Talking Trash

by Richard T. Stuebi

Ever wonder whether recycling really works? Or, how it’s done? Last week, I found out — by touring a material recovery facility (MRF) operated by Waste Management (NYSE: WMI).

The process in an MRF is pretty straightforward. The recyclable materials accumulated from various end-user disposal points — for households, this would be curbside bins — are trucked into the facility and then dumped. The materials travel along a maze of conveyor belts, along the way being sorted by various means — mechanical shaking, blowers, magnets, and even some manual labor — into an increasing number of streams: paper, cardboard, clear plastics (e.g., water bottles), colored plastics (e.g., milk bottles), clear glass, colored glass, aluminum, other metals, and general refuse.

General refuse is then trucked to landfill (f.k.a. dump) for disposal. The other items are each quality-checked checked (97+% purity) and then compressed, for sale and delivery to processors to convert the material back to a state in which it can be reused.

I always wondered why phone books aren’t usually recycled, and now I know why: their bindings often jam the machinery, which causes lots of downtime and equipment repair expense. Apparently, newer equipment is being made today that can handle phone books. (A better answer is for phone books to stop being printed. Tell me, when you need to find a company to buy a product or service, would you rather use the Yellow Pages, or the Internet?)

The important point here is that, with an MRF of this type, the citizen isn’t required to separate out recyclable materials into different baskets depending on the material. All recyclables can be dumped into one bucket, and the recycler will take care of sorting it out. To me, this eliminates one of the key obstacles to recycling: the burden/hassle of having to maintain and manage multiple containers of recyclable material.

Something in excess of 40% of all disposed material can be recycled, so if you or your community isn’t recycling, this is unnecessarily contributing to landfills, while also taking prime resources out of the pool of future supplies, needlessly accelerating depletion rates.

The tour I took is one that every citizen, and especially every schoolchild, should take. Upon entering the MRF, I was greeted with an odor I hadn’t encountered since handling weekend trash duty in my college dormitory. By no means is it a pleasant smell. And, it’s not very pretty to see the incredible volumes of refuse being sorted.

But, I think it’s important that responsible citizens know what happens to the stuff they buy, consume and dispose. To paraphrase one of Bill McDonough‘s zingers in his speeches, “When you throw something out, where is the ‘out’? It’s gotta end up here, on the planet, somewhere.”

Well, an MRF or a landfill is the “out”. The sights and smells are powerful reminders of the hidden but very real costs of a materialistic lifestyle.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director at Early Stage Partners.

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