Citizens taking action ~ Vancouver, Lower Mainland, and beyond.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Recycling retrenchment

Last April Zero Waste Vancouver posted an urgent comment about "single stream" recycling. This refers to curbside recycling programs that collect all materials -- paper, bottles, cans, plastic -- in a single container.

We cautioned that single-stream recycling is a bad idea because the materials lose value when they are all mixed up together. The perceived benefits (simpler for the public, larger quantities of material collected) are more than offset by the disadvantages.

The current economic downturn is putting communities that collect recyclables in a single stream at even greater risk.

Recyclers across North America are reporting that recycling markets are tanking. Because of reduced consumer demand, there is also reduced producer demand for recycled materials. This means recycling markets are becoming very picky about quality.

A consultant who works with recycling brokers just stated on a recycling listserv that "quality is a huge issue right now and commingled
recyclables do not hold as high a value than single stream collected."

Another consultant who works with the paper industry confirmed: "domestic paper mills are now able to drive down the prices they pay for fiber and they can now choose among sources for the highest quality. This means that single stream processors with commingled bales of fiber are in the weakest position and they're the ones scrambling for storage facilities because they're having trouble selling their materials. Clean, sorted fibers have the widest market options. Only a limited subset of mills can use commingled fibers, so the more processors that produce that, the more limited their options."

Even before the economic downturn, a 2002 study by Eureka Recycling in the US found: "Single-stream collection — where all recyclables are put in one container — proved to be more expensive because a lot of sorting is required before the materials go to market. It also resulted in higher contamination and more materials being thrown out."

Citizens need to inform themselves about the reality of recycling markets and educate the public and their elected representatives about the importance of keeping materials clean and separate.

Pic: Eureka Recycling

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