Do you have mixed feelings about recycling?
You’re not alone.
Recycling saves energy and resources, and helps reduce the amount of material going into our already-overflowing landfills. And, in New Jersey at least, it’s the law. But that doesn’t make it easy. Like every industry, recycling has its challenges.
Is Recycling Fiscally Irresponsible?
Lately, one of the biggest challenges faced by the industry has been the same one we’ve all been dealing with – the economy. October 2008 saw global demand for recyclables come to a screeching halt as the plunging stock market caused a chain reaction of canceled and deferred orders factories.
The crash had little effect on the supply end, though. Recyclables continued to be picked up and processed – resulting in a glut of material that blew the bottom out of the recyclables market. In March, 2008 we were getting $70 a ton at the pier,” says Ralph Giordino of Integrity Recycling in New Jersey. “In October, 2008 we were seeing prices as low as $10 a ton. Some contractors were locked in at prices they couldn’t support.”
It’s a temporary correction that will right itself in time, but in the meantime some people are wondering if it’s worth continuing to recycle materials when the net profit is little more – or in some cases less – than the cost of collection and processing.
Giordino is quick to refute such thinking. “Metals pay. Plastics and paper – it depends on the markets. But the real value of recycling is cost avoidance,” he says, explaining that it costs more to deal with waste as garbage than it does to reintroduce it into the cycle of production. As director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Solid Waste, Michael Shapiro, puts it, “A well-run curbside recycling program can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton…trash collection and disposal programs, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton. While there’s still room for improvements, recycling can be cost-effective.”
Another area that doesn’t always spring to mind right away is food waste. Food waste collection programs involve separating uneaten food and degradable service ware such as paper plates and corn-based plastic utensils from the regular trash for on-site composting in enclosed equipment or delivery to composting facilities. Food waste collection preserves disposal facility capacity for non-recyclables and produces compost, a valuable agricultural resource. For some business owners, it may reduce the size and/or frequency of regular trash pickups, and may be a more sanitary way to deal with the waste. And, according to sustainability consultant Ben Larkey, Principal, BAL Associates, “Companies that implement effective food waste programs are citing savings.”
Does recycling really lower our carbon footprint?
A recycling collection truck isn’t exactly a low emission, high mileage Prius. It burns a lot of diesel as it rumbles through city streets in fits and starts and hauls its load to the sorting facility. However, companies such as Waste Management are starting to use vehicles with lower impact fuels such as 106 compressed natural gas trucks in Seattle that are 6 times cleaner than 2007 diesels and already meet the EPA 2010 emission standards for nitrogen oxides, producing nearly zero particulate emissions. Additional current hauling impact includes transport to recycling centers that are only stopping points, where materials are separated and then shipped on to other locations for recycling. And of course the process of recycling itself consumes energy, too. When all is said and done, is recycling really worth it?
According to the Northeast Recycling Council, a coalition of ten states united for environmentally sustainable materials management, the answer is yes. Although collection of recyclables admittedly uses a fair amount of fossil fuel, this consumption simply takes the place of energy spent in the harvest and transport of raw materials for virgin manufacture. Most of the real energy savings takes place in the manufacturing process itself. Having already been pre- processed, recycled materials take far less energy to turn back into usable products. It’s like drinking a smoothie instead of peeling and chewing up a banana and opening a carton of milk – much of the hard work has already been done, so the process requires less effort – and less energy expended.
How much less? Well, here are a few statistics:
Recycling just 23 aluminum cans saves 1 gallon of gasoline, or – according to the EPA – 95 percent of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source.
- 100 gallons of used oil can be processed back into 80 gallons of new lubricating oil.
- Recycling 1 ton of plastic saves the equivalent of 3.85 barrels of oil.
- Recycling 1 ton of used oil filters recovers up to 60 gallons of used oil.
- Recycling one ton of paper saves about 5 barrels of oil.
