Single Stream Recycling and Dirty MRFs
Question: What are your thoughts on Houston City’s “One Bin For All” plan which will employ single stream recycling and dirty material recovery facilities (MRFs)?
Everything old is new again! With the single-stream MRF or Material Recovery Facility, there’s a lot of concern about the quality of the material that you’re getting out and I think dirty MRFs just exacerbate that problem. With dirty MRFs, the amount of material that will end up in the landfill is gonna be larger than they can expect.
- what you can measure and
- what you can accomplish
Dirty MRFs may have crunched numbers which show that they can do a lot more than they have been doing, but if you envision it going forward, you are mixing your miscellaneous solid waste which was headed to the landfill with the common recyclables. This really diminishes the incentive to work more on the material that is readily recyclable. So, I think looking down the road, having some vision where you are going would lend itself not to mixing what’s going to the landfill with your common recyclables in the dirty MRF sort of process.
I think it just brings up the whole issue with contamination. I read one time that Japan had 27 separate bins and of course that would be difficult for us to expect our public to adopt something that intensive. But I think, to reduce it down to a single bin is the other extreme and it’s not really gonna provide as
much benefit as people might expect.
I was very interested to read about the “return of the dirty MRF idea”. My understanding of its history and experience in chicago was that it was a disaster and moreover it was very hazardous in terms of working conditions for people working in the MRF. So, I had been under the impression
that this single stream collection approach at bin, for reasons that we brought up pretty much discredited it, which is why I was surprised to see it returning.
I think that it may be that these types of approaches are being advanced as we are grappling throughout North America with the possibility of limits to diversion under existing forms of recycling and source-separated recycling. What I mean by that is from very different perspectives the idea of doing some post collection separation is coming out
of the woodwork. Dirty MRF is one example. In waste to energy plants, both traditional and new and emerging technologies, there’s heavy emphasis on pulling out recyclables after materials are delivered to waste energy
plants. Even within the zero-waste movement they are talking about how to treat leftovers (residues) and advocating for – after you’ve had your source separated recycling and composting – still pulling out recyclables and possibly compostables from residue, which then would go through a mechanical biological treatment process. So, what I see in this is in different ways both waste management companies and localities are thinking again about the idea of pulling recyclables out of mixed waste.
I think it is a good idea to pull recyclables out of the mixed waste but before that’s done, there should be an opportunity for have high-quality recycling! Once you mix everything, the quality of recyclables is impacted a lot. But, even in the the regular solid waste stream after recycling there is still a lot of value in that material that can be extracted before it goes to its ultimate disposal.
GBB Inc. is the consultant that Houston City has retained to help them evaluate this project for their city and we’re really excited to help them figure out if it’s going to be the the right solution for what they want to do.
In my previous experience working for a municipality, I am aware that in areas where the recycling rate is pretty high, people are wondering is single stream recycling with dirty MRFs the solution and we’re not seeing it coming? Or what’s really going on?! I think it’s something that people like those in this panel other are really thinking a lot about. The service sector has been promoting it to clients – cities and counties as a solution. But, I think that there’s still a lot of evaluation and analysis to be done. This Houston project is going to be a big information point for the rest of the country.
International Vice President, Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)
Author, Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action