Tuesday, March 5, 2013

You heard it here first

Today we read that the City Council is calling single-stream recycling, including glass, a "no-brainer." Apparently this eureka moment comes at the urging of angry Prescottonians. Good going, we-the-people. Just let me remind you that this fruit has been hanging low the whole time, as I noted over two years ago:

Rethinking the Glass Problem
Pop Rocket, February 2011
An awful lot of Prescottonians, including yours truly, were dismayed when the City "suspended" its glass recycling program in September. Some were outraged. Of the myriad materials we send to the landfill, glass is arguably the most durable and among the simplest to recycle. It simply should not be in the waste stream.
     When The Daily Courier quoted City staff saying that there was "no market" for recycled glass and that "manufacturers found it cheaper to start from scratch to make new glass products," my internal BS alarm went off.
     Among the outraged is my partner Lesley, recently moved to Prescott from Sedona, a much smaller municipality that manages to maintain regular glass recycling through a private-sector arrangement. She dug into the issue and turned up some illuminating facts.
     It turns out that yes, prices for used glass are down, but it's not quite true that there is no market. A look at how the big kids do it shows that a lot depends on how you design your program.
     Prescott contracts with Norton Environmental in Flagstaff to pick up our recyclables at the Sundog transfer station, and we pay $10 per ton for the privilege, a savings compared to paying Waste Management to entomb the stuff out at the Grey Wolf landfill.
      But Norton has never been able to handle our glass. The City's glass effort has been a separate stream involving local crushing and direct marketing. In the mid-aughts, prices for glass fell below the costs (including transport, a big piece) of this relatively small operation, creating the sort of fluctuation squeeze any commodity manager can see coming when margins and efficiency are low. 
     Efficiency comes with scale. Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, several smaller Valley cities and a bunch of large corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and the US Postal Service concentrate their recyclables on the huge Hudson Baylor facility in West Phoenix. This New York-based company does single-stream recycling, meaning all recyclables, including glass, go into the same bin and large machinery does most of the sorting. HB pays the cities for their materials, and it sells the sorted products to reprocessors. A YouTube search for "Hudson Baylor Avondale" will get you a look at how it works.
     Currently the most valuable materials in the recycle stream are aluminum and cardboard. (A large proportion of the cardboard winds up sold to Chinese concerns, an interesting foreign-trade angle. We may not be leading the world in manufacturing anymore, but our consumer culture does pump out a lot of salable waste.) With a diversified income stream, the more profitable materials compensate for lower-yielding materials, like glass is right now. The simplicity of single-streamingencourages people to recycle more, bringing in more profitable materials, and its processing efficiency reduces cost.
     Asked whether HB would be interested in taking on Prescott's recycle stream, Marketing Director Will Herzog is quite positive: "I would be more than happy to come up and meet with your City Council to discuss possible solutions." Herzog tells us that HB has never received an inquiry from Prescott. 
     So where's the catch? A couple of factors stand out.
     One is practical. Prescott would have to truck its recyclables to Phoenix, adding some cost. But rather than pay Norton $30,000 a year, HB would be paying us, and we'd be saving some tonnage cost on additional recyclables not sent to Grey Wolf. We'd have to work the numbers there, but the problem doesn't look insurmountable.
     The other catch is more about vision. We would have to think a little bigger to build an integrated system more in line with the economics of the industry. Recycling isn't just a feel-good perk, it is already a major money-saver for many cities and industries, growing more economically essential every day. It's unwise to hold off acting until the need becomes acute and obvious.
     A partnership with HB is a strong possibility, but clearly it will take a lot more research to determine what would be the best fit for Prescott or perhaps the region more generally. Many cities apply federal and state grants for this purpose, and the opportunities there require careful, expert scrutiny. Here I just hope to restart the conversation.
     The central question is not whether we can find a way to recycle our glass or anything else, it's clear that we can, but rather whether we care enough to deal responsibly and conservatively with our ever-growing piles of waste.