Wednesday, August 06, 2008

To Sort or Not To Sort in the Twin Cities

The thought is a natural one for those going through the chore of sorting their recyclables: Do I have to do this?

It's a question that even recycling haulers can't agree on. And as recycled materials fetch higher prices, the stakes are rising as they compete for contracts.

The big national haulers, No. 1 Waste Management and No. 2 Allied Waste Industries, which handle collections for about 300,000 households in the metro Twin Cities, are promoting a "single stream" system where customers put all recyclables -- paper, glass, plastic and metals -- into one cart. People prefer the convenience, so they recycle more, these companies argue.

Some Minnesota recycling haulers, including Eureka Recycling in St. Paul and Randy's Environmental Services out of Delano, advocate sticking with the traditional "double-stream" system, where households sort their recyclables into two groups: separating the paper from containers of glass, plastic and metal. Maybe the big carts increase collections, but all those materials gets smashed together inside, making them unusable, they argue.

The disagreement resurfaces periodically, as local governments bidding out the pickup contracts get hit with both sales pitches. And last month, Allied Waste said it's sweetening the pot by offering store coupons as customer rewards, which it's testing in three markets across the country, including the Twin Cities. The more a household recycles, the more coupons it wins, redeemable at scores of retailers as varied as grocery stores, Ikea and

Looking for advice, cities went to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as long as two years ago. The agency commissioned a report, by Tim Goodman & Associates in St. Louis Park, but by citing pros and cons for each it resolves little. "Right now, personally, I would have to give the edge to two-sort, in terms of the quality of the actual recycled materials," Goodman said. "But people still have disagreements, and they feel very strongly one way or the other."

Americans produce an average of 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Minnesota is near the top of the states in recycling its trash -- at 43.2 percent of its solid waste, it is second only to Oregon. Market forces may start bumping up rates everywhere, however.

Commodities prices for the materials bailed or binned out of recycling centers -- to be remade into new water bottles, cans, and more -- are climbing steeply, with analysts citing once again voracious demand out of China. A ton of recycled newsprint in the New York market rose from $120 in January to $200 this month, said Mark Arzoumanian, editor of industry publication Official Board Markets. Comparable increases on the recyclables spot markets have aluminum priced at $2,000 a ton and plastics at $440 a ton.

That has haulers working to increase their emphasis on recycling, and the payoff is already showing up. At Allied Waste, for example, revenue from sales of recyclables rose 21 percent last year from 2006 to $257 million, according to its annual report.

Collecting coupons

One sign of Phoenix-based Allied Waste's growing interest in the recycling business is the new RecycleBank partnership that it's now marketing to metro-area communities. RecycleBank weighs the recyclables collections and awards store coupons to customers based on how much they recycle. Popular coupons among customers include local grocery stores, saving families as much as $20 a month on their food bills, said Ron Gonen, CEO of the Pennsylvania-based company.

Maple Grove is one community Allied Waste and RecycleBank have approached, because its current recycling contract expires at the end of this year, City Manager Al Madsen said. Madsen believes both the convenience of no sorting and the incentive program might appeal to city residents, and encourage recycling. And at least one resident agrees. "The easier you make it, the more people will do it," said Kristin Archer. And the coupons? "I totally think that when I'm considering whether to walk that tin can to the street, this would give me that little more incentive," Archer said.

Keeping it clean

Randy's Environmental Services just bet $8 million on double-stream recycling with a trash hauling and recycling facility it opened last summer. "The value of the commodities is better protected with the two streams," said Jim Wollschlager, operations director. "We just feel it's the better way of recycling."

The customers in Goodman's report agreed -- the paper mills and glass companies, for example, that buy the materials from recycling facilities. They told Goodman they're seeing a dramatic increase in contamination -- glass shards in paper and metal flecks in plastics -- that makes the materials worth less, or even worthless, he said.

On average, the report said, two-stream operations lost 6.4 percent of their materials to contamination, compared with 27.7 percent for single-stream operations. However, the buyers also told Goodman a lot depends on the facility, with some single-sort processors just as clean as the two-sorters. Wollschlager estimated Randy's at 3 to 4 percent. In an interview, Waste Management spokeswoman Julie Ketchum put contamination rates at its two Minnesota facilities at about 6 percent.

Still, many see a future of not less sorting, but more. One Burnsville household prefers more sorting. David and Mindy Limberg said they question how well their current single-source service really works. "It's easy for us, but I have less confidence all of it is getting recycled," David said.

In Wayzata, a Randy's Services client, residents sort "organics" -- such as food scraps, pizza boxes and full vacuum cleaner bags -- from their regular trash. City recycling coordinator Sonny Clark said Wayzata saves on dumping fees: $15 a ton for organics, compared with $50 for trash.

Minneapolis, which has residents sort their own recyclables into at least four groups -- paper, plastic, glass and metals -- earned $1.6 million on its recycling program last year, said recycling director Susan Young. "We were able to cover increased costs in fuel and personnel for 2008," Young said. "Water went up, sewer went up, and the storm-water fee went up, but the solid-waste fee stayed the same."

No comments:

Post a Comment