As Donna Heron, press officer of the U.S. EPA, phrased it in her Nov. 13, 2008 blog post, “If you think your contribution doesn’t matter, you are wrong. Last year the amount of energy saved from recycling aluminum and steel cans, plastic and glass containers, newsprint and corrugated packaging was equivalent to the amount of gasoline used by almost 11 million cars or the amount of electricity consumed by 17.8 million Americans in a year.”
What about the hassle to consumers and business owners?
It’s true; it does take slightly more time and effort to separate out the recyclables than to toss everything in the garbage. But isn’t that true of many actions we do? Like buckling ourselves and our children in before we drive, recycling is just one of those adjustments we make for the good of ourselves and others.
When it comes down to it, most people are willing to recycle. In many communities it’s the law, and it’s the right thing to do. “At the end of the day,” says Giordano, “you’re taking a commodity and diverting it from the landfill.”
Figuring out the details
Often the biggest objection to recycling comes not from an unwillingness to participate but from confusion about how to do it and who to contact for recycling services. Donna Krumenaker is the assistant property manager at Eastman Companies, a real estate management company in Livingston, NJ. She manages numerous office buildings and is responsible for arranging for recycling pickup for the properties.
“When a state or town mandates something, they should work with vendors to give a solution,” says Krumenaker. While she realizes the need to recycle and is more than willing to comply with the law, she felt pressured to come up with a suitable recycling plan when recycling laws in her community changed. “The fire department has a program, they pick up metal and donate the proceeds to a children’s burn center – it helps the community. I’d like to find more options like that, but there’s not a whole lot of info out there for guidance.”
Depending on your location, it may take some legwork to discover the ultimate recycling solution(s) for your business. Once it’s set up, though, it should take little effort to maintain.
A step in the right direction
Whatever your views on the pros and cons of recycling, the fact remains that our current system generates more waste than is acceptable given the reality of living on a finite planet.
Our system of recycling is far from perfect, for the reasons covered above and others. There are still many items that cannot be economically recycled. Most materials cannot be recycled into items of the same quality – a phenomenon known as “downcycling.” And the ultimate problem presented by recycling may boil down to this question: Is our knowledge that much of our waste will be recycled causing us to consume too much – thus contributing to the very problem we’re trying to prevent?
Recycling collection is only a piece of the puzzle. While it’s important to recycle, businesses and individuals need to put it in perspective and keep the larger picture in mind. We also need to change our behavior to both reduce the amount of waste we have to deal with in the first place, and to make a greater effort to make sure there’s a market for recycled products.
It helps to view our current recycling practices not as status quo, but as a step in the right direction. Our society is becoming more aware of the hazards of overburdening our resources. It may be involving some trial and error, but as we take greater steps towards planning for waste prevention and utilizing our resources to the fullest we can expect the glitches to even out.
Small Steps Add Up to Big Savings in Both Waste and Dollars
Feeling powerless? You shouldn’t. There are plenty of small steps you can take as a business owners and manager to help reduce waste and make recycling a more effective enterprise for everyone. Here are some suggestions:
Reduce your consumption
- Switch to electronic filing and memo posting
- Print on both sides of the paper – many copy and fax machines are capable of double-sided printing
- Segment your mailing lists to better target the best prospects for each of your offers
- Purge mailing lists to avoid duplicate mailings
- Avoid buying new furniture or equipment unless absolutely necessary
- Eliminate unnecessary cover sheets when faxing
- Encourage employees to bring lunches in refillable containers – have a contest to make it fun
- Use solar powered calculators to reduce battery waste
- Cut up old memos and staple them into pads to use as scrap paper
- Print drafts on the back of used paper
- Refill toner cartridges when possible
- Use refillable tape dispensers, pens and the like
Buy recycled products
While your recycling program may not be bringing in revenue, many of these measures cut expenses as well as waste. Pick a few and track the numbers – you may be surprised how much you save!
By Anne Michelsen