The Container Recycling Institute has undertaken a study of the impacts of single-stream collection of residential recyclables, with a particular focus on the economic and environmental impacts of this collection method on the final material sent to end-markets for remanufacturing.
To date, the impacts on various collection methods – source-separated curbside, commingled curbside, deposit/return – on the quality of materials destined for recycling have not been formally researched and documented. In fact, rarely is “material quality” or the “end-destination” of the material considered by government decision-makers when choosing an appropriate recycling system.
CRI selected Clarissa Morawski, principal of CM Consulting and a contributing editor to this magazine, to research the issue. Morawski is a leading expert on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), and has authored numerous reports on beverage container recovery systems. For this study, Ms. Morawski reviewed 60 previously-published studies, reports and articles in trade magazines. Morawski was interested to find that, as a result of the struggling economy and plunging market prices for recyclables, she is seeing increased market sensitivity to quality issues.
“End markets are really starting to quantify their economic losses from poor quality of material, and from a qualitative perspective, they feel this problem is very serious indeed and could have an impact on any future investments of capital to increase capacity of secondary feedstock,” Morawski says.
The report finds that there are many negative downstream impacts of contaminated feedstock due to the mixing of materials through single-stream curbside collection.
“Basically, the report confirms that you can’t unscramble an egg,” explains CRI Executive Director Susan Collins. “Once the materials are mixed together in a single-stream recycling system, there will be cross-contamination of materials and significant glass breakage. Those cross-contamination and breakage issues then result in increased costs for the secondary processors.” This report attempts to quantify those costs, but the study acknowledges that there is a need for more comprehensive data.
“Nor are costs calculated on an apples-to-apples basis, because the tons that are handled through various recycling systems are not necessarily the same as the tons recycled” Collins observes. “If you take the contaminants out of the equation, the cost per tonne recycled increases. With such high contaminant levels, some of these recycling systems are merely shifting costs to the paper mills, aluminum manufacturers, glass beneficiation facilities and glass manufacturers, and plastics recyclers.”
The report is available for download on the CRI website, www.container-recycling.org