In the chaos following local trash processor van der Linde Recycling’s decision to stop accepting household waste from trash haulers, many citizens have discovered that what had been characterized as a “single stream” recycling panacea was actually more of a mixed bag. County residents’ trash has been processed at an “all-in-one” mixed waste facility—not a single stream facility—for the past decade, and the difference between the two is bigger than it sounds.
“Van der Linde and others co-opted that term [single stream] and took advantage of the ambiguity and sold it,” said Liz Palmer, board member of the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority (RSWA).
A true single stream option—defined by the industry as one that requires customers to separate recyclables (in their own “stream”) from other waste before collection—will begin to be offered by trash haulers Time Disposal and County Waste in April for a charge of $6 per month, with curbside pickups every other week. Neighborhood homeowners’ associations that pay for waste disposal will have to negotiate arrangements for their residents, and Time is presently requiring an all-or-none bulk contract, leaving many would-be recyclers in the lurch. Individuals can call their hauler to subscribe to the service.
For those who don’t want to pay for an additional subscription, the only currently available recycling options are to bring separated recyclables to the McIntire Recycling Center in Charlottesville (which accepts a variety of materials), or to the Ivy Materials Utilization Center (MUC) on Dick Woods Road (which takes only cardboard and newspaper). Henceforth, all regular trash picked up by haulers will be landfill-bound.
So how exactly has trash been recycled in the county until now? In 2009, van der Linde opened a multi-million-dollar Materials Recovery Facility (or MRF, pronounced “murf”) in Zion Crossroads that could process everything that consumers put in their trash, i.e., all-in-one processing. Called a “dirty MRF,” this type of line uses a combination of magnets, blowers, optical scanners, and human workers to cull out paper, plastics, metal, and glass from the loads of organic and other waste.
Lured by van der Linde’s low intake charges (called “tipping fees”), county haulers soon began delivering all of the trash they collected to the recycler’s facility for processing and separation. Van der Linde sorted, compacted, baled, and sold the recovered material to manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, while the residual (non-recyclable material) was sent to a landfill near Richmond.
All-in-one processing is an appealing proposition because it promises efficient recycling with zero effort by the consumer. When his facility opened, owner Peter van der Linde asserted that it could extract and recycle 90 percent of the material that went into it, even though nationally the actual “recovery rate” (percentage of recyclable material pulled out of trash) for dirty MRF’s averages between 5 and 25 percent.
In contrast with a “clean MRF,” which sorts recyclable materials that have been pre-separated by consumers, the biggest problem for a dirty MRF is contamination of the potentially recyclable material by the other waste mixed with it. In recent years van der Linde claimed a 25 percent recovery rate for its mixed waste process, though in Virginia these rates are self-reported and not verified by officials.
County citizens questioned whether the process could really work as advertised, and officials grew skeptical of the operation’s efficacy as well. “Van der Linde’s machinery was older, rehabilitated, breaking down with some frequency,” said Palmer. “There was one period of almost a year where it was out of commission and he was just landfilling. Beyond that, people wondered if the material being pulled out was really ending up being recycled because of its poor quality.”
“Think about it,” said Phil McKalips, environment and safety manager for the RSWA. “You might have some cardboard and a couple of two-liter bottles in your trash, and on top of that some pork chops, coffee grounds, and bacon fat. For the recyclables, the potential for reuse [in an all-in-one process] is not very high.” Once paper and plastic are contaminated, the value of the materials for resale is destroyed. To make matters worse, since anything can show up on the sort line, all-in-one processing is dangerous for workers, who have to deal with materials like pesticides, dirty diapers, and combustible containers, and sometimes (literally) the kitchen sink.
After eight years, van der Linde’s service came to an abrupt end. In January of this year, the worldwide commodity market for recycled materials was thrown into disarray by China, which stopped importing 24 types of these materials after years of buying more than half the world’s recyclable waste. China also imposed tight restrictions on unwashed plastic and contaminated paper bales. Suddenly left with no profitable market for the output of its MRF, van der Linde shuttered its all-in-one recycling.
