You wouldn't think that a jar of raspberry jam would be the cause of an existential crisis. But in my kitchen, it is.
It began two years ago when I visited a recycling facility in Chester, to learn about the process for an article in the magazine. The plant, owned and run by Tidewater Fibre Corporation, is where some of your trash and mine starts a journey back toward usefulness.
The "murf" — material recovery facility — is a decidedly unglamorous place. And reminders that this business is all about garbage greet you at the first footstep out of your car. Unruly scraps of shredded paper blow about like flakes of artificial snow.
Inside chain-link gates, the plant's huge front door gapes like an insatiable mouth where big green trucks spill loads of recyclable trash onto a mound.
In the first part of the process, workers along a conveyor system pull nonrecyclable trash out of the stream and discard it into trash piles. Sometimes, the job yields veritable treasure. One plant worker had pulled aside a set of Teflon-coated cooking pans that were indiscriminately tossed by their previous owners. Our photographer caught a worker jokingly wearing a foam-rubber "cheese-head" hat that someone erroneously chucked in his or her recycling pile.
Farther on, cleverly designed machines use gravity, vibration, rollers, magnets and air jets so cans fly off to collect with other cans, plastic bottles fall in with plastic bottles and glass settles into yet another stream. Eventually, the materials wind up in homogenous bales that are carted off and sold as commodities.
It was here in my journey that I met my existential crisis, where I no longer looked at an empty jelly jar the same way.
A mound of something was off to the side.
"Is that glass?" I asked.
The pile was as big as a whale that had beached itself beside the plant. It contained all manner of crushed glass — amber, clear and green.
"Yep," my tour guide noted, adding that it was one of the "dirty little secrets" of single-stream recycling.
Single-stream recycling is a process that allows people to throw all of their recyclable goods into one bin that is col-lected from their curbside and then sorted at a plant like TFC's.
"Dirty little secret" sounded scandalous, except that it's not. It's simply an economic reality: Perfectly clean and separated glass is expensive to harvest, and there's not much of a market for crushed, mixed glass like that whale of a pile.
While my tour guide told me this, I did the math. It's very possible that my recycled glass is not always recycled, per se, and that instead, it sometimes takes two truck rides before it ends up in
To this day, it's still a sticky topic for me, which is why, after having my breakfast-time love affair with toast and jam, I hit the crisis point: Do I recycle the jar? Or do I simply pitch the sucker? After all, one truck ride is more eco-conscious than two.
This is one of many questions I have about my recycling habits and whether I'm making a difference. With the goal of putting my own doubts to rest, I stuck my nose into the process and addressed 10 burning questions with experts.
Want to know what I decided about my empty jam jar? Read on below.
Q: Is recycling mandatory in Virginia?
A: Yes and no. For Virginia's cities and counties, it's yes. For individual taxpayers, no. In 1989, the state mandated that each locality must recycle at least 25 percent of the solid waste that it collects. So, some localities run their own recycling programs. However, in our region, 13 localities — including the city of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent and Powhatan — banded together to form a waste-management authority in 1990. The agency that coordinates the recycling programs for Richmond and 12 surrounding localities is the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority. CVWMA is a small-staffed, publicly funded group that serves as a liaison between the localities
and the contractors who collect and process our recycled materials.
This allows the region to negotiate with recycling contractors as one block and to report recycling statistics as a single unit. As a result, explains Steve Coe, an environmental program specialist for the Virginia
Department of Environmental Quality, only the region as a whole has to hit the 25 percent requirement. But CVWMA is among the top-recycling regions in the state; overall, we recycle more than 50 percent of our solid waste, according to DEQ's report of 2007 recycling rates. This number includes all of the recyclable trash that is collected through CVWMA programs and by private recycling companies as well — all data that CVWMA monitors and reports. Private companies not associated with CVWMA aren't required to report their numbers, says the group's executive director, Kim Hynes. Therefore, "we think that 50 percent number is a conservative figure," she says.
Q: Where does my recycling go after it gets sorted?
