(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.)
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.
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.