“With the severe drop in commodity prices over the past few years and the bleak forecast, we have made the economic decision to close our household processing facility,” read a van der Linde statement in February.
In the wake of van der Linde’s closure, Albemarle County trash haulers are quickly pivoting to a subscription-based single stream pickup, and plan to deliver the recyclables to clean MRF’s in the Richmond or Tidewater areas for sorting. For this service, customers will have to clean and separate all recyclable materials from the rest of the trash and put them (all commingled together) into their own bin to be picked up by haulers.
Kevin Collier, operations manager at Time Disposal, said his company is offering recycling service to individuals and neighborhoods based on their location and amount of interest to try to achieve some economies of scale. “Single stream collection requires its own dedicated truck to avoid contamination with other waste, as well as its own employees for those routes,” he said. “We plan to run our new vehicle five days a week on the same day as the regular pickup to make it easy for customers.”
Collier and others wonder about the trade-off between less contamination (with single stream processing) and greater volume (with all-in-one) in terms of how much material is ultimately recycled. Even though crushing all types of recyclables together in the haulers’ trucks can result in bits of glass embedded in clean paper or metal, single stream processing typically results in between 75 and 90 percent of the materials ultimately being recycled.
The downside is that the participation rate by consumers who have to pay for the service is much lower, estimated at only 33 percent in a 2016 report by GreenBlue, an environmental consulting firm in Charlottesville that focuses on sustainable packaging. “The trash business is very, very competitive,” said Liz Palmer. “It’s all about volume for the haulers to be able to stay in business.”
The most effective method of recycling in terms of output purity is “source separated” recycling, where consumers separate each type of material (e.g., brown glass vs. green glass, various grades of plastic) and place each into its own bin at a central location, such as the McIntire Recycling Center in Charlottesville. Because of the time, effort, and travel involved, this method is used less by consumers, especially those farther out in the county.
“If it grows, it goes”
Beyond plastics and glass, the biggest contributor to household trash in the U.S. is organic waste—food, paper, wood, and yard waste—making up over 50 percent of what ends up in landfills. Luckily for Albemarle County, Black Bear Composting is ready to handle the next generation of responsible recycling. A two-truck operation founded in 2010 and run by Crozetian Eric Walter, Black Bear picks up food scraps, clean wood products, and food-soiled paper-based products (like pizza boxes) curbside each week. A bigger wheeled bin is available for customers who’d like to compost all of their yard waste as well.
Black Bear hauls the organics to its composting facility in Crimora where they are carefully mixed and cured, and subscribers receive a monthly 5-gallon bucket of aged compost as a perk. “My customers are fantastic in that they’re excited about the service,” said Walter, “so what they put in the bins is very clean.” Though his company now collaborates with U.Va., JMU, and local businesses and schools in collecting compostable material, Walter says the practice is not yet widespread among homeowners.
“Many people aren’t aware of commercial composting,” said Walter, “and an equal number say, ‘That sounds gross; I can’t do it.’ But we try make the process very easy.”
Beginning the first week of April, a new (free) compost collection site will open at the Ivy MUC that will also be hauled by Black Bear. County residents can drop off their compostable waste at the convenience center just to the right of the MUC entrance, and can pick up green compostable bags to use for home collection as well.
The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority is building a new waste transfer station at the Ivy MUC site to accommodate residents, businesses, and waste haulers, scheduled to be completed this fall. The new facility will be larger, enclosed, and covered by a roof, and easier to get in and out of than the small, open-air transfer station in operation now.
“We’re very excited about the new facility,” said Bill Mawyer, RSWA director, “and we hope to provide additional recycling opportunities on that site for residents soon. We plan to hold our first ‘E-Waste Disposal’ day on July 21st so residents can drop off their electronics recycling the same way they do for their hazardous waste.” Mawyer says the RSWA is working with the county on other initiatives to come on the heels of the new transfer station, which they are working to complete as quickly as possible.
