Regulatory Stimulus for Recycling

As of 1990, 38 states had enacted recycling laws. Unlike laws aimed at protecting human health and the environment by specifying how a disposal method must operate (e.g., by requiring emission controls on combustors and landfills), recycling laws attempt to reduce the need for the other disposal options by specifying required levels of reduction, separation, and diversion. More than 20 states require or set goals for separation of recyclable materials from MSW. As of 1990, 40 states had passed laws to encourage state agencies to purchase products with recycled content. Other laws intended to implement source reduction (which is outside the scope of this study) include requirements for alterations in the composition of products that eventually become waste (see Appendix E and NSWMA, 1991; Bullock and Salvador, 1990).

At the municipal level, federal goals and state laws have increased interest in recycling programs. Municipalities have been implementing collection and separation programs at a rapid rate. The number of operating programs increased by 80% in 1990, to 2,700 curbside collection programs; the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) estimates that 3,500 curbside collection programs were operating in l991 (Allen, 1992).

Prevalence of MRFs As of l991, 35 MRFs were operating in the United States, and plans for another 64 had been announced (ICF Inc., 1991). Exhibit I provides more detailed information on these facilities. The capacity of existing MRFs that sort collected materials, whether mixed or separately collected, averages 89 tons per day; planned facilities are larger, averaging 162 tons per day. The design capacity of all existing MRFs totals about 1 million tons per year. If all those facilities were operated at 100% of capacity, the need for new landfill space would be reduced by about 1% (SRI calculations based on Appendix E; Berenyi and Gould, 1990; Franklin Associates, 1990). The amount of material diverted from landfills by recycling programs that do not include MRFs is unknown.

Percentage of Waste Being Recycled

Extensive confusion exists about the amount of recycling that is being done, the role that recycling plays in managing MSW, and the extent to which community-based recycling programs help to reduce the amount of waste to be handled in other ways. To put these issues in context, it is important to briefly review the various segments of the recycling industry.

The oldest, largest segment is the secondary materials and scrap industry, which handles old cars, railroad scrap, shipbreaking, textile waste, paper, and similar products. Industry participants consist mainly of large companies and entrepreneurs that buy cardboard, plastic film, used pallets, and other waste or scrap from commercial businesses such as grocery stores and warehouses, printers, and shops. They recycle nearly 100 million tons per year of metals, glass, paper, plastics, fiber, and other materials. That amount includes about 1.3 million tons of aluminum scrap (other than used aluminum cans), 29 million tons of paper, and 26 million tons of "old" ferrous scrap (Business Recycling Coalition, 1991). Materials recycled by such companies are outside the scope of this report because although they recycle separated materials, they are not managing MSW.

The next largest segment consists of state programs established in response to bottle deposit and redemption laws that require cash payments for returned containers. For purposes of this study, it has been assumed that individual communities do not have the option of establishing such laws for their own jurisdictions alone.

The third segment of the industry consists of the types of programs that a community can implement, including dropoff centers, curbside collection, mixed waste processing, and RDF preparation. Such community-controlled programs are the focus of this section.

The statistics that are reported about recycling often fail to distinguish clearly among these segments, and they can be quite misleading when applied to a community. For example:

When the effectiveness of community-based collection and separation programs alone is considered, the picture is different, but equally confusing:

In this study, the estimates of the effect of recycling on MSW management are based on the assumption that a community that offers curbside collection will be able to sustain collection of separated recyclables totaling 12% of its MSW by weight (Snow, 1989). Thus, 12% sustainable collection rates were used in the estimates of energy, emissions, and landfill savings used in the integrated strategy examples. In estimating energy requirements and emissions for collection and transportation, data for an actual community were used. In the model community used for estimating transportation requirements for the "Integrated System Example" later in this section, 6.5% of the MSW (by weight) was set out for curbside collection or dropped off at a recycling center. (Another 4.5% of the MSW was set out as yard waste for separate collection and composting.)

If 12% of MSW by weight is diverted to an MRF, the volume of the compacted landfill required by a community is reduced by 9%. Because the life of a landfill is limited by volume, a 9% reduction in landfill volume extends the useful life of the landfill by 9% (SRI calculations based on Berenyi and Gould, 1990, and Franklin Associates, 1990).

Markets and Beneficial Uses

A typical curbside collection program would collect cardboard, newsprint, glass, and aluminum. For this study, it was assumed that all the recyclables collected and separated in an MRF are sold for reuse(2). In the real world, markets for recyclable materials vary by region. Some regions have no markets for some of the recovered and separated products; in those cases, communities either fail to offer to collect the material e.g., many communities in the Northeast do not collect tin cans (Waste Age, l991)-or communities must pay potential users to accept them.

If no furnaces suitable for recycling green and amber glass into containers are located within an economic distance, alternative uses for the glass must be identified (Trombly, 1991). Mixed paper, a material that can be easily recovered in an MRF, has very limited markets, and these traditional markets are not growing (Rushton, 1992; Morris, 1991). New uses will be needed. Similar difficulties have been encountered in finding markets for other types of recycled products.

Energy Considerations


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