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Into the Loop
The processor turns “trash" into commodities that are ready for
the United States. In total, recycling processors in 1991 handled more than 75 million tons of post-consumer scrap materials and sold these commodities to end users at a combined value of $14 billion.
This is an historic industry, for recycling processing has occurred ever since we began to use paper and metals. Much of the paper made in the 1700s and 1800s in the United States contained high levels of post-consumer fiber, primarily old paper and rags. Similarly, we've always collected scrap metals for recycling. For example, George Washington owned several scrap metal processing sites.
To portray how collected materials are converted into industrial commodities by the recycling industry, let me summarize how some specific materials are handled.
• Plastics. Just as there are many kinds of paper, plastic products are made from numerous resins. Each has unique features in terms of rigidity, density, strength, etc. Thus, a mixed lot of scrap plastics is relatively useless. The scrap plastic processor employs mechanical and manual techniques to assure that a load of old milk jugs, for instance, contains only these containers and no other plastics or other materials. Sorted plastics are then shredded, washed, and pelletized before shipment to a recycled plastic
• Glass. Glass containers are commonly sorted by color before shipment to a processor. The processor uses mechanical techniques to remove metal lids and caps and to remove paper labels. The glass is then crushed before it is introduced into the glassmaker's furnace.
firms. Processing of recyclables is no longer dominated by small entrepreneurs. Major makers of recycled products have integrated downward to acquire recycling processing operations. For instance, Wellman, the nation's largest plastics recycler, acquired CRInc., an operator of processing plants nationwide. This gives the recycled product maker access to an adequate supply of material at the lowest cost and highest quality. This trend also includes the involvement of all the major publicly traded waste management firms, such as Browning-Ferris, Waste Management, Laidlaw Waste Systems, and others. These firms have invested substantially in establishing and operating processing plants.
A third trend is the entry in recent years of local government. Cities and counties face rising costs for solid waste collection and disposal and are now, more than ever, looking to recycling and composting to reduce the burden on landfills. In addition, nearly every state has adopted a waste management law that places recycling collection requirements on local governments. In order to market the recyclables now being collected in their communities, many local governments have established new processing centers.
Many of these centers are owned by the city or county and operated by a private contractor. Many are called MRFs, or materials recovery facilities. In these plants, source-separated paper and commingled bottles and cans are sorted and processed, much in the manner described earlier.
Processors of mixed waste often call their plants “dirty” MRFs. These facilities take loads of mixed solid waste and use mechanical and manual techniques, such as magnetic separation and hand picking, to remove selected types of paper, metals, glass, and plastics.
According to Governmental Advisory Associates of New York City, the number of these commingled recyclable and mixed waste sorting plants nearly doubled in just the last two years.
The only constant element of today's recycling industry is change. The domestic processing industry in 1992 is far different from that of just 10 years ago.
Considerable investment has been made in new recycling processing systems. A few examples are offered:
In recent months a number of firms, with financial assistance from the plastics industry, have developed highly automated machines that use X-ray and infra-red detection systems to sort plastic containers by resin type and color.
• Paper. As with other recyclables, there is little demand for a mixture of all types of used paper and paperboard. Recycling mills want specific grades of paper, not a combined mess. In fact, recovered paper is sold in more than 50 different grades. Thus, the paper processor's principal role is to make sure the mill receives the grade of paper desired. This entails assuring that a bale of paper doesn't include other types of paper or nonpaper items, such as plastic or metal. For instance, a bale of computer paper cannot include a significant amount of newspaper.
The second principal function of the paper processor, as with processors of other recyclables, is to package recovered paper in a manner desired by the paper mill. This generally entails the production of a dense, wire-bound bale, which is the easiest package to store and ship. • Metals. The scrap metal processor performs similar tasks. For example, loads of post-consumer aluminum cans are sorted magnetically and manually to assure that other metals and other materials are eliminated. The cans are then packaged, commonly into a dense briquette.
• Researchers at several universities, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Illinois, are developing techniques to automatically sort glass containers by color. • In the last decade, new scrap metal and paper processing systems have been introduced to the market.
• Major European and American manufacturers have developed highly sophisticated plastics processing lines.
A second trend is the entry into the processing industry of "Fortune 500"
Currently, some 116 of these facilities Hundreds of communities now operate in the United States and have
collect magazines separately in curbside these features:
recycling collection programs. This • More MRFs are in the Northeast
fiber is used, along with old than any other region.
newspapers, to make deinked
newsprint. Several market analysts • MRFs are becoming far more
predict that a shortage of old mechanized than in past years.
magazines will occur before 1995 unless
collections • New plants are about twice as large
grow as fast as the number as the average MRF now operating.
of new deinking systems coming on-line
in the United States and Canada. • The average MRF processes about Another recyclable that is being 130 tons of material per day and costs handled by more and more processors about $3 million to construct and
is plastic film-items like plastic startup
shopping bags, trash bags, and plastic
wrap for food. The United States uses A fourth trend is the increasing
three times as much plastic film as soft emphasis on material quality. This
drink bottles, milk jugs, and water means that manufacturers can
bottles combined. There are a number accommodate higher percentages of of high volume uses for reclaimed film, recycled materials in their feedstock
including the manufacture of trash (see article on Rhode Island's
bags. experience on page 26).
And there is considerable attention A fifth trend is the growing number nationwide on recovering and using of new recycling grades handled by
construction and demolition wastes. processors. With consumers demanding New facilities are opening daily that recycled products and with industry
sort and crush these wastes to produce responding, processors are being asked
new materials for use in construction to supply many new types of
and other applications. Of particular recyclables.
note are the growing number of wood
waste processing plants and facilities that process scrap gypsum wallboard.