The RSWA facilities rely on city and county financial support to stay afloat, especially during market fluctuations. Mark Brownlee, solid waste manager at the Ivy MUC, said that people should understand the nature of the operation. “Even though we have only a couple of part-time employees, we don’t cover our costs in recycling,” he said. “We are a subsidized business, and because of that, even when the market [for recycled materials] drops, people will still get the same recycling service here.”
While agreeing that recycling is an important program, Brownlee encourages strategic thinking in its management. “We need to look at the big picture,” he said. “How far are we transporting, say, No. 5 plastic that may be worth nothing? How much fuel are we burning, and what’s the carbon footprint of that? What’s truly recyclable and what is just not worth it because of the transportation involved?”
Liz Palmer anticipates that the county will set up a new recycling convenience center at the Ivy MUC early next year that will serve as an example. “It will be a ‘McIntire style,’ do-it-yourself separation center, and we’ll show it off as a model to other areas of the county so we can hopefully establish more of them,” she said.
Ann Mallek, Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chair, said the centers are long overdue. “The state Department of Environmental Quality says we’ve been remiss for not having recycling facilities available in the county,” she said. “Surrounding counties, like tiny Nelson which has five centers with compactors, have shown us that we can do something small and affordable and effective, and we’re on our way to getting them open.”
Some county residents point to Charlottesville, which offers its citizens single stream recycling alongside regular trash pickup for no additional charge, and wonder why Albemarle doesn’t do the same. The answer lies in the nature of our large geographic area.
“Unlike Charlottesville, Albemarle County does not have a public works department,” said Palmer, “partly because we evolved over a long history of rural life. As we urbanize, we will need to rethink government’s role in urban areas, but [recycling service] would be very expensive and would require a tax increase.”
With the sudden disappearance of China’s major market for recyclables, the specter of mounds of plastic bottles with nowhere to put them looms large, but some industry-watchers see a silver lining. “It’s a reckoning,” said senior manager Kelly Cramer of GreenBlue. “America has a chance to respond intelligently to this, to make new policies that inspire businesses to invest in infrastructure and technology, to reuse material and to take responsibility for wasteful packaging.”
GreenBlue’s director of operations Michael Brann thinks the major corporate brands are motivated to solve this problem. “If recyclable trash starts piling up, people won’t be mad at government, they’ll be mad at the brands, so companies are already working on end markets for their own products.”
GreenBlue’s consultants believe people will trust recycling if they can buy products with recycled materials in them. “The next wave will be #buyrecycled,” said Cramer.
Just say YEP
At $6 per month, “roughly the cost of two cups of Starbucks” as the RSWA’s McKalips puts it, interest among county residents for the single stream service has been high. While some are concerned about a second big trash bin to manage, and others chafe at having to pay more, Crozet resident and recycling advocate Elizabeth Seliga sees an opportunity for the community.
“Our trash just goes away, like magic, and people don’t think about it,” said Seliga, “but it’s going into a hole in the ground and it’s important for everyone, especially our children, to understand that.” Seliga is serving as facilitator for a new kid-driven group called YEPCrozet (Youth Environmental Program), made up of local fourth to eighth graders who want to introduce local businesses and schools to different options for recycling waste. Check out the website, YEPCrozet.com, for meeting and event information.
“Crozet is growing and has a chance to decide who it’s going to be,” said Seliga. “Are we a disposable community or are we better than that?” Her love for the natural beauty of the area gives her an optimistic outlook. “Recycling is like hope,” she said with a smile. “It’s the idea that we’re all going to be around for the future and we need to take care of where we live.”
Update, April 20, 2018: This article has been corrected to more accurately reflect Liz Palmer’s description of a future source-separated recycling center for citizens at the Ivy MUC, as distinct from the 2,500 square feet that has been set aside in the new transfer station for potential single stream separation area for trash haulers.