Recycling's Own Boxer/Briefs Debate

The industry's split on the merits of separating versus “single stream.”

Seattleites are expected to get welcome news this week when the city announces details of its new garbage contract. In addition to weekly yard- and food-waste collection and more Dumpster-free alleys, the city intends to make recycling more convenient by letting residents put everything in the same bin, including glass. According to Hans Van Dusen, Seattle Public Utilities' solid waste manager, surveys around the country have shown that without the hassle of separating their junk, people recycle more. And while recycling plants charge more to process "single stream" loads, the city will end up saving about $1.5 million a year because haulers charge less when they don't have to empty multiple bins per household. Nevertheless, there's been a "huge discussion" in the recycling world about whether or not to separate by type, according to Dan Cantrell, executive director of the Washington State Recycling Association. And the number one sticking point is glass. "When glass breaks," Cantrell says, "the shards go everywhere." If glass gets into paper, for instance, it is either placed in a landfill or sold to mills, where it may be degraded in quality because of contamination. Offshore mills that buy paper from recycling plants use cheap labor to sort through bales and pick out glass and any other items that aren't supposed to be there. Domestic mills can't afford to do so, in light of First World wage requirements, and are therefore at a competitive disadvantage. "Part of the reason that domestic mills are going out of business is related to the drive to go single stream," Cantrell says. Then there's the question of why glass is even recycled in the first place. Unlike other materials, glass emits no dangerous gasses when landfilled. And whereas recycling plants can easily sell paper and other recyclables to manufacturing plants, "it costs us to get rid of glass," says Pete Keller, general manager of Rabanco Recycling. In 2005, Pierce County stopped curbside collection of glass because of issues like these. SPU's Van Dusen concedes the dollar value of recycled glass is minimal. But he says recycling glass saves energy that would go into mining sand—of which glass is made—and manufacturing new glass products from scratch. More concretely, it saves the city the cost of landfilling glass, which would be around $50 a ton. As for the quality of recyclables mined from the all-in-one system, the city is counting on a planned technological upgrade at city contractor Rabanco to help keep glass from corrupting other materials. However, Van Dusen admits the city doesn't know for sure that the products will be up to snuff, conceding that "the jury's still out."

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