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Single-stream failure

Largely, the failure with single-stream recycling of plastics led to the collapse of recycling we see underway in Albemarle and surrounding counties. 

Single-stream recycling refers to the commingling of recyclables into a single bin that is later sorted based on the type of recyclable at a materials transfer facility and bundled before being sent to various recyclers. The process originated in California in the 1990s and spread to communities across the country. By 2013, more than 100 million people were served by single-stream.

There were many advantages, initially. One being that it incentivized people to recycle more items since they didn’t have to pay particular attention to what they throw in the bin. It also decreased some hauling costs. No longer were specialized collection trucks needed for the presorted material. Virtually any truck could be used to haul the materials. 

The major disadvantage came in the contamination of the sorted material. This could greatly affect the price of the commodity.

Contamination occurred on two levels. First, because recycling was now so easy, it basically replaced the regular trash receptacle. People treated the recyclables accordingly and never washing them out. A large majority of the plastic, glass and metals that came through the sorting line were still filled with decaying matter or seeping gunk. This raised health concerns at MRFs and at recycling centers downstream. China deemed this the No. 1 concern when they decided to enact Operation Green Fence in 2013 and National Sword five years later.

The other contamination came from the sorting, in which plastics were not always properly separated based on their resin codes. Manufacturers depend on clean supplies of their particular plastic type, and contamination by another type of plastic was costly in both man hours to clean out and to production. More often than not, people tossed anything they perceived to be recyclable into the bin, causing increased costs at the MRF and further downstream.

One other disadvantage came from people tossing plastic garbage bags into the stream, something that was often discouraged by the MRFs. These simple little bags routinely would float into the mechanics of a MRF and break them.

While collections costs were generally lower and more people were participating in recycling, studies showed that processing costs, coupled with the high price of disposing of contaminated materials, greatly exceeded the cost savings. On average, single-stream costs $3 more per ton than when people presorted their recyclables.

Despite the rise of single-stream and the increase in recycling efforts, Americans only recycled 9.1% of their plastic in 2015, a time when China was still openly accepting container ships full of the stuff. While current data is only now being compiled, industry experts believe that plastic recycling may have shrunk to around 4% in 2018 and less than 3% this year.

According to data from the EPA collected in 2015, our plastic waste made up 13% of our garbage. Only paper and cardboard and yard trimmings accounted for more tonnage in our collective garbage cans. Plastic generation increased by 3.1 million tons from 2010 to 2015 while the other leading wastes shrank. Landfills are piling up with plastics, accounting for nearly 20% of the materials entering landfills.

Now that many communities around the country, including Albemarle, are limiting what plastics can be recycled, the question is, will it affect the amount of recycling citizens do?

In Old Trail, little more than 6% of the households opted to continue single-stream recycling at a greater financial individual cost. Now that single-stream recycling or even dual-stream recycling is nonexistent, it is up to households to take a round-trip journey of about 40 miles to sort and carry their recyclables that include plastics to the McIntire Recycling Center. Estimates show that perhaps only 3% of the community are continuing to recycle.

To understand how what happened in Old Trail is tied to China and what the ramifications are, we need to go back in time.

1869—First Polymer invented by John Wesley Hyatt

Intrigued by a $10,000 contest to develop a suitable alternative to ivory (billiards was big in those days, and it was taxing the natural supply of ivory). By lacing cellulose, cotton derived fibers, with oil from the camphor tree he was able to create a moldable plastic. It was touted as an environmental success, a savior of the natural world.

1907— Leo Baekeland develops first synthetic polymer. 

The Belgian-born chemist made a fortune early in his career when he invented the Velox, a photographic film that could be processed under artificial light.  By carefully applying pressure and temperature, he eventually developed what we know as the first moldable plastic. He called it Bakelite.

1935—Nylon was invented by Wallace Carothers at DuPont Experimental Station near Wilmington, Delaware.

Of all the polymers that Carothers was working on which also included Neoprene and Polyester, Nylon was the product that the company wanted to commercialize.

1939-1945—World War II necessitated a inventors, chemists and engineers to scramble to develop cheaper and lighter alternatives to glass. Plastic production shot up 300%, launching the Plastic Age.

1960—Dart Container ships the first order of Polystyrene cups

Demand and use of plastic goods grew as more baby boomers came into the world. Little to no study was done on the longevity of plastics, or how they broke down in the environment. Toys, cars, household items were increasingly being made with plastic.

1971—Ad Council airs a Keep America Beautiful public service announcement on Earth Day (known as the “Crying Indian” ad).

The tagline for the ad was “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Since plastic doesn’t disintegrate naturally very quickly, the garbage was piling up quickly. Landfills were overflowing and cities were trucking and barging their garbage to other states.

1980—Chinese manufacturing ramps up with its own industrial revolution. 

They would quickly become the world’s leading manufacturer, overtaking the US in 2010. They averaged more than 9% GDP annually.

1988—Resin Code developed by the society of Plastics to tell people what kind of plastic a product was made with. 

It would later be used for recycling efforts.

Shortly after, in the early 1990s, China was exporting millions of tons of goods the world over and importing practically nothing. Container ships would offload their goods in San Francisco and return empty, a money loss. Knowing that some plastics could be shredded and recycled fairly easily, they decided to fill those container ships with the growing mountains of plastic waste coming out of the West. They would get free material they could sell back and we would get rid of our junk. Win. Win.

Recycling was born.

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*Featured image by Stacey Evans.

Charlottesville Tomorrow