of sorted recyclables in Illium that will now go into a landfill.
SMARTS Park isn’t the only facility that has run into trouble. “Talk to people all over the country and they’re fighting the same fight,” said Lance Benninghoff, Public Sector Solutions Manager at Waste Management.
The problem is that it simply does not pay to recycle.
“It all costs money. It’s all equipment, time, labor,” said Chris Trosper from Bruin Waste Management – and the free market has rarely supported those expenses.
Recycling has trended up across most of America, with 30-35% of the nation’s garbage being recycled in recent years, but that has not made the industry profitable. Labor costs have steadily risen over time while the cost to manufacture raw materials has declined, cutting deeper into recycling’s margins.
Profits have been buoyed at times by foreign markets, but those markets have recently dried up.
These economic challenges have pushed recyclers to consolidate around large, centralized processing plants that can process high volumes of material and efficiently ship it around the globe.
But as the industry has worked to survive financial twists and turns, it has trended away from its original goal of environmental preservation.
A ROCKY START
The American recycling system began in a crisis in 1987 when the Mobro 4000 barge wandered from port to port in the media spotlight, searching for a dumping ground for Long Island waste. To many, it seemed as if the country had run out of landfill space and soon we’d be buried in garbage. That assumption was never close to the truth, but it quickly spurred governments and individuals into altruistic action to build a more efficient society.
Why couldn’t we just turn a bottle back into a bottle and today’s New York Times into tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal?
We do have the technology, but the return on its use is not always strongly beneficial.<
Aluminum saves 10 tons of CO2 per ton of recycled metal versus the original production process. So, reprocessing cans is significantly beneficial and is also one of the few products that has been profitable.
But reprocessing glass saves only .34 tons of CO2 per ton of glass. The savings of glass is easily offset by other carbon-intensive parts of the cycle ranging from transporting a ton of glass to rinsing each bottle with hot water (if you run on the San Miguel Power Association grid, 99 percent of your electricity comes from non-renewable sources).
On the other side of the recycling process, consumers of the newly minted goods are often far from their source. China, for instance, is the largest consumer of American recycled paper as the country grows with relatively little local timber.
Moving post-consumer goods to the best market can thus consume an added glut of resources.
“The model is a failure out of the gate,” said Greenspan, “and it gets worse when you’re in a rural area.”
To start with, says Heather Knox, Executive Director of EcoAction Partners, “It’s not economically viable.”
Recycling in small communities around the Western Slope means sending trucks farther afield from sorting hubs in Montrose or Denver in order to get enough material from the low density population to make collection worth the effort. And then those sorted goods still have to be shipped long distances to processing plants or buyers.
Beyond that, recycling machinery tends to be built for larger plants, limiting range of what small parks can process and thus profit from. This forces them to ship recyclables to hub processing facilities, ballooning costs and carbon footprints.
And, now and again, bears knock bins around and add inefficiency to pick up times.
Trosper from Bruin Waste Management estimates the recycling makes his company, “like a penny a pound, if that.”
Contamination of recyclables additionally hampers profits in our region’s system.
In our single stream process, everything goes in the same bin, which makes our lives easier and has been consistently shown to increase recycling rates, but it causes problems down the road.
We don’t always put the right things in the bin, particularly in Telluride where there’s a high turn over of residents and tourists that makes education difficult. Dog waste, diapers and plastic bags all end up mixed in with recycling, slowing down the manual sorting processes and bogging down machines.
Additionally, glass tends to shatter somewhere between the time when you crack the lid off of a cold one and when the bottle gets to a plant. That makes the manual sorting process an extra order of magnitude more difficult and dangerous, increasing labor costs further. But glass shards also embed in cardboard and get mixed up in cans, entirely removing their ability to be recycled and thus eliminating their value.
So, contaminated loads are often simply taken to the dump where it’s cheaper to get rid of the mix than to try to untangle it.
Bruin reports an average 10 percent contamination rate, while Jonathan Greenspan had to throw out 20-40 percent of his loads costing as much as $228 per day.
That cost for Greenspan was loaded on top of $640 to process every 16 yard truck of recycling. Once processed, those recyclables don’t go straight to a market but have to be stored until enough accumulates to justify the cost of trucking them around the country. With paper at $5 per ton or cardboard at $45, it might take a year to build up enough stock, says Greenspan.
“We all think that, because we recycle, we’re environmentalists, but that should be the last step. As far as our carbon footprint goes, reducing our consumption or increasing our reuse of goods would have a vastly larger impact than continuing to eke out a recycling system. You look at all the stuff we’re using one time, and it doesn’t make much difference if you throw it away or recycle it.”San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May
All of these factors contribute to tightening the margins for our region’s recyclers, making them more vulnerable to market fluctuations.
For Greenspan, the beginning of the end was in July 2014, when Bruin Waste Management’s recycling facility in Montrose burned down. SMARTS Park agreed to shoulder the extra material while Bruin found a new location, but, Greenspan says, the government subsidy to pay for that work moved more slowly than the added expense of processing the waste. That small hiccup pushed his tenuous business over the edge.
This financially tenuous situation pushes waste collection companies to optimize for cost rather than environmental impact.
“We’re more into efficiencies, especially in rural areas,” said Benninghoff of Waste Management.
For instance, neither Bruin nor Waste Management has invested in the technology to rigorously track the items that move in and out of their facilities.
“We need some way to measure whether we’re making an impact or not, and right now we don’t have one,” says Todd Brown.
“Short of putting in several million dollars for tracking equipment, we can’t get real data,” Karen Guglielmone, Telluride’s Environmental and Engineering Division Manager, explained at the Resource Recovery Pre-Bid Meeting. “We’ve always suspected that the carbon footprint was a wash at best.”
Greenspan doesn’t sugar-coat the situation, saying, “I think there’s a lot of greenwashing going on.”
With the current national strain on recycling, Telluride is considering eliminating some of the less profitable and efficient recyclables from the process, including some plastics and glass. But, there’s concern about backlash from the general public.
“We’ve got 50 years of heritage of trying to teach people,” said Todd Brown, and he can’t imagine turning against that effort.
“A lot of people in the region follow what Telluride does,” said Ross Ward, Bruin’s Recycling Manager. And that adds gravitas to the Town’s recycling decision moving forward.
There’s a chance that developing local uses for recyclables could still reverse the trend. Bruin is stockpiling glass hoping that a market emerges for ground up shards, but the challenge is that sand can be used for the same things and, said Trosper, “There’s sand everywhere.”
For now, he said, the only thing keeping local recycling alive is the fact that consumers pay for the service.
“I think it will turn around again. Hopefully in my lifetime,” said Guglielmone. But, she added, “The reality is that we have been saying that for years, and it just hasn’t gotten better.”
“We all think that, because we recycle, we’re environmentalists, but that should be the last step,” reflected San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May. “As far as our carbon footprint goes, reducing our consumption or increasing our reuse of goods would have a vastly larger impact than continuing to eke out a recycling system. You look at all the stuff we’re using one time, and it doesn’t make much difference if you throw it away or recycle it.”