Recyclying’s Flip Side – Part 2
In yesterday’s column we reviewed some basic information on recycling. We determined that while tossing our plastics in the blue recycling bin may make us feel as if we are saving the planet, it may be we are using substantial resources to produce products we buy back which are no longer recyclable.
Again, I want to thank and credit Rolan Clark for his thorough and serious research. As noted in yesterday’s column, Mr. Clark has requested information from various government agencies, but to date he has not received a reply. Please note that we will post many of our references; but one must realize that since this perspective has not been studied, we had to interpolate our findings.
Now, what about paper? We often fill the recycling bin with masses of paper products and assume that saves trees and uses fewer resources. While it is difficult to place specific numbers on just how much is actually accomplished. It does look as if the perspective is more a feel good idea than a reality.
For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 25% of the paper we toss into the bin is “discarded,” or sent to the landfill.* Also, this is not a clean process. Recycled paper comes to the reclamation pulp mill containing ink, glues, and other additives. This is where some of the numbers get difficult to nail down.
“When recovered paper is re-pulped, and often de-inked, at the recycling paper mill, considerable amount(s) of sludge are generated in amounts varying from 5 percent to 35 percent of the paper feedstock. Since these sludges are generated at an industrial site, they are considered to be industrial process waste, not municipal solid waste; therefore they have been removed from the municipal waste stream.” *
Why are these numbers important? Because “Nondurable Goods, including items we use once and pitch out as opposed to this things like a washing machine which is used over and over for many years – are very important when determining what is being handled properly and disposed. Although we read that the Internet and Talk Radio are pushing our printed press out of the mainstream, “[n]ewspapers are by far the largest single component of the nondurable goods category…” *
Hence, we need to keep in mind that paper products account for a sizeable quantity of both the recycling stream and the waste stream as well.
And, a final note, re-pulping paper requires some very caustic chemicals and lots of water. This effluent must be discharged; hence, we need to account for this additional waste stream and its effects on our environment. While some articles indicate less water is used and only hydrogen peroxide, that is not completely accurate. The water usage may be lower, but the pollutants in the process are higher. Chlorine makes for nice bright paper, but is being used less and less throughout the industry due to dioxins. It is still used in the recycling process for higher quality papers.
In short, tossing our “recyclables” into a blue bin is neither the end of the story, nor the magic solution that it is often described.
So, we have made some basic determinations of what may really occur once our trash is put into the recycling bin. But what’s next? Who uses these items, how robust is the market, and what happens to those items which are in fact recycled – or better put, made into new products?
Again, hard numbers are difficult to come by as this process is very poorly tracked. In general, we may achieve a 50% rate of reprocessing. But, more often than not, (especially with plastics) those new products are no longer recyclable and make their way back to our shores. In short, it is a one time reuse and not the continuous recycling of the product often portrayed. So, what really happens with the markets for these products?
First, we are at a point when markets for recycling are tenuous. It is estimated that 70 – 80% of our recycled paper and plastics are sent to China and other Asian nations. We will exam the implications of sending our waste to these nations in the next column. But, for this review, we need to consider the implications of “dumping” too much recyclable material on the Global Market.
“Paper recycling, like any business, is at the mercy of the dips and turns of the open market. Mixed paper is an example. According to published prices by Recycling Manager, the price of mixed wastepaper over the past three years has ranged from as low as $15 per ton to its current high of $55 per ton… Processing costs at the typical New York City paper recycling facility are of the order of $35 per ton. When mixed paper drops below those prices, recyclers are forced to either take a loss on it, or charge customers for its collection. Other grades of paper usually fetch higher prices than mixed paper, but follow a similar pattern of ups and downs. It is in this climate that paper recyclers must compete.” **
Similar findings occur for plastics. While this is not reason enough to not recycle, we must keep in mind that the true costs may well be higher than we believe. Not only may we need to spend more for storage until the market cost is reasonable, but we also need to recognize that we may have increased costs applied to us for filling our recycling bins. In short, we may see sizeable tax increases as our level of recycling increases.
In our final column on this matter tomorrow, we will describe some basic aspects of the carbon footprint for transporting our recycling – are we creating a larger carbon footprint than we are gaining by sending out our recycling. We will also look into some of the seedier side of what really happens in these nations to which we send our recycled materials.
* EPA – Municipal Solid Waste in the United States – 2005 Facts and Figures
** Analysis of Technology and Infrastructure of the Paper Recycling Industry in New York City – Scott M. Kaufman