If you've been swayed by a campaign to recycle office paper, you should feel ripped off. Those who really want to save the Earth should be more concerned with their leftovers.
Every year, Americans throw out three times as much food as they do office paper. That's 26 million tons of leftovers, compared with 7.4 million tons of office paper, according to the Waste Policy Center, a waste consulting firm in Leesburg, Virginia.
Those numbers demonstrate that eco campaigns don't always follow eco realities. Take, for example Vanity Fair's last "Green Issue" printed on 440 tons of virgin, non-recycled paper. (Ironically, New Times' "Green Fatigue" issue is printed on 40 percent recycled paper.)
In Vanity Fair's defense, North America has more forest now than it had in 1920, according to the Society of American Foresters. We're not gonna run out of trees anytime soon. The same goes for sand, which makes glass, and other recycled resources.
So does your recycling do anything for the Earth? And if so, what materials should you toss into the bin?
Here's the dirt on what you should recycle, what you shouldn't, and where it all goes.
Our residential curbside bins account for less than half the recycling in the U.S. Between 10 and 20 percent of Phoenix curbside recyclables end up in landfills. And our bins tend to be stocked with low-value materials.
So should we bother? Sure. Recycling clean waste does save resources. Certain materials help your city break even on its money-losing curbside program too. If the following are clean, and if you're not going out of your way (which could create more pollution than saved), you should toss them into a recycling bin:
• aluminum cans • any clean metal waste • clean newspapers • clean magazines • unshredded mail
Don't bother recycling the following. Experts say it either clogs the machines at the recycling facility or is not worth the effort:
• shredded paper • plastic grocery bags • jars with lids screwed on • jars with significant food inside. Washing them with water wastes a far more valuable resource than landfill space. • anything that's been soiled by wet food or waste; even the napkin you wiped your mouth with after a hot dog with mustard, for example • dirty diapers (duh!)
It doesn't take much mustard, mayonnaise, or peanut butter to ruin that napkin, particularly given the small amount of paper recovered from a napkin. On the other hand, a coffee or pizza stain on a newspaper is no big deal because the size of the newspaper outweighs the contamination.
That's not the case if food is still gooey or wet, which will clog the machinery. Certain contaminants — anything that's considered a biohazard — from a dirty diaper to a syringe (which they actually do see) mean the entire bin might get thrown into the landfill pile.
Smaller contaminants won't spoil the whole load, like that mustard-y napkin, but they do waste time and energy.
Recycling is a business. It existed commercially long before the curbside craze of the late '80s, according to J. Winston Porter, former assistant administrator of the EPA and president of the Waste Policy Center.
Here's where your bin's goodies go. Once you see the process, you'll know why aluminum cans matter and why shredded paper doesn't.
WHAT HAPPENS TO MY RECYCLABLES?
The contents of your recycling bin go to a materials-recovery facility, known as an MRF. (Robrt Pela recently spent an afternoon at an MRF.) In layman's terms, this is the recycling facility. Actually, though, nothing is recycled here. It just gets sorted (hence its other name, transfer point).
Each year, the primary Phoenix MRF throws 19,050 tons of alleged recyclables that don't make the cut straight into the landfill, according to Terry Gellenbeck, solid waste administrative analyst for the city of Phoenix.
The surviving plastics, papers, and metals total 107,950 tons per year. That's about a tenth of what Phoenix puts in landfills each year. The surviving materials are sorted by human hands and machines. Then they're grouped by species and trucked or shipped to companies that buy and re-process those raw materials.
Generally speaking, cities lose money on each ton of recyclables they sell (the buyers pay less per ton than the city pays to secure and sort each ton), according to a 1995 study by the Solid Waste Association of North America. But you won't see that in a press release or on the evening news.
WHAT TO RECYCLE
The chief factors in determining which materials to lob into your recycling bin are cleanliness and value of material.
Ultimately, recycling is a business, and clean, high-value materials fetch the highest prices. Aluminum is, by far, the most valuable because it's the scarcest. If you recycle only one product in your lifetime, make it aluminum cans. Aluminum sells for as much as $2,000 per ton. Other recyclables sell between $50 and $175 per ton. To melt and reform aluminum from leftover cans takes only 5 percent of the energy needed to mine bauxite ore out of the Earth and create new aluminum.
Glass and plastics aren't worth much. They don't occupy much landfill space, and plastic causes the most trouble at MRFs. So don't sit up at night worrying about the glass or plastic you tossed into the regular garbage.
