The Truth About Recycling

As the Boston-area economy booms, buildings go up, and people have more disposable income to spend. More goods are manufactured and services provided to meet consumers’ demand. Under our current economic system, waste is a natural byproduct of this economic growth, despite having environmental, social, and economic costs. To put it in perspective, in 2013, it was estimated that Boston’s economy generated enough trash to fill 74 Fenway Parks. The Cities of Boston , Cambridge and Somerville all have strategic environmental plans in place that involve diverting trash from the landfills or incineration. Since it is difficult to motivate people to curb their consumption habits, this mainly entails recycling or organics programs.

If you are a resident, university, or commercial business in Boston, Cambridge, or Somerville, your recyclables more than likely will end up at Casella Waste Systems’ materials recovery facility (MRF) in Charlestown, MA. The plant handles around 230,000 tons of zero-sort recycling annually, otherwise known as single stream. Despite being one of the leading MRFs in the nation, Casella faces an array of challenges processing Boston area recyclable material.

One can imagine that there are high operational costs associated with running a MRF, and whether or not they can cover their costs depends, primarily, on how much they receive from their buyers on the commodity market. Unfortunately, price volatility in the market is a given, and materials like metals, glass, cardboard, mixed paper, and plastics have been experiencing a decline since 2012. Even industry giant, Waste Management, has shut down one fifth of its recycling facilities since 2014, as a reflection of this downward trend.  Still, “recycling programs that collect many different materials may experience less revenue volatility over the course of an economic cycle,” said Dr. Jeffery Morris with Sound Resource Management. When commodities are actually doing well, there is some revenue left over for municipalities and processors alike to share. For example, Casella in Charlestown and the city of Boston have a “blended sharing” agreement. If revenue exceeds processing costs, this means that the two parties take an average of the revenue they receive for all the commodity types in single stream, and split the remaining 50/50.


Source: Sound Resource Management


The relationship between Casella and their municipal customers is complicated to say the least. A typical contract length between processor and municipality is short, as preferred by the municipality. In order to negotiate the optimal contract for both sides, there are agreed upon “best practices” that protect the MRF from bankruptcy when commodity markets dip, and the locality from losing their recycling processor. Collaboration and transparency between the two is paramount to a successful venture. Casella monitors each truck that dumps at their facility to make sure the material is good quality, and has a three-strike rule for those in which they find an unacceptable amount of contamination.

Some municipalities tell their residents that recycling is a “free service” when the reality is that it’s not.  Even if residents aren’t billed directly for recycling collection and disposal, the cost that the municipality has to pay haulers is usually embodied in the resident’s property taxes. “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch…” is the title of an article published by Chaz Miller, Director of Policy/Advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association, which he writes about a proposal by Charlotte, North Carolina’s city council to make curbside garbage free. “The lure of ‘free’ is powerful, especially for recycling. Most people accept the fact that garbage collection and disposal costs money. Yet some people seem to believe that recycling is automatically a moneymaker. They believe their [hauler or processor] can sell those recyclables and surely that revenue is more than the cost to collect and process them.”

In 2013, China, the world’s largest importer of recycled material, decided that the recycled material they were receiving from the U.S. in shipping containers was too dirty and contained too much residue. Chinese manufacturers were getting stuck with the expense of sorting out non-recyclables and disposing of them in their own landfills. Almost overnight, the Chinese government implemented Operation Green Fence to better enforce quality standards on imported recyclables. Casella’s MRF in Charlestown has since tightened their standards for material that they accept. Even with stricter standards they still discard around 75 tons of what they consider to be “residue” each year. Plastic bags tend to be the largest unacceptable item that they receive in number, and slow down the sorting process by getting stuck in machinery.

As mentioned in this author’s previous blog post, to the untrained eye, the material in Casella’s facility looks unsuitable for recycling, but in reality, it’s one of the nation’s best MRFs.  They manage to keep their average contamination rate to a low at 8% compared to a national average of around 16%. Also, partnering with local haulers, Casella engages kids at schools and community centers around Boston to teach them about recycling. Their machinery isn’t designed to separate contaminates from recyclables, but rather just sort recyclables, so it’s important to stop contamination from happening at the source.

Hard-to-recycle products with many different materials fused into one, is one example of a challenge in assuring high quality material that Casella faces daily. When manufacturers produce a product and its packaging, they don’t consider the environmental costs of disposal. There are currently no laws or incentives in place for manufacturers to feel responsible for the lifecycles of their products. Instead, the responsibility falls on the consumer to properly dispose of the item, and the MRF to try and recycle them the best they can. For example, one item that poses a problem for Casella, in particular, is the plastic Tide Pods Bottle for wash laundry. The pods are PET plastic, however the detergent bottle is produced from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). This is a completely different plastic all together, and the two cannot be mixed together when shipped to a plastics mill.

In 1983, Massachusetts passed the “Bottle Bill.” This placed a five cent deposit on most PET plastic bottles and aluminum soda and beer cans, which are two of the most highly valued materials in Casella’s recycling stream. Instead of throwing their empty cans and bottles in their recycle bin, people have the opportunity to return them at their nearby redemption center to receive the deposit. Even when the empties are thrown in the curbside recycle bin, there are people who collect the cans and bottles for the deposit, and will most likely return it before it is transported to the MRF. Many people consider this policy to have done a good job in creating clean high-quality recyclable material, which can then be sold for more revenue, but this has yet to be proven. Unfortunately for a MRF like Casella in Charlestown, this takes away a large fraction of their own revenue. In order for Boston residents and businesses to have recycling pick-up and processing, it is in their best interests to assure that Casella’s MRF in Charlestown is financial healthy and operating at full capacity. Otherwise, the city would be without a convenient option for other recyclables (i.e. paper, plastics #1-7, cardboard, other ferrous and non-ferrous metals, etc.)

What does the future of recycling hold for MRFs, like Casella in Charlestown? The composition of materials in the average ton of recycling is ever-changing. Today, newspaper and steel are becoming less and less likely to enter the stream, and corrugated cardboard is becoming more prevalent, as consumers do more of their shopping online and have boxes delivered to their door. Disposable plastic water bottles used to be made sturdier, but now are made light-weight and flimsy to save plastic and transportation costs. Ultimately, for MRFs, this means continuing reinvestment in technology and on-the-job training in order to process the industry’s “evolving ton.” This, like many other areas of operating a MRF, will have associated costs involved. For Boston citizens who value recycling, it’s important to stop taking it for granted. This means dedicating more time to assuring a clean stream, and the necessary resources to make sure our local MRF continues to operate. Otherwise, we risk the chance of losing our recycling program, and losing our status as a forward-thinking progressive city.



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