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What's Behind A Patchwork of Recycling Rules

Written by NPR: All Things Considered
Published: July 25, 2008

by Robert Siegel

Every week in my neighborhood of Arlington, Va., two trucks come through and make separate collections - trash and recycling. The arrival of the recycling truck is quite a spectacle: half municipal service and half extreme team sport. The truck heads down the cul-de-sac, the crew jumps off the truck, they grab the yellow plastic bins and the brown paper bags, and they dump them into two separate compartments of the truck.

What's mystified me for a long time is this: Why is it that the rules for how we sort and put out recycling in Arlington are different from the rules in neighboring counties? And why do the rules in Arlington seem to change every few years?

It turns out that recycling is kind of like voting. Every jurisdiction runs its own show.

On a recent Friday morning, Arlington's environmental programs manager, Mike Clem, showed up at my house to observe my recycling habits. Every week, I put all the plastic, metal and glass in a yellow bin. Then I put all the paper products out at the curb in paper bags. Clem tells me I can put junk mail, even envelopes with windows, cereal boxes and newspapers, all in one bag.

It turns out there's a name for this system of recycling. It's called dual stream. Put all the paper products in one place, then co-mingle all the rest. Co-mingle is recycle-speak for "throw everything else together."

Here's the theory: I dispose of lots of stuff. It either goes for recycling or it goes in the trash. Disposing of the trash is really expensive for the county. Recycling is less expensive because the county can sell some of the stuff for money.

So, as Clem told me, the best recycling policy is one that gets me to put less in my trash dumpster and as much as possible in my recycle bin. He says the most valuable items are the aluminum cans, and then the newspaper and cardboard boxes. The glass, he says, is almost more trouble than it's worth - there's not a good market for recycled glass these days.

Counties Try To Go Easy On The Recycler

Arlington County figures that the best way to get me to recycle is to make it very easy. I used to have to cut or fold the cardboard down to size and tie it with twine. But it figures if it's too laborious, I may get lazy and stick cardboard in the trash. In fact, Arlington is now eyeing an approach that makes recycling even easier than dual stream does.

It's called single stream, and it's the approach many jurisdictions are taking these days, including nearby Prince George's County, Md.

Again, the trash is separate, but all the recyclables - plastic, paper, glass, cardboard, metal - go into a single plastic bin and are all sorted at a state-of-the-art recycling plant that opened last fall.

David Taylor of the company Waste Management says the big upside to having everything thrown together is that you don't need a special truck with different compartments to collect it. Counties can use garbage trucks to collect the recycling, compacting everything just as garbage is compacted. In the past, recycling trucks could haul 2 or 3 tons per trip. Nowadays, garbage trucks can haul 8 to 10 tons of recyclables per trip, saving the county gas and money. And that explains why you might see a garbage truck hauling your recycling these days.

The downside to single stream is that despite the high-tech sorting devices, there is contamination. Quality suffers somewhat, and the end product sells for less. And, of course, it costs a lot of money to build a new, more automated recycling plant.

So some places are sticking with dual stream, keeping the paper separate from everything else. Neighboring Montgomery County, Md., is one of them.

On the day I visited its recycling center, it had other big news. County Executive Isiah Leggett announced that Montgomery was going to begin accepting a wider range of plastics at the curb, including tubs and lids. Until recently, the county only accepted plastic bottles.

Montgomery County's recycling center manager, Tom Kusterer, told me that until a few months ago, there was no market for those types of recycled plastics, but they've recently found clients who will buy the plastic to turn it into plastic lumber, plastic pallets and plastic flower pots.

Here's a catch with recycling: Once a county or a city decides to accept, say, plastic tubs and lids, it's pretty hard to tell people two years later - sorry there's no more market for that stuff. So these decisions tend to be for keeps.

The Paradox Of Recycling

Right now, there is a strong market for most recyclables and plenty of tax money to be saved by getting us to recycle more. Enough to keep Ron Gonen, chief executive of Recyclebank, in business. Recyclebank is a private company that contracts with local jurisdictions. So far, it services more than 100,000 homes and is expanding rapidly. Gonen's idea is to not just make it easy to recycle, but to make it financially rewarding.

He's developed a system that lets households earn points based on how much they recycle, and those points are turned into vouchers that can be redeemed at national and local businesses. Gonen says a family can earn as much as $300 or $400 in Recyclebank points in a year. In one Philadelphia neighborhood where Recyclebank operates, he says recycling went up more than tenfold in a matter of months.

Here's a paradox of recycling: Counties and other jurisdictions measure their recycling in tons, as does Ron Gonen's Recyclebank. But as Mike Clem of Arlington and the others told me, glass is the problem child in the recycle bin. There's not much of a market for those glass jars and bottles, which end up being ground into material for paving roads (as the Prince George's County people told me, at least it's just sand and nothing toxic). So is weight really a sensible metric when glass is much less valuable to the county than, say, aluminum but is also much heavier?

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