Rx for Baltimore recycling: New thinking, not shiny new carts
Much of what residents now put out for recycling is so contaminated it winds up at the incinerator anyway. But it doesn’t have to be that way. [OP-ED]
Above: Montgomery County asks residents to separate materials, putting plastic, glass and cans in one bin and paper/cardboard in the other. Many jurisdictions are switching to this “dual stream” recycling approach. (montgomerycountymd.gov)
Baltimore’s recycling program is getting what appears to be a $4.6 million windfall – a grant from a consortium of beverage, packaging and chemical companies and a no-interest loan from a private equity fund.
Together with $4.9 million in city dollars, nearly $10 million is going toward the free distribution of lidded, rolling recycling carts to 205,000 households, together with a public education campaign.
Trumpeted by the Brandon Scott administration as a “unique and groundbreaking” public-private partnership to modernize Baltimore’s recycling collection, this huge investment is, actually, a lost opportunity.
That’s because the structure of the city’s recycling system – outmoded and inefficient – will remain the same.
Rather than asking residents to separate their recyclables, Baltimore has a single-stream system in which all materials, such as paper, glass and plastic, are mixed into one container, dumped into a truck, crushed with hydraulic power and then dumped onto a cement floor for “processing.”
The processing happens 14 miles out of town at a Waste Management Inc. facility in Elkridge, and the outcome is mediocre at best.
Contamination with non-recyclable items runs as high as 30% with an average of 24%. (The company uses the material as a free source for daily landfill cover and internal landfill roadways.)
Baltimore pays extra to ship this low-value mixed material. Worse still, the city is polluting more than it has to – the contaminated discards wind up at Wheelabrator’s BRESCO incinerator in South Baltimore.
Recycling’s New Math
When Baltimore and other jurisdictions moved to single-stream recycling a dozen years ago, glass was said to be worthless. But glass recycling has seen a resurgence in recent years.
Consisting of 20-25% of the recyclable stream, glass cannot be recovered for sale to industry because the current system cannot get glass clean enough for industry to use. (The company uses the material as a free source for daily landfill cover and internal landfill roadways.)
But the industries that need glass-derived products are clamoring for more. Demand for recycled glass is insatiable for construction, bottles, insulation and abrasives.
Overall, recycling’s cost-benefit math has changed. The benefit of single-stream recycling (increased participation) is being offset by its cost (ever more un-recyclable recyclables).
Recycling’s cost-benefit ratio has changed, and more communities are switching to dual-stream recycling where separated materials are picked up at the curb.
A huge blow to the current system came a few years ago when China stopped accepting contaminated recycling shipments from the U.S. altogether.
Recognizing these realities, communities like Hoboken, N.J., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., are switching to dual-stream recycling. Right now, in Montgomery County, Md., separated material is picked up at the curb.
Residents are told to put mixed paper (newspaper, cardboard, etc.) into the wheeled, blue recycling cart or in a paper bag, cardboard box, or bundle with twine. There’s a smaller blue bin for commingled materials such as glass/plastic/metal bottles, jars, cans and containers.
How to do it
To be sure, a move to dual stream would take phased-in investment by the city and education for residents. But it would allow for real recycling, and move Baltimore a giant step forward towards the goal of “zero waste.”
There are several ways to do it, such as using every-other-week collection of specified materials or using compartmented trucks. Organic collections from households, another step toward zero waste, can also be integrated into this system.
Households would put their paper in the rolling cart. This is the heaviest part of the recycle stream. Workers wheel the cart to the truck and a mechanical arm tips it into the truck.
Other materials that are more lightweight, such as empty beverage containers, would be lifted by hand into the truck. There are new cart-and-bin units that help workers move through the process swiftly.
With source separation, people power can replace high-cost, inefficient sorting systems.
In this way, source separation, which takes two minutes per household per week, reduces the costs of processing and increases the market value of materials. People power replaces high-cost, inefficient sorting systems.
If initial processing were to take place within the city limits, Baltimore would be able to ship high-value bales of plastic, paper, metal and trainloads of glass cullet directly to mills in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina.
Developing in-town processing would potentially bring 20-40 jobs to the city. There is ample space to develop a recycling facility that can contract directly with end users and cut out the middlemen.
Or the Department of Public Works could contract with private processing companies.
Long-term contracts with floor prices and revenue sharing would benefit both the public and private sector as the availability of a regular flow of secondary materials will attract new companies to the city or region.
Already, laudable efforts are underway to promote the in-town processing of compostable organic materials.
The South Baltimore Community Land Trust in Curtis Bay, for example, has been pushing Baltimore government and institutions to develop local infrastructure that will take food out of the waste stream where it is a major contaminant.
Moving to dual-stream recycling makes economic as well as environmental sense for Baltimore.
In nearby New Jersey, materials processing companies offer a steep discount – $30 to $40 per ton – for deliveries from dual-stream systems. (Contamination levels at well-run processing plants are 5%.)
The Association of New Jersey Recyclers and the New Jersey Recycling Market Development Commission are preparing survey data and analysis for cities and counties to help them plan a transition to dual stream.
At well-run processing plants, contamination levels are as low as 5%
The change will require resources. But capital investments such as Camp Small, Baltimore’s wood and street debris enterprise, show how beneficial even a small investment in infrastructure can be.
Perched on two acres near the Jones Falls Expressway and Cold Spring Lane, Camp Small earns money for the city, provides free landscaping materials for parks and saves tens of thousands of dollars in street clean-up costs, all the while supporting the regional woodworking industry with valuable lumber.
Rather than shiny new recycling bins, we need a smarter approach to how we fill them and what we do with the contents. That’s how we’ll move away from our current burn-and-bury system, saving money and creating jobs along the way.
And maybe, finally, we can put the BRESCO incinerator out of business.
Neil Seldman is the executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a non-profit research and technical assistance organization focused on decentralizing the political economy. A co-founder of ILSR, he directs its Waste to Wealth Initiative.