The benefits of recycling for the environment are evident. Manufacturing new products with recycled materials emits less carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere compared to the production of new materials, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and reusing materials instead of throwing them away can extend the lifespan of landfills, according to the Municipality of Anchorage Solid Waste Service.
So when Alaska Waste expanded its curbside recycling service to Palmer and Settlers Bay residents on April 7, it created another opportunity for people to recycle, but some recycling officials dispute the efficacy of the program. Here is how it works.
Within the $179 million recycling industry in Alaska, according to an economic impact analysis by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. there are two methods of recycling: single-stream and multi-stream. Multi-stream recycling means customers separate their recyclable materials. Single-stream recycling means that customers deposit their recyclable materials into one bin where they are “co-mingled,” meaning cardboard, plastics, aluminum cans, etc. are in the same bin, which is what AK Waste’s curbside program offers.
AK Waste’s recycling program costs $23.33 per month, but customers must have a trash service with AK Waste. The prices for AK Waste’s Wasilla trash service range from $26.85 for the 32-gallon bin to $34.88 for the 96-gallon bin.
“You may find that with curbside recycling you don’t need as large of a trash container,” Laurel Andrews, spokeswoman for AK Waste said. “Or, if you have two trash bins, switching one to recycling might yield some savings, too.”
Downsizing from the largest bin to the 64-gallon bin would save $5.40 per month and switching from the 64-gallon to the 32-gallon bin would save $2.63, along with the price of the curbside recycling service.
Roughly a third of the calls AK Waste has received from customers in the Valley have been questions about curbside recycling. So far, about 50 households have signed up for the service.
AK Waste already provides curbside recycling in Juneau and Anchorage. In Anchorage, AK Waste sends the material they collect to the Anchorage Recycling Facility, which is operated by WestRock, a global recycling corporation. Right now, about a quarter of the material that ARC receives comes from both AK Waste’s and the Solid Waste Service residential curbside recycling services in Anchorage, with most of the material coming from commercial sources. ARC bales the unsorted material and sends most of it to a material recovery facility in Tacoma, Washington, which breaks apart the bales and sorts the material, said an Anchorage recycling official.
Single-stream recycling brings with it additional costs compared to multi-stream recycling, like hauling the material to sorting facilities and operating the sorting facilities. Also, the overall yield of usable material is lower compared to multi-stream recycling. Terry Koch, marketing and graphics director at Valley Community for Recycling Solutions which operates the recycling center in the Valley said virtually all the material they collect is sold to end users who will manufacture the material into new products.
Once the material from ARC reaches the sorting facility in Washington and is sorted, roughly 90% of the material is usable, better than the national average of about 60-80%, the Anchorage recycling official said.
“And this is why they are realizing single stream is not the way to do it,” Koch said. “It’s very inefficient and it does end up going to the landfill.”
The reason why some material cannot be recycled is that single-stream recycling increases the risk of contamination of the recyclable material, Kelsey Allrich who co-owns Allrich Recycling, a sorting facility that serves residential and commercial clients in Palmer and Wasilla said. Food waste or other materials that cannot be recycled can contaminate the recyclable material if they are all placed in the same container. The mills where the sorted material is manufactured can generally handle small amounts of residue on containers, like residual soda left in the cans, but viscous liquids like honey or peanut butter will worsen the quality of the final product. Too many contaminants can lead end users to reject the material, or can make sorting too difficult to impossible, and otherwise recyclable material would be rejected and would end up in the landfill. With the sheer amount of material sorting facilities have to process, it is not feasible to wash away food waste or other contaminants, Allrich and the Anchorage recycling official said. Generally, the sorted material can contain about 5% of contaminants or different material to be accepted by end users, Allrich said.
Allrich Recycling offers a similar service to AK Waste in that customers can place all their recyclables into a single bin. The main difference with Allrich’s operation and AK Wastes is that Allrich sorts the material by hand, which saves machinery costs. After Allrich sorts the material, it sends it to VCRS.
“Being the middle-men for sorting benefits both sides,” Allrich said.
Along with the protracted challenge of sorting the material, continually educating single-stream users is a necessity for both ARC and Allrich to undertake to ensure the quality of the material. Some people are wishful recyclers, and place things into recycling bins that they assume — or hope — are recyclable according to the University of Washington School of Environmental Affairs. For instance, AK Waste accepts #1 plastic bottles and #2 plastic jugs, but someone might reasonably assume that any plastic they place into the bin will be recycled. Ironically, due to wishful recycling, sorting facilities then need to put more effort to remove unrecyclable materials or different materials.
VCRS is not partnered with AK Waste and does not collect and sort their material; VCRS, a nonprofit collection facility, cannot sort the material itself. All the material they collect has already been sorted.
The tradeoff to the single-stream costs is that it encourages people who otherwise would not recycle to do so. Some people will recycle no matter what while others will never, but in theory those who want to recycle but are too busy to drive to a collection facility and sort the material can recycle through a single-stream service, said the Anchorage recycling official.