Some emerging trends for processing recyclables bear watching. Transportation of recyclables, especially paper, by railroads is becoming increasingly common. For example, state legislation requiring recycled newsprint has caused many Canadian newsprint mills to bring back old newspapers from the United States in the empty box cars returning to the mill.
Another issue is the health and safety concerns from processing recyclable materials, especially manual sorting of these materials from mixed waste. Worker exposure to high levels of microorganisms and the poor design of the working environment in many processing facilities have been documented in Denmark.
Recycling cannot occur without collected materials being processed. The processing industry—the quiet giant of recycling-has undergone significant changes in the past decade. Even so, tomorrow's processor will be different from the processor of today. 0
It Doesn't Make the Grade
Quality control is crucial
by Edward F. Connelly
arbage in; garbage out.” The
expression wasn't meant to describe the solid waste industry, but it is very applicable to the collection and processing of recyclables. Recycling programs are businesses that market commodities. If the commodities are being treated like trash, that is what they become.
Quality control is essential to ensure that recyclables can be marketed. This does not mean producing the cleanest stream of recyclables no matter what the cost, but striking a balance between the needs of the market and the cost of producing recyclables to meet those needs. To achieve this balance, recyclers must combine a clear understanding of the market, the nature of the waste that is to be
Steve Delaney photo. EPA.
Too much broken glass makes it hard to sort out glass by color, as the market demands.
(Connelly is the Recycling Program Manager for the Rhode Island Solid Waste Management Corporation.)
recycled, and the capabilities and operating cost of the collection and processing system.
Markets for recyclable materials are constantly changing in response to traditional market forces and to the expansion of recycling programs. Recycling managers must regularly review and adjust their collection and processing operations to account for increases or decreases in the amount the markets pay for material, changes in minimum quality, or technological advances in manufacturing. Several years ago, when the economy was booming and there were fewer recycling programs, it was relatively easy to market newspaper that contained up to 5 percent other paper. Today, markets demand 100 percent newsprint.
Similarly, in the past, it was not difficult to sell mixed plastic bottles. Today, however, manufacturers take only sorted material, and they pay less for it. Recycling programs that collect and market glass must now ensure that the product is free of ceramics, like coffee mugs and dishes, because ceramics can explode in glass furnaces. Programs that cannot deliver ceramic-free glass will lose their markets. On the positive side, new markets are developing for material such as magazines and textiles, and technological advances in plastics manufacturing promise to allow recycling programs to market mixed materials.
The key to success is understanding what the recycling program has to produce in order to sell products every day. Knowledge of the market tells the manager what has to be produced, but it does not tell him or her how to consistently produce quality products. This requires monitoring at all three major steps: at the source, during collection, and during processing. Quality control at these points is necessary whether the program is designed to collect industrial scrap or paper from classrooms.
As the source of the material to be recycled, generators—residents,
businesses, etc.-must understand
After collection, most recyclables are exactly what materials are to be
processed before they are marketed. separated from the waste stream, the The processor's knowledge of the condition they must be in, and the market tells him how much processing contaminants that are not allowed. A
is necessary, but worker training thorough, initial training must be determines how effective the process followed up with reference materials will be. Some processing facilities use and periodic reminders.
bonuses as a means of encouraging In Rhode Island's municipal
workers to improve quality and keep collection program, residents are
vigilant for contamination. informed of a program start by
The importance of the worker's postcard. They are invited to attend
contribution to quality control can be public meetings or call special phone illustrated in the following anecdote. lines to get answers to questions about Rhode Island's material recovery recycling. Newspaper advertisements facility operator learned that the also explain the program. A flier with processing and sorting equipment was a list of materials to be recycled is breaking significant amounts of glass, delivered to each residence. All this is making it difficult to separate by color done so that participants will know and causing a large percentage of it to exactly what can be collected for
be lost because the pieces were too recycling and what can not. The
small to sort. By cushioning the fall of approach applies to any type of
the glass, the operator reduced recycling; time and money are well breakage; more material was recovered; spent on education because education and contamination by small pieces of results in a cleaner stream of
glass was reduced. recyclables and thereby reduces the Recycling programs must be cost of removing contaminants before prepared to pass up markets if the marketing
needs of the market cannot be met The collector is the only regular link efficiently by the program. Rhode between market and source and plays Island's residential recycling program a major role in maintaining quality. All produces large amounts of high-quality collectors must understand the nature newsprint. Metal, glass, and plastic are of materials that are acceptable and collected with the newspaper, and should be instructed to reject materials some metal cans get mixed in with the that do not meet specifications. There paper. Not all the cans are removed, is no better way to convince a
because the cost of removing them is generator to improve quality than to high, and most markets can live with a reject an unacceptable load. Warnings small percentage of the combination. are useful, but they must contain
An offer from a local buildinginstructions on how to improve. If a products manufacturer to purchase generator needs help, the collector can large amounts of metal-free newsprint provide educational material or can had to be rejected, because the price arrange for a site visit by his home
the company was willing to pay would office.
not have justified the cost of the In Rhode Island's residential
equipment and labor to remove the recycling program, truck drivers play a metal. major role in reducing contamination Even the best quality control system by monitoring the materials they
cannot protect against every mishap collect. When the drivers spot
when the raw material of the business unacceptable material, they place is trash. Early in Rhode Island's brightly colored stickers on the
municipal collection program, an contaminant to notify the resident. entire load of newspapers was This system has proved effective in contaminated because of a promotional reducing contamination and improving vinyl record that was included in a quality.
Sunday newspaper. That time, it was recyclables in, garbage out. O