Day 15: Oct. 28, 2009

February 18, 2010

I just spoke with my contact at Recycle America, a division of Waste Management. She is excited about what I am doing and wants to help; she just wants to make sure that I contextualize our conversations so things are not misinterpreted going forward.

Let me provide a quick summary of the role Recycle America/Waste Management has in recycling plastic packaging:

Waste Management collects materials to be recycled via curbside collection and community drop-off centers. This is a single stream system, which means that the individual must still separate it from garbage, but can now place papers, glass, metals and plastics together in ONE collection bin.  Once collected from the curb, the materials are brought to a recycling facility where they are further sorted: HDPE milk jugs are removed and bailed, cardboard, PET bottles and any other material that has a “home” are removed from the stream and designated to their specific bailing location. A home means that there is an end market for it. In other words, if there is not a buyer of this post-consumer material, then Waste Management can’t economically validate the separation and bailing of said material, which unfortunately is out of their control. As the educational tour guide explained to me, they want to find a home for every material; however, if the market is not there and there is no buyer, there is nothing they can do because the cost to bail and warehouse the homeless material exceeds the operational costs of the facility at this time.

So, while Recycle America accepts a lot of different materials for recycling, if there is no buyer, the material must be land filled. This ebbs and flows with the changing marketplace, however. The educational tour guide explains this relationship as follows: Recycle America is the distributor of post-consumer materials. They have contracts with different brokers who buy the bailed material and convert it into another usable product. Reclaimed plastic material gets sent to a plastic house, where it is cleaned and turned into flake or pellets to be sold to packaging material suppliers; reclaimed paper material gets sent to a paper mill, where they retrieve the fiber content and reprocess it into recycled paper products.

In a nut shell: Recycle America collects, sorts and bails materials post-consumer that have a home or an end-of-life buyer, like a plastic material supplier or paper mill. While Recycle America tries to find a home for every material, depending on the marketplace, some materials must be land filled. This too, however, must be put into context with the changing marketplace and the economics of supply and demand.

Now that we have contextualized the role Waste Management plays in recycling, let us turn to the email I received from the educational tourguide of Recycle America, which helps explain the complexities of recycling:

Chandler,

I very much appreciate your patience and so sorry that you had to check in again before I could respond (yikes – don’t ever tell me to take my time . . . it always gets away from me!!)

I also wanted to thank you for the kind words.  I do try to be as honest as possible (without being confusing) as I believe it is the only way we can all work towards the most efficient and effective recycling efforts.

I will answer these questions as best I can.

1. as you explained, you would like to find a home for every kind of material; however, that is not always the case because a material’s ability to be recycled is often determined by the quantity of material available in the waste stream. Watching the live feed video yesterday, I was startled to observe that no clamshells, blisters, or plastic packaging of any kind was making its way through your sorting system. Why is that? Is there just not that much plastic packaging out there, (which I find unbelievable), or, are these materials being sent somewhere else or just thrown in the garbage? If sent somewhere else, where? And if just thrown into the garbage, why?

Very good questions.  I’ll try to break this down based on what I know at this time. 

a)  Materials, like clamshells are changing.  Originally, many were #6 PS – now many are PET . . . (very hard to tell on our lines first) and as I understand it – it’s a recycled PET . . . our buyers are very specific in what they want IN these bales – bottle-form only.  WHY ???? I imagine it has to do with how these other containers process in the melting stage . . . I am no scientist but my plastic Rep can best answer this. 

b)   As for the volume issue – this is one of our biggest challenges with specific materials for our TYPE of facility.  Many things can get recycled but in a sorting facility like this one – VOLUME is key.  What might appear to the general public as a lot – is really not when you take a look at our tipping floor.  The open markets who buy our bales set the specs on what they want IN the bale (this is out of our hands).  If they do not want a certain material – like a lot of those clamshells, we would have to pull those.  If we are to find the soundest markets, it depends on gathering enough of a particular material to make a specific bale – then we need to make several bales to make a truck-load.  This is where it boils down to pure volume challenges.  We cannot just collect something for a while until we have enough of it.  That is why redirecting certain materials to smaller markets works good sometimes – but the CONSUMER has to do this part.  Future hope is to have enough of ANY material to make it’s OWN bale . . . all things take time and in the heart of the growing pains, there will be some casualties – while we (remember – just the middle sorting man) CONTINUE to work towards best-practices.  This is where the consumer can becomes more savvy and assist in finding a better home for it temporarily but what you will find is that many will not have the time to put towards this special attention – so we would rather they error on recycling with these things and let us figure it out.  A general 1-5 plastic is stated and we output as the market allows.  We have to be general with the public in literature as it would confuse too many things as these markets continue to ebb and flow.  But YOU, the packaging side needs to understand what the current challenges are and spec accordingly – make sense? 

c)  As far as these materials being sent somewhere else rather than coming in here – some unfortunately end up in a landfill simply because people will throw them in garbage.  Others will be mindful to check local markets for collectors of this stuff and others are simply making sure they are not using these containers – I cannot know for sure where all these are going. 

