What are the Issues?Commingled collection systems are here to stay - that is not in question. The question is how can we improve them so that higher quality materials enter the MRF and, in turn, result in more materials being sent on to the intended manufacturers - where the actual recycling occurs.
Benefits of a commingled systemFor a collection system, there are many benefits for choosing an automated, single cart approach. Reduced worker injuries and more efficient route times mean lower costs for collection. The trucks can compact all the materials together, rather than having to leave the route to empty the entire truckload when only one material type has reached capacity in the truck. Because there is less or no sorting by the residents, there is increased participation. In addition, the increased capacity of the cart allows for higher collection volumes and the ability for programs to add materials without having to invest in more bins. Automated carts have a lid and wheels which improves public convenience and privacy, and prevents material from blowing out of the bins. They also keep pests from getting in, and keep materials drier, making them easier to process and worth more in the marketplace.
Limitations of a commingled systemThe major limitation of a commingled recycling system is that which is mixed together must then be separated. Many of the benefits on the collection side of the system can cause problems for the processor and, in turn, the end-use manufacturers. Some materials like glass, plastic film and flattened containers are difficult to separate once mixed together, and can cause cross-contamination of other materials (usually, paper) and problems with equipment. The increase in collection volumes and participation can overwhelm the processing system, causing cross-contamination, an increase in non-program materials, and ultimately, "lost" recyclables. There also tends to be lots of variation in what is collected across jurisdictions, causing confusion for residents and making it more difficult for the processors to rely on a consistent mix which aids in sorting.
The savings achieved from the automated collection system result in higher shifted costs to the processors and mills. It is more labor intensive to sort and produces a lower quality material. The capacity, shape and privacy of the cart might lead residents to use the recycling cart for excess garbage. Because carts offer increased capacity, many jurisdictions that switch to commingled carts will often reduce garbage service to every-other-week, exacerbating the dumping issue - an unintended consequence. Residents often hold the belief that everything can go in the recycling cart, and it will get sorted and recycled. Mistakes can be made due to the visual similarity of garbage and recycling carts. Either way, direct feedback to the resident is much more difficult with an automated collection system.
Photos: Automated collection and use of rolling carts have many benefits for the first stage of the commingled recycling system. Due to commingled collection systems, paper mills receive a lot of materials that are not fiber. Once they go through the pulping process and are rejected (pictured above), they are too contaminated with ink to be recycled and must be disposed. NORPAC Paper Mill, Longview WA.
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