Local MRFs sell their grouped materials to buyers as far away as China. Different materials have different return pay rates per ton. Because glass is made out of sand, companies don't pay much for it. Plastic doesn't sell for remarkable rates, either.
Other metals get great return rates. That's why burglars have put their own twist on the eco trend — ripping copper out of old buildings and reselling it to for hundreds of dollars to scrap yards. Unless you want to be recycled through Arpaio's jail, though, you should refrain from this eco trend.
Cardboard boxes and newspapers are the two most recycled products in the U.S. — mostly because it makes financial sense to reprocess them.
The majority of cardboard boxes end their lives in an alley behind a store somewhere. It's easy to drive behind a strip mall and pick up all the boxes — clean and in one place — then sell them to a paper mill. There was never a government campaign to recycle boxes, but they're the most recycled product because they're easy to collect and are valuable to paper mills.
"The people who want paper will pay more for clean product that is sorted," Porter says of leftover boxes and newspapers. That may be why about 70 percent of newspapers now get recycled, too — usually into more newspapers, according to Chaz Miller of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.
Recycling paper saves significant landfill space, too. Archaeologist William L. Rathje spent decades digging through U.S. landfills to see what they're made of and how they biodegrade. In his excavation project with University of Arizona students, Rathje learned that paper occupies 40 percent to 50 percent of landfills.
Clean, grouped materials (piled cardboard boxes, a bag of aluminum cans or a dumpster of newspapers) can bypass the MRF sorting line altogether. Dropping your waste in large, one-product containers like these saves more energy and emissions than using curbside.
WHAT NOTTO RECYCLE
If you put plastic grocery bags, diapers, or shredded paper in the recycling bin, you're wasting a lot of other people's time, not to mention your own. You're also wasting the time and resources of the city that picks up your recycling (because it'll have to haul the stuff back to the landfill after losing money sorting it). Finally, you're wasting the time of the MRF employee the city pays to physically separate dirty trash from clean recyclables.
"Materials can be contaminated any number of ways — anything like peanut butter or a napkin from a football game or baseball game with mustard on it. The idea that we're going to collect all those napkins is not realistic," Porter says. (Ironically, though, Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality has doled out thousands of dollars to Little League baseball teams, in hopes that they'll pitch their bleacher litter into recycling bins.)
Gellenbeck says Phoenix MRF employees get most miffed by plastic grocery bags and any "film" plastic. "That material gets commonly stuck in the good stuff. It damages the machines, and sometimes we have to spend a good part of a day pulling a plastic bag out of a machine," Gellenbeck says.
"You don't have to wash your recyclables in the dishwasher or anything. Just make sure they're clean, empty and dry. We can't deal with wet, dirty garbage."
RECYCLING IS EXPENSIVE
Recycling is an expensive undertaking.
The north Phoenix MRF (the one Pela toured) cost $43 million to build and has 31 employees. It processes about 126,000 tons of waste per year, according to Gellenbeck. The SR85 landfill cost about half as much to build ($23 million) and pays fewer employees (23). It packs away nearly 10 times as much waste per year, more than 1 million tons.
The U.S. isn't as short on landfill space as was feared in the late '80s, Porter says. The SR85 landfill won't fill its two-square-mile shoes for another 50 years, according the city of Phoenix Web site. At that point, it will become a park, much like the recently sealed Skunk Creek Landfill, currently undergoing a makeover to become high school baseball fields and parks.
Porter says the impetus behind the curbside-recycling movement was a fear that we'd run out of landfill space. He would know. While at the EPA, Porter was in charge of landfills and Superfund sites when he set the national goal of recycling 25 percent of all waste.
Strict federal regulations (including a series of seals, the interception of hazardous waste, and the siphoning off of methane and other gases from inside landfills) now make landfills safe and clean enough to build high school playing fields on.
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"It's not like an aluminum can in the garbage is going to kill you," Porter says, "It's still serious, but it's not life or death."
SO, DOES MY RECYCLING MATTER?
Your recyclables do matter, sort of. If your city has curbside pickup, clean products are worth tossing in — particularly aluminum and paper. Dirty products are a waste of time. As my father used to say about peer pressure, "When in doubt, don't." The same holds true for soiled materials in recycling bins.
Tossing that aluminum can or newspaper in the recycling bin probably won't save the world. But it may help your city break even on its recycling program.