2.      If I want to attain my goal of being able to implement a recycling program for non-beverage PET flake in this region, where do you suggest I start? Should I begin a dialogue with all the plastic packagers in the region to find a way to reclaim our packages in order to divert them from ending up in a landfill? Should I begin with the local municipalities? Or with the waste management facilities?

YES . . . to ALL the above.  But I think you need to start from the outside and work your way up as a means of collecting facts about the challenging markets.  Start with our plastic marketing rep (I will provide an introductory email for you).  Pull off some of the local community / municipality guides and see whose collecting and marketing these in the area.  Check out sites like:  www.earth911.org , www.freecycle.com and see what those places are suggesting to their communities.  And YES, most importantly, take the gathered information of limited available markets and sit with your plastics packagers and CREATE an END MARKET and convenient collection options for these harder to place materials.  The creator of the package should step up to assisting in finding or creating markets for these materials.

3.        How do you feel about incineration as a form of waste management?

It’s one of a few great ways to manage solid waste.  We have our own called Wheelabrator.  They are incredible waste to energy facilities – but there are only 21 sites so far as the cost to build one has to be justified.  The filtration system alone is incredible – the air that comes out of those facilities is probably cleaner than what you and I breath now – they’re heavily monitored – check them out on our educational site:  www.thinkgreen.com.

Again – a great way to MANAGE waste.

4.      Today in the packaging world, there is a lot of marketing that positions one packaging material as more “environmentally friendly” than another; often this debate places paper in opposition to plastic. After performing several months of research on this debate, I have discovered that while plastic comes from oil (which is obviously not a renewable resource) and requires more energy to create than paper, it doesn’t release as many VOC and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as does the paper and pulp mills in the US. Therefore, it is a trade off and packaging material should be selected on a case-by-case basis depending on the application of the package. I was just wondering, where do you stand in the paper versus plastic debate? How can plastic packaging become more sustainable?

Yeah, I was getting ready to duck when that little debate started to air.  Please know that I respect individual passion pleas – I think the world needs to have passions in order to spur good works, it’s just passions need perspective in place or it usually ends up becoming ineffective.  I represent WMRA . . . and I also have my personal thoughts but in this “debate”, I believe my company would agree with what I am about to share.  I (we) cannot take sides.  NOT because I am not more passionate on one side or another . . . but rather because we all have to keep PERSPECTIVE.  There’s an argument for anything in life.  If I’m preaching about learning to spend energy better by making certain choices like recycling that spend energy smarter – I won’t waste my personal energy trying to ARGUE these points – you know?

Here’s the deal – NO package is perfect.  Nature – natural resources in and of themselves are perfect but the minute we start changing things and creating new things out of them, we alter how they will break down – period.  Any packaging has pros and cons to it’s production.  Sadly a lot of packaging should probably have never been created.  Old way of doing things never had this much packaging. REDUCE is the first part of the recycling structure yet no one pays attention to it. So, now that we are HERE, we have to work together to MANAGE what is on the market.  We have to work together to create effective recovery plans for EACH package.  And when packaging cannot be recovered – it needs to go away.   Sadly, we cannot simply just make one system disappear as it would cause negative overload in another area:  ONLY paper package would greatly deplete forestry – only plastic packaging would greatly impact petroleum . . . again just my take on things.

Okay, that is a lot of questions. I would love the chance to speak to you about this in person or over the phone. When is a good time to reach you?  

I can make myself available for a conversation but it will probably not be until next week – sorry – just packed full of tours.  Let me know if you have time next week and I will try to coordinate time.

If there is anything I can do for you—be it supply you with some of the research I have compiled on the sustainability of packaging materials, or speak to students about our sustainability efforts in the plastic packaging industry, please let me know.

I would love to take you up on this and will chat about this in detail when we speak.  Thank you for making yourself available – I not only enjoy learning more personally but find it necessary to be able to communicate effectively in these discussions.

Again, it was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to speaking with you again!

P.S. Could you please provide the contact information of your “plastic marketing guy?” Moreover, is there someone in your organization that could provide me with the contact information of someone in the local municipalities?

I will send you introductory email on both our contacts.  Hope this all makes sense.

Wow. That is a lot of really good information. Another bread crumb? I’d say several!

Tune in tomorrow to see where this information takes me!

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