The Recycling Mess

One of the many things I learned from my Dad was about recycling. Dad was a voracious reader of books and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the south Jersey Salem Sunbeam. Newspapers would accumulate on the basement stairway landing. Once a week or so, Dad would take the newspapers to the basement and stack them in a corner next to the furnace. The stack was straight as a pin. If a newspaper had some pages hanging out, Dad would unfold and refold the paper. You could place a level on the side of the stack and find it perfectly straight.

The Character Brothers owned a “junk yard” about a half-mile from our house. As I remember it, the yard included junked cars, scrap metal, and newspapers. My older brother would load his red Radio Flyer wagon with sideboards with newspapers and pull it the Characters’. What I recall, sometime in the 1950s, was occasional Saturday morning trips to Characters’ in a pickup truck Dad would borrow from his car dealership. We would make a lot of trips to the basement to fill up the pickup with the papers, and then we would drive to Characters’ right onto a large scale. Mrs. Character, who lived just two doors away from us, would give Dad the thumbs up from the window of her little office by the scale after the truck and papers had been weighed. Dad would then drive to the section of the yard where the newspapers would be converted into bales. He would back in the truck, and then we would heave the papers into the recycling area.

After driving back onto the scale, Mrs. Character would calculate the weight of the papers and give Dad the money. I don’t know what the price was. Currently, the price is about 50 cents per pound. It varies a lot based on supply and demand. When we got home, Dad would put the dollar bills in an envelope and the coins in a little barrel shaped bank. From time to time, Dad would take me to the bank where he deposited the newspaper money in a savings account for college.

Things are quite different today. Although awareness and intentions with regard to recycling are significant, global recycling is a mess. For decades, the United States sent most of its recycling on ships to China. The model was the recycled materials would be made into bags, shoes, and plastic products. That changed in July 2017 when China restricted imports of mixed paper and most plastics, effective in March 2018. A Chinese initiative called the National Sword changed their import policy to reduce the allowable percentage of contaminants from 5 to 10 percent to 0.5 percent. Contamination, for example, meant bales of paper which also contained pieces of metal, glass, plastic bags, etc. Waste-management companies across the country told municipalities there was no longer a market for their recycling. Municipalities had two choices: pay much more to get rid of recycling or throw it all away. Unfortunately, many opted for the latter.

Waste-management companies have since invested heavily in upgrading their materials recovery facilities (MRFs, pronounced “murfs”). The MRFs have adopted a single stream approach where the contents of all the blue recycling cans picked from neighborhoods get dumped onto conveyor belts where workers do their best to separate the various recyclables to try to reach the half-percent target from the Chinese wake-up call. They slowed down the conveyor belts to try to do a better job, but the problem is us consumers. Here is what knowable Magazine reported about the process:

The workers are all wearing yellow vests, masks and heavy gloves, but not just for Covid-19. Their job — and it’s a filthy, dangerous, smelly one — is to pick out all the items that rightfully belong in a landfill or incinerator: Dirty diapers. Garden hoses. Old clothes. Used hypodermic needles. Dead cats. Bowling balls. Filmy plastic bags that will tangle in the sorting machines. Cartons of sour milk that will foul everything they touch once the containers inevitably burst open down the line.

It sounds hopeless, but technology is coming to the rescue. Robots don’t mind filthy, dangerous, smelly jobs. With the addition of AI and computer-vision, the robotic arms are continuously learning about the sizes and shapes of various items. Suction cups on the end of robotic arms suspended over the moving conveyor belt can pre-sort the stream of recyclables and put them in the appropriate bin. It is not perfect, but it is getting better.

Just like the basic responsibilities we can adopt to reduce the Covid-19 spread, we can have a big impact on recycling by following local guidelines on what can go in the blue can. It is not only responsible, but it makes economic sense. If municipalities can’t get good returns from the waste-management companies because contamination is high, the municipalities will have to raise taxes.

knowable Magazine published a very comprehensive article, “Recycling meets reality”. I highly recommend reading it. If you want to see the robot arms in action and how single-stream works, watch the video Rethinking Recycling.






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