A: Recycled goods are bought and sold like commodities — meaning that the prices for, say, recycled aluminum rise and fall based on the market demand for that material. So, Central Virginia's recycling contractor, TFC Recycling, may sell your old newspaper, aluminum cans and plastic containers to any number of companies, depending on who's offering the best price per ton at a given moment. Bill Feltus of TFC says these are the general end points of the recycled goods that leave his plant:
- Recycled steel from cans and scrap metal stays in the United States, often going to nearby facilities owned by the global company Sims Metals, where it is processed and sold as raw metal for reuse.
- Aluminum is most likely destined for an Anheuser-Busch facility in Kentucky to be remade into new cans.
- Old newspaper: "The biggest commodity we have here is newspaper," Feltus says of TFC's operation. Typically, it's sent to one of two mills in Georgia or Alabama where the material is re-pulped to be used again as newsprint. Magazine stock is recycled along with newsprint. And according to the Magazine Publishers of America, only about 20 percent of magazines are recycled from the home. (Note to reader: Please recycle this one when you're done with it.)
- Cardboard may either stay local or go to China. It may end up at Sonoco Products Company in Richmond "if the price is right," Feltus says. Or it may be crated up and sold to a Chinese company, where there is a high demand for cardboard to support the packaging of manufactured goods that, yes, come right back to the United States.
- Plastics stay in the United States, usually being sold to nearby "grinders" — companies that grind up the plastics to make a broad array of products.
- Glass must be separated and cleaned to be of much value on the open market. TFC's plant, like many recovery facilities, doesn't have the capability to separate glass and to clean it of contaminants such as food and metal. Feltus explains that glass-manufacturing standards are very high, making it expensive to provide usable material for reuse. So, the mounds of glass at TFC — known as "mixed cullet" — may often take a trip to the landfill if there is no buyer for it. Some U.S. companies will buy mixed cullet for use as base material in roadways or to make certain types of brick.
Q: Why can't I recycle some plastics, especially those with recycling numbers other than 1 or 2? A: Again, it's pure economics. Plastics with the number 1 and number 2 symbols are the most common, highest-demand plastics used for items like soda bottles, milk jugs and detergent containers. These plastics can be recycled to make any number of items from carpeting and fleece products to kayaks and plastic lumber. Other plastics, however — those used for sour-cream containers or plant containers — don't have as wide of a market. In Portland, Ore., city officials were able to bring recycling companies and plastics companies to the table to expand the city's plastics recycling program, but according to Bruce Walker, Portland's solid-waste and recycling program manager, it was done only in the last year when the market was better for rigid plastics. Since then, he notes, market prices have fallen off, but the city is staying committed to the service. Q: Is there anything I should not throw in my recycling bin? A: You'd be surprised what people put in their recycling piles. "The weirdest thing we ever had was a mannequin coming up the line," says Bill Feltus of TFC, Central Virginia's recycling contractor, adding that it caused alarm in the facility when workers thought it was a real body. So, in short, don't throw items in your recycling without checking to see if it's actually recyclable. If you're truly invested in improving the environment and your locality's fiscal discipline, you should closely follow the basic guidelines for recycling, which you can find at cvwma.org. But in general, these are items you should not put in your recycling bin:
- Any phone book with yellow pages. Yellow-dyed paper is not acceptable because it doesn't fall in the white or off-white color range that TFC's paper customers require.
- Plastic bags or plastic film. Most grocery stores accept old plastic bags for recycling, but in a recycling plant, they get caught in the machinery and slow down the operation.
- • The plastic tops and lids to plastic containers. Notice that these tops and caps are not stamped with the 1 or 2 recycling symbols.
- Batteries. CVWMA advises that alkaline batteries can be thrown in the trash, but some electronics stores such as Radio Shack and Batteries Plus will accept them for recycling. Button-shaped hearing-aid and watch batteries can be recycled at certain hearing-aid service centers (find a list at CVWMA.org).
- Polystyrene packing materials such as the foam peanuts. To keep these out of a landfill, ask your local packaging store if they can reuse the materials.
- Electronics. If at all possible, avoid throwing electronics in the trash, and seek out responsible recycling companies to handle these materials. (See the question below.)
