On the surface, single stream recycling offers the ultimate convenience to consumers who want to do their part to help planet Earth.
Water bottles, newspaper, aluminum cans — single stream acts as a catch-all for almost everything emblazoned with a recycling symbol.
But that doesn’t mean it all gets re-used.
Sometimes, the recyclables that consumers take the time to separate with the hope of keeping them out of a landfill end up exactly where we don’t want them.
And single stream recycling may be to blame.
The inter-mixing of materials in single stream, coupled with a depressed market that offers little profit but demands a higher quality product, has made it more expensive for recyclers to process the material and harder to sell it.
Sometimes it’s not even possible, and when that’s the case the material can end up in a landfill.
“If it’s not clean, it’s not going to sell,” said Beth DeNardi, recycling coordinator for Luzerne County. “If you give them a clean product, they can use it.”
According to state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader, single stream recycling hasn’t resulted in an increase in the rate of contamination, but the amount of marketable recyclables has declined.
That’s due, in large part, to changes in the international market.
“The method of collection — single stream — is causing significant problems with the type and quality of material being collected,” Shader said.
The combination of a depressed market, increased processing costs and lower quality, or contaminated, material has created a perfect storm where sometimes it’s just not feasible to put some recycling on the market.
There are instances where it simply ends up in a landfill.
“At the rates that some haulers charge, it’s probably hard for them to do anything with it other than dump it somewhere,” said Frank Nockley Jr., a partner with Northeast Cartage in Hanover Township. “The landfill isn’t to blame because trucks come in there all day long. It’s almost impossible to police it.”
But is it illegal for a hauler to dump a load of recycling in a landfill?
Yes and no.
Shader said recyclable materials collected by a municipality or hauler must be taken to a recycling facility. Once it arrives, facility operators can reject material if they determine it’s not fit to process.
“But materials collected as recyclables cannot be simply disposed of in a landfill,” Shader said.
The Times Leader obtained photos of a County Waste truck dumping recyclables at the Keystone Landfill in Dunmore. Jerry Cifor, director of County Waste, suspected the photos were taken by a competitor trying to discredit his company, and he added the photo may be an example of a contaminated load.
“The picture clearly shows recyclables in it, but it also has black garbage bags in it as well,” Cifor said, noting that the truck in the photo was primarily used as a “chaser” vehicle that picked up missed customer stops. When recycling is placed in plastic bags, some processors consider it contaminated because it’s costly and time consuming to open and empty bags during processing.
The truck was sold on Sept. 21, 2018, but Cifor conferred with his local managers to obtain more background on the photos.
“We can only assume that the driver made a decision to landfill this load because it was highly contaminated,” Cifor said.
He said the load wasn’t dumped in the landfill out of convenience because County Waste has a transfer station for recyclables 15 minutes away from the Keystone Landfill. The split, automated trucks used by County Waste typically drop off garbage at Keystone and then take recycling to the nearby transfer facility. From there, it goes to Tremont, Schuylkill County, before it’s hauled to a processing facility in Virginia, where the material is sorted by commodity and put on the market.
Cifor said loads of un-usable recycling are taken to the landfill “occassionally” but added it’s an exception.
“The only person that can make the determination if a load is too contaminated is the person who actually picked up the material all day long,” Cifor said. “The driver will normally let our dispatcher know that he is diverting a load to the landfill versus one of our transfer stations.”
“It is actually pretty rare for a load of recyclables to be identified as contaminated and diverted to a landfill.”
Shader said any recycling that is deemed contaminated or rejected from a facility and ends up at a landfill can’t be counted toward a municipalities tonnage report that is submitted to the state for performance grants.
Cifor said any loads that are diverted to a landfill are counted as municipal solid waste (garbage) for reporting purposes. Only that material which actually goes through County Waste’s recycling facility is counted as recyclable.
And with today’s depressed markets creating a low demand, it’s not always a financially feasible option.
Cifor said County Waste invested $10.5 million in its Virginia facility. Included in that cost was the installation of two additional optical sorters, a step that Cifor said was “painful” financially but necessary in order to adapt to today’s stricter standards for a quality product. China, which had long been the biggest market for recyclables from the United States, has become increasingly selective as a buyer, often turning away any load with a contamination rate as low as .5 percent. Some recyclers such as Nockley and Cifor said China isn’t taking anything at all, making the international market even more restrictive.
Cifor said the new market standards has raised the cost of processing recyclables on a per ton basis while the value of processed recycled material significantly decreased.
When asked if it would help cut down on processing costs – and possibly the amount of recycling taken to a landfill – if County Waste had a recycling facility in Pennsylvania as well as Virginia, Cifor said money is the issue.
“You need about 275-300 tons per day of single stream recycling to justify the investment necessary to meet today’s recycling quality standards,” Cifor said. “We currently handle about 120-140 tons per day in Pennsylvania.
“We will have our own MRF (materials recovery facility) in Pennsylvania within the next three years, but we need to grow into an investment of this magnitude.”