You’ve probably heard the term. It’s the goal of organizations around the world dedicated to closing the loop between “goods” and “trash.” Even after bottles have been emptied and papers read, they are rich in materials that recently required energy and resources to extract from the earth, and are worth more to us than as a liability to be buried.
We may be far from a zero waste civilization, but we can already see our way there. Up to 85 percent of what we throw in the trash can be composted. And then, “with planning,” says Dan Matsch, manager of the Center for Hard To Recycle Materials [C.H.a.R.M.], “90 percent of the wastestream can be recycled.” Thanks to the work of professional recyclers, and with our help, trash may soon have a easier path to reincarnation than to the landfill.
Sorry, skeptics—recycling saves money and energy. How much so depends upon the material. Recycling aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy required to derive it from its bauxite mother ore—which must be slashed and burned out of the tropics. The figure is 75 percent for plastics and 40 percent for most paper, because petroleum and trees are cheaper and require less energy to refine.
There are four stages to the recycling process:
Collection: Some areas have a collection fleet. Others contract a private company to collect recyclables. Some, like my hometown, leave collection to neighborhoods and Home Owners Associations who hire a trash hauler to collect recyclables and haul them to a Materials Recovery Facility [M.R.F.].
Materials Recovery: No, there’s no magic machine for sorting trash. It’s still sorted by hand, by workers at a conveyor belt. Each person looks out for one type of material, which they toss into a bin behind the conveyor. This goes into a giant trash compactor and comes out in neat, colorful blocks that hold their shape with just a few strands of baling strap.
Marketing: The hardest part of the recycling process is connecting the bales with potential buyers. In the 1980s, recycling got subsidized due to public demand, but the recycling programs failed without viable markets when the subsidies were withdrawn. Achieving self-sufficiency in the materials market is key to mainstream recycling. Ecocycle, a recycling specialist, has performed this function in my Boulder County for 32 years. They sell their bales to brokers, or directly to the manufacturers who will bring them back to life.
Remanufacture: The bales are cleaned, melted, shredded, mulched and converted to “feedstock” by manufacturers, who generally mix it with virgin material to make new product.
Can everything be recycled? Marti Matsch of Ecocycle says, “Anything can be recycled if the manufacturer participates in the market. If we have a market, we’re good. When we don’t, we have to find weird things to do with these items.” While you can make cool things out of recycled materials (insulation, carpet, fleece and glassphalt), these markets aren’t yet mature and reliable. Ecocycle prefers to see their materials go into cycles, such as packaging and paper, rather than into “end use” products, which end up in landfills.
Ecocycle constantly combs the market for the “highest and best use” of their materials—the transformation that involves the least energy—ideally a closed loop for a single product (converting milk jugs into…milk jugs). Some closed loops aren’t possible, as with paperboard, which is already too low-grade to support much further recycling. It comes back as pallet coasters. Aluminum or steel, on the other hand, support infinite reincarnation.
Ecocycle has one such closed loop—a rare one—in mixed glass. It goes to Coors’ Rocky Mountain Bottling Plant. Ecocycle also helped cultivate a market in plastic with Coca-Cola, which committed to using 20% post-consumer content in the United States. As the biggest producer of plastic bottles, it’s the natural destination for its own bottles when they’re empty again.
Some materials, like dairy tubs (#2 or #5 plastic) still don’t have a large manufacturer as a reliable buyer. Others, such as P.V.C. (#3) and polycarbonate (#7) are better off dead—they are toxic in production and use.
Recycling is becoming an export game, rife with environmental irony. Starved for materials, China will buy anything to recycle. The energy waste of shipping and the lack of regulation in China transfer the health and environmental costs of recycling along with the materials. Ecocycle avoids overseas markets where possible, but the alternative is often the landfill. They will not send electronics overseas, however, where they are often disassembled by hand and burned, spreading their toxins over large areas. C.H.a.R.M. is dedicated to diverting hazardous products from this fate. Internationally, the Basel Convention of 1992 was intended to slow this side effect of globalization—yet we haven’t ratified it.
“We are in a consumer country where wealth has promoted a disposable society,” says Lou Perez, the Operations Engineer of Ecocycle’s materials recovery facility. “Recycling is a natural economic force filling in the divisions of wealth—feeding the growth of the other industrializing nations, of which China is the King Kong.”
The strongest competition for recyclables is still the landfill. In Colorado, it costs $18 a ton to landfill material. Older U.S. landfills, like some in New Jersey, are filling and now charge $100 or more. In Europe, it is closer to $300. The recycling system can be supported by landfill surcharges or environmental fees, like those that car shops already charge to dispose of their grime. A charge associated with anything disposable would also make us think twice about what we consume. Steep fees are politically distasteful, but a likely part of any economically and environmentally sustainable future.
Commercial recycling rates in Boulder are 20 percent, while residential rates are 50 percent. So while individual will to recycle clearly exists, businesses pass the buck around issues like space for containers. And elected officials are afraid to whisper about mandatory measures in the commercial sector. The European Union is stepping ahead, however, and this may help sway U.S. regulation in the coming decade.
Boulder County is a good place to look at the future of zero waste. Back in 1976, it became one of the first 20 communities in the country to have curbside recycling. Since then, 9,000 communities nationwide have treaded the path. Meanwhile, Boulder’s own recycling corps continues nibbling at the edges of the waste glut, working their way towards zero. At some point this year, recyclables will all go in one container, freeing up the other one for a potential composting program. And the Center for Hard To Recycle Materials continues to find new homes for the strangest of our trash. Their latest trick? For the first time in history, they’re now accepting toilets.
Collin Tomb loves biking to work—at Jim Logan Architects in Boulder, Colorado: jlogan.com