Q: What do I need to know before recycling my electronics? A: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 80 percent of computers, monitors and TVs were thrown away, not recycled, in 2007. As the FCC's analog-to-digital switchover kicks in this July, many people will be getting rid of old TVs too. This is a problem because these electronics contain toxic materials such as cadmium, lead and mercury, which are harmful to humans if not handled properly. Further complicating the issue is the fact that some electronics-recycling companies don't heed the federal and international guidelines barring the export of e-waste to countries where impoverished workers strip the machines by hand for various metals — posing serious health and environmental hazards. Unfortunately, Richmond magazine discovered that CVWMA's e-waste contractor, Supreme Asset Management and Recovery, was among 43 U.S. companies mentioned last year in a federal probe for allegedly exporting e-waste to Asia without proper approval. According to an October 2008 Business Week report on the federal investigation, Supreme denies any wrongdoing. Kim Hynes, executive director of CVWMA, says she was unaware of Supreme's tangle with federal authorities; however, as this magazine went to print, she was scheduled to visit the company's New Jersey facility to tour its electronics-processing operations. Many localities throughout the United States are in the same boat, says Bob Houghton, president of Redemtech, an Ohio-based computer recycling company with a processing facility in Richmond. Because municipal budgets demand the least expensive option for e-cycling, he explains, "you probably have a nine-out-of-10 chance" of sending electronics to a recycler that's exporting illegally. Houghton says the e-cycling industry has "thrived on a culture of zero transparency." That's changing, he says, with federal authorities seeking tighter regulation. "I think that people in business, when they're informed, will insist on it being done responsibly." Redemtech is among a number of companies listed on the "E-Stewards" registry created by Basel Action Network, an e-waste watchdog group based in Seattle. Currently, the list contains fewer than 40 electronics recyclers who are certified by BAN as following environmentally sound e-waste processing practices. Houghton suggests that you do your homework on an e-cycling event before turning over your TVs, computers or monitors. "When you're dropping off your computer, you should ask, ‘Where is it going?' " Hynes says that Central Virginia's e-cycling contractor, Supreme Asset Management, is contractually required to follow environmental laws when it processes e-waste. "If they aren't abiding the law, we have the right to terminate the contract," she says. To learn more about e-waste, view an 11-minute documentary (which includes footage from Redemtech's Richmond location) at redemtech.com. Or visit ban.org. Q: Are the localities getting rich from my recycled goods? A: "There's been a misconception that someone's making a ton of money off of the program," says Kim Hynes, executive director of CVWMA. In general, recycling programs are a modest cost to taxpayers in most localities, just like trash collection. CVWMA coordinates the curbside recycling program for 245,000 households in seven Central Virginia localities, including Richmond and its surrounding counties. This is the program that allows residents to throw all of their recyclables in one bin and put it on the curb for collection. The curbside program costs approximately $4.5 million annually, she says, which means each household pays less than $20 per year for the service. Of course, under CVWMA's agreements with its private contractors, the waste-management authority can get some money back from the sale of recycled goods. "Revenue from the sale of recyclable material offsets some of the collection and processing costs," Hynes explains. "No-cost" recycling programs (in other words, they don't cost the taxpayer) include oil, antifreeze, metal and propane-tank recycling — these programs allow CVWMA to share in the revenue from selling these commodities. If CVWMA generates enough revenue to have a budget surplus, Hynes explains, 75 percent goes back to the localities while 25 percent is used for education programs. For example, the authority earned $250,000 in recycling revenue last year — an exceptionally good year — and was able to return money to the city and counties. Q: I live in an apartment building. Why can't I participate in curbside recycling? A: This was the question posed by Richmond resident Chris Leone, who moved back to the city last summer after living abroad. "I had spent the last eight months in Japan, where you're kind of forced" to recycle, he says. But when he moved into a Shockoe Bottom apartment building, he found out that multifamily properties aren't served by CVWMA's curbside programs. Leone amassed about three months' worth of bottles and other recyclables in his apartment before having his truck-owning friend help him cart it to a drop-off site in the city's East End. But it was such a hassle, he says, "I had to give in. I just had to start throwing it all away, which kind of broke my heart to do." According to Feltus at TFC, there are too