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Talkin’ Trash: the Quick and Dirty on Recycling

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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(After watching the micro-documentary posted by David Wogan about landfill gas, I too decided to peer at a more positive and personal side of garbage…recycling.)

A paper hill at SP Recycling in Forest Park, Ga.

About once a week, my family tends to clean-up of the contents of our fridge before dinner. After searching for the Möbius band on common recyclables, a debate often ensues about whether or not last week’s polystyrene takeout package, yesterday’s marinara-smeared pizza box, or the rare plastic grocery bag can join the contents of our recycling bin.

My personal modus operandi is to err on a liberal interpretation of the city’s recycling guidelines in hopes that down the line the material will be reincarnated as a plush carpet, a cozy fleece jacket, or a soda can. If for some reason it doesn’t meet any of the recycling requirements, may it then find its way to the landfill to slowly degrade over hundreds of years.

But like many who dutifully place their recyclables curbside, I question what occurs once the materials are whisked away. Where do they go? Does my pile of paper fibers, plastics and metals actually get sorted into separate and usable products? And in the end, who’s buying our pile of yogurt containers, cereal boxes and cat food cans once they’ve been processed?

Here’s the quick and dirty on those questions and more.

Many cities nowadays utilize the single-stream collection process, enabling all types of recyclables to be comingled in one container, explained Luann Chambers, Regional Procurement Manager for SP Recycling, while I toured the single stream plant in South Atlanta. These commodities are then sorted at a materials processing facility, like our own, using machinery as well as “ten-finger technology,” continued Chambers while guiding me past rolling hills of paper and bales of aluminum (about 1,500 pounds/bale).

Here, a cacophonous network of conveyor belts, eddy currents, disc screens and magnets sort the 9,000 tons of plastics, papers products and metals each month – a number that could be exponentially higher if recycling were more readily embraced. Once sorted, resorted and sorted again, the materials are stacked and sold to end markets that turn the “trash” back into usable products we recognize.

Workers cleaning out the disc screen at SP Recycling.

The average person in the Peach State discards 4.5 pounds of garbage per day (the 2010 national average was 4.3 pounds/person), 40 percent of which is recyclable. According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, 48,000 tons of this annual garbage heap is comprised of aluminum cans. Recycling these cans would use 95 percent less energy than manufacturing them from scratch, ensure that they were back on store shelves within 60 days, and generate an estimated $89 million. Lost recyclables have the potential to save 4 percent of Georgia’s annual total energy consumed.

“Recycling is one of the easiest ways to save energy, conserve water and protect our natural resources over mining for raw materials,” said Gloria Hardegree, Executive Director at Georgia Recycling Coalition, by email. “Additionally and equally as important is the fact that recycling or composting creates green jobs and tax revenue for local communities. Reusing materials formerly considered “waste” allows us to realize a higher beneficial use over landfilling.”

Despite the state’s highly developed end markets (the world’s largest aluminum recycler, Novelis, is headquartered here, and 30 percent of the country’s recycled drink containers are turned into carpet in the northern part of the state), financial incentives for recycling are still hard pressed.

It’s cheaper for a company to run one truck and dump all the material than to run two trucks, one with recyclables,” said Chambers. The state’s 56 municipal solid waste landfills have 34 years of capacity remaining, which keeps dumping costs down. So while there’s a movement afoot for improved recycling and reuse, a better economic time is necessary for recycling and reuse to soar.

Knowing this changes things, at least at home. While my family’s homegrown debate over recycling the marinara-smeared pizza box probably won’t change much, we now know that our recycling’s existence and value doesn’t end, but begin, at the bin.

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. collettedesmaris 4:20 am 03/9/2012

    Robynne – “recycling” as you described it in your article is vastly different in the two places I’ve resided than how you described it in Georgia. I had presumed from your title that the content would be about the nature of recycling throughout the whole country; but it obviously was solely about the situation in Georgia only.

