Guest Column: Changes to local recycling programs

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Have you ever watched your recycling container get picked up at the curb and wondered, “Where does it go?” “Does it really get recycled?” “Why is a garbage truck being used to haul the material?” “How come they dumped all of the cans, bottles, plastic jugs, paper and cardboard all together when I sorted it all so carefully?”

In the past 10 years, the collection and processing of recyclable materials have changed significantly. Years ago, when curbside recycling began, most of the items collected were sorted at the curb. Residents separated their cans, bottles, plastic containers, newspaper, and other paper, and the hauler came by and dumped each item into different compartments on the truck. The materials were hauled to a recycling facility or Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where each compartment was dumped separately for further sorting and processing.

As sorting technology at MRFs improved, they switched to dual-stream recycling, where residents and haulers sorted all types of containers (cans, bottles, plastic) into one bin or compartment, and papers (newspaper, magazines, cardboard, etc.) into another. The haulers dumped each of the two compartments into separate areas at the MRF, and they were further sorted and processed.

Today, most of the curbside recycling services in northern Illinois have evolved into “single-stream” or single-sort recycling programs. Single-stream recycling allows residents to mix all recyclable materials together in one or more containers. The hauler collects the materials in a single compartment truck, often the same type of “packer trucks” that pick up garbage. This allows the hauler to compact the recyclables and maximize their loads, thereby reducing the frequency of pickups or number of trucks needed to service the area. This can reduce the hauler’s labor and fuel costs for recycling. The collected materials are hauled to a single-stream MRF, where all of it is dumped in one place. It is then sorted into separate commodities by an elaborate conveyor system of mechanical and automated equipment, as well as manual labor.

This concept of mixing recyclables in the collection trucks should not be confused with collecting and mixing municipal waste and recyclables together. Waste is hauled separately in a different truck.

The Ogle County Solid Waste Management Department has received some calls from angry or confused residents who watched their sorted and prepared recyclables get thrown into a garbage truck, which they assumed was going to a landfill. Director Steve Rypkema said the department tries to explain to them that although the materials may be transported by a “garbage truck,” they are still going to a recycling facility to be sorted and processed. They are just using the same type of vehicle to transport the recyclables as they use for waste.

Proponents of single-stream recycling list many advantages such as reduced sorting efforts by residents and increased volumes of recyclables; reduced collection costs; greater fleet flexibility; and increased opportunity to add new materials to the list of recyclables accepted.

Opponents of the system list many disadvantages that hurt recycling efforts such as: increased capital costs for recycling equipment; increased processing costs; increased contamination of the paper stream because of broken glass, metal and plastic; increased residual waste headed to local landfills; reduced public confidence in the recycling program because of contamination, unmarketability or misconceptions about whether the materials are actually getting recycled.

“Whether or not we agree with or like the collection and sorting system, this is the way the recycling industry is headed, so we should see it as an opportunity to recycle more of the waste that we all generate,” said Rypkema. “For those that have been recycling for years, this is a difficult transition, but it actually makes recycling easier for residents because they can mix any of the acceptable materials in the recycling containers and not have to worry about sorting. I hope a greater number of people will increase their recycling at the curbside!”

So what does it mean to the resident with a curbside recycling program? It means the separation of materials is no longer required in the curbside bins. You can mix all of the acceptable materials together in the bins. They will get sorted at the MRF.

The same applies to the County Drop Off recycling stations in Byron, Forreston, Monroe Center, Oregon, Polo and Rochelle. Users can now put any of the materials into any of the three compartments. This will allow a greater volume of material in the containers before getting hauled to the MRF. Signs and container instructions will be changed in the future to reflect this change.

For specific information about your recycling program, contact your waste hauler, municipality or the Ogle County Solid Waste Management Department.

from the June 6-12, 2007, issue

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