many logistical problems to provide convenient recycling for apartment buildings. Despite hearing concerns from the region's residents, Feltus says, no one has figured out a workable solution. Apartment building owners would have to make a central, convenient space for tenants to dispose of recyclables in a large container that TFC trucks can easily empty into their holds. But "where are you going to put that big hunk of metal?" Feltus asks. In city apartment complexes, that kind of space is scarce, he notes. However, cities like Portland, Ore. — which Popular Science magazine dubbed the nation's greenest city in 2008 — require apartment-building owners and recycling haulers to provide the services for multi-unit complexes, says Bruce Walker, Portland's solid-waste and recycling program manager. By city law, he says, recycling in apartments needs to be as convenient as trash disposal, period. Q: Why can't I recycle when I'm walking down a street? A: Leone, the frustrated city apartment dweller, says this is his other complaint with local recycling programs — that he can't find any containers on the street when he's walking around downtown Richmond. "I don't feel like I should have to go on a treasure hunt to find a place to recycle," he says. Of course, throughout the region CVWMA does provide drop-off recycling centers — central locations where people can take their recyclables and dump them into a bin (as Leone did). Perhaps the region's best example of pedestrian recycling is Virginia Commonwealth University's campus-wide recycling receptacles that are alongside normal trashcans. The university rolled them out in October 2008. "We had a big interest from students last year requesting that we have more outside recycling stations," says Steve Heinitz, recycling coordinator for VCU's department of environmental conservation. So, the university spent about $50,000 to place 25 of the containers (made out of recycled plastic) around campus. Whereas it may be less cost-effective to provide pedestrian recycling in suburban locales, the density of foot traffic and people using public transportation in the city could warrant a program similar to VCU's. "You've got have buy-in not only from the public sector but also from the private sector," says Dexter White, the city's director of public works. White says the idea of street-side recycling receptacles requires additional collection services — possibly from a CVWMA contractor — and a comprehensive marketing and awareness push to make sure pedestrians don't mistake new bins for trashcans. White says there's no movement anytime soon toward such an effort, though "I would welcome any group that's interested in helping the city formulate a plan." Q: How do I recycle bulkier items like appliances or building materials? A: If you're trying to shed an appliance that's in good working condition, your first step should be to try to find a person or organization that can reuse it — the most efficient form of recycling. Otherwise, refer to cvwma.org (or call the recycling hotline at 340-0900) for directions to your locality's closest "convenience center," where you can drop the appliance. Contractors for CVWMA will strip all of the recyclable elements and process it. Depending on the appliance, you may have to pay a fee. There are several local companies that recycle old building materials — wood, metal, glass, plastics, cardboard and other composite items. For instance, S.B. Cox (sbcoxdemolition.com), a demolition firm in downtown Richmond, collects and separates old construction and demolition debris for recycling at its facility on Williamsburg Road at the Richmond-Henrico line. Though the company works primarily with construction companies, S.B. Cox will also accept individual loads of home-construction debris for a tipping fee based on weight and other factors. A company with a newer presence in the region, Ace Recycling (acewasterecycling.com), opened at the beginning of the year in Chester's Sustainability Park. As green businesses go, it's a dark shade of green. Ken Mogul, the company's president, says Ace's plant was built according to some of the U.S. Green Building Council's toughest standards for energy efficiency — the company hopes to receive the council's second-highest rating, a LEED Gold status. In a former Brown & Williamson tobacco-manufacturing building, Mogul's company employs a sophisticated computerized system that helps sort and process debris, performing functions such as removing metal out of wood material and then grinding the wood. Mogul says that 80-plus percent of the construction and demolition debris that comes into his building, after a tipping fee is paid, leaves as reusable material. Q: OK, so what about recycling my jam jar? A: After talking to recycling pros in the public and private sectors, we have to conclude that glass is the thorn in almost every program's side. But here's the hope: The technology exists to separate and process glass in a cleaner form — it's expensive, though, and therefore not widespread. So, you know what? We'll keep recycling our jars and stay patient for the technology to come our way some day soon. And here's another thought: If our raspberry jam comes in a recyclable plastic container, maybe that's an even better choice.