Waste Wise

Waste Wise: Recycling Recon

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Research suggests recycling numbers are lower and much more diverse than originally thought.

Compared to landfills, waste-to-energy (WTE) plants and composting operations, determining how much municipal solid waste (MSW) is recycled and how it’s managed has been challenging to get a handle on. While numbers from national studies and state agencies represent best estimates of recycled tonnage, very little additional information is provided, such as the composition of recycled materials, how the materials are actually managed and the geographic source of materials within a particular state. However, unlike landfills, WTE plants, and composting operations, most states do not require recycled tonnages to be reported and for those that do, most only require this information from materials recovery facilities (MRFs).

As a result, even the national studies only provide a partial picture. This hit home when I contacted a state recycling official to obtain raw recycling data that was provided to support a national study. The response went something like, “I wouldn’t use that data if you want to be accurate. The numbers we provided are just the available data we had and don’t come close to quantifying the recycling industry for the state.” Several calls with other state officials across the U.S. resulted in strikingly similar conversations.

Since this realization, EREF has sought to nail down this recycling data using North Carolina, the 10th most populous state, as a case study. The key objectives are to determine metrics such as: recycling tonnage, composition, number of facilities, type of facilities, geographical impacts, etc.

Preliminary findings estimate North Carolina’s recycling tonnage at slightly more than 1.04 million tons in 2011. This is 1.6 times higher than the 668,498 tons reported for the state in Biocycle’s 2010 State of Garbage Report. Viewed as an indicator of the national picture, this data suggests recycling may be substantially higher than what is currently being reported.

Of this 1.04 million tons, about 50 percent is processed by a MRF, defined as a recycling operation that receives mixed recyclable materials that require a significant level of processing such as sorting, picking, contaminant removal, baling and compacting. The remaining 50 percent of the recycling stream is collected and managed by a “non-MRF recycling facility,” a recycling operation that does minimal materials processing.

The majority of non-MRFs appear to primarily serve the commercial and industrial sectors, while MRFs receive residential, commercial and industrial recyclables. One effort of this study was to define where the recyclables were going, both to ensure materials weren’t double counted and to ascertain final usage. This showed that smaller non-MRFs tended to ship recyclables to MRFs while larger non-MRFs dealt directly with material buyers (e.g., paper mills).

What is particularly interesting is the decentralized nature and make-up of these two types of operations. While each respectively processes about half of the recycling stream, there are 22 MRFs in North Carolina compared to approximately 70 non-MRF operations. Thus, the average non-MRF is about one-third the size of a MRF. Further, about 75 percent of non-MRF operations appear to be smaller, local recycling operations rather than owned by typical larger waste management companies or municipalities. While not definitive from this study, these results suggest that it is these smaller, local entities collecting a substantial portion of the recycling stream rather than a traditional hauler. While MRFs tend to process the majority of the residential recycling stream, non-MRFs appear to manage a significant portion of the non-residential recycling stream.

Collectively, this effort demonstrates that significant gaps exist in current estimates of recycling tonnages and that very little has been reported on the size and state of the recycling industry. Further efforts are under way to characterize the recycling stream in the 20 most populous states, which should provide sufficient data to extrapolate on a national basis.

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Bryan Staley

Bryan Staley, P.E., is president of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, a non-profit foundation that funds and directs scientific research and educational initiatives to benefit...
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