    As well, you touched only the surface of the vast variety of things that actually are recyclable. You mentioned nothing about electronic waste, and this arena has been the causation for extraordinary controversy in California. I’m going to bestow upon you some Pearls of Wisdom, so listen up:

    Over one decade ago in Santa Clara County, CA; the
    electronic waste had become such a severe problem that as of the year 2000, cities in this county were no longer permitted to put any electronic waste into landfill because it had reached such toxic proportions
    that it could handle no more. Each city was to come up with their own method by which they had to recycle a certain percentage of electronic waste, and the deadline was January 1, 2000. Any cities that had not complied with the rule by submitting their recycling plan by January first, were fined an exorbitant amount of money per day; for each day that passed without their compliance!

    This geographical area was the home of “Silicon Valley”; at that time, the hub of everything electronic. Silicon Valleyites were obsessed with the relentless acquisition of a vast array of newest, greatest, smallest, latest, electronic devices; as the manufacturers involved themselves in one-upping each other every three months or so; by releasing the neatest electronic gadgets that the 21st Century had to offer. I said it then, and I’ll say it now: Silicon Valley invented new meaning for the word “obsolete”. The way I was raised, we didn’t throw anything away until it couldn’t be repaired anymore – in Silicon Valley, electronic stuff was discarded in droves during that time period. The new item would be made available on the market, and in the zeal to “upgrade”, existing inventory would be labeled “Obsolete”, and thrown away! While it was still working! So, in my own small way, I started retrieving discards and recycling them so they would not go into landfill – it mattered to me to be contributory towards the improvement of the landfill problem as opposed to doing nothing; and thereby being contributory to the mounting landfill dilemma.

    I remember quite a few decades ago, the type of mindset that prevailed in a general way, was that each of us was supposed to leave the world in better shape
    than it was when we came into it; for those that came after us. That way of thinking stuck with me; and it’s the way I behave in all arenas.

    I don’t quite understand what you are trying to convey with this sentence you wrote: “My personal modus operandi is to err on a liberal interpretation of the city’s recycling guidelines in hopes that down the line the material will be reincarnated as a plush carpet, a cozy fleece jacket, or a soda can.” What do you mean, by saying that your typical mode of operation “is to err on a liberal interpretation of the city’s recycling guidelines, etc.”? I don’t comprehend what you’re driving at there; please clarify.

    As well, you say that your family’s “homegrown debate
    over recycling the marinara-smeared pizza box probably won’t change much,..” If I comprehend this correctly,
    you are saying that you think recycling one pizza box
    ‘probably won’t change much’. It is just this sort of complacent frame of mind that leads to the apathy that is so prevalent in our society today. People just don’t really care about exerting the effort towards recycling, as long as it doesn’t affect their immediate lives, here & now. The benevolent folks who care enough to think about how their actions will affect those that come after them are few & far between these days – it’s really no wonder our country’s going to hell in a hand basket.

    Two other statements you made in your article seem to want to draw a correlation between recycling and the monetary pay-off for doing so – or the “financial incentives”, as you put it. No one should need to be reminded that the “incentive” of paramount importance for choosing to recycle things, is to cut down on wasting valuable resources by reusing them; and to strive to reduce the deposits into landfill.
    So, when you say, “a better economic time is necessary for recycling and reuse to soar,” …. it was overdue in the year 2000 – how much longer do you suggest we all wait to implement it? I’ve got news for you: that “better economic time” isn’t going to arrive, my friend. At least, not in our lifetime. Surely you are aware of the downward spiral upon which our country is descending. We let that chance go by; and there’s only one man running for president who has a solid plan for economic recovery – and it’s a sure-shot they won’t let him win. So, I say anyone who is not doing their bit regarding recycling, better get after it now; because resourcefulness will prove to be the best survival strategy that one can own in the not-too-distant future.

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  2. 2. rboyd 10:54 am 03/20/2012

    Collette, thanks for the comments.

    Yes, this piece did end up focusing on recycling in Ga., instead of at the national level. There seemed to be so many different types of recycling programs out there, so I chose to focus on the one in my backyard. In the future, I’ll try to look at these issues more broadly.

    The same goes for e-waste. I feel as if that’s another topic in and of itself, and since electronics do not go in the home recycling bin, I chose to leave it out for now. It’s definitely a worthwhile topic to explore and I plan on doing so in the future.

    Link to this

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