The Importance of Assessing Recycling Audit Residuals

By Jordan Fengel, Environmental Services Program Coordinator, Georgetown, TX. Member SWEEP Municipal Standard Committee

The act of recycling is necessary, and that is a simple fact. Through recycling, local, regional, and global economies are created enabling used and discarded consumer goods to be collected, reprocessed and reused. All of this allows for finite resources to be preserved and can potentially help mitigate price volatility of materials that are rare in supply like Cobalt, which is necessary to operate nearly every electronic device we use.

Most residential and commercial solid waste programs include periodic audits to look at the composition of the recycling stream when it goes through the material recovery facility (MRF). After the examination, a general report is provided detailing the various weights and percentages of the materials processed. Also included in the review is the portion of the goods that were not supposed to be in the recycling receptacle.

Contamination rates can vary depending on the diversion programs offered and the degree of educational efforts issued to the residents and commercial entities, but some examples shown in a 2017 Resource Recycling article revealed five different cities with contamination rates ranging between 12 -32 percent.

These periodic inspections are essential to businesses, municipalities, and the processors as they reveal the amounts of correctly and incorrectly placed goods by the participants. As incorrect materials continue to show up at the MRFs, it is reflected through higher fees for customers and utilities. MRF downtime spent untangling wires and plastic bags costs precious time and money, and increased maintenance. Picking landfill material from the sorting line is an inefficient use of staff time resulting in the need for more line workers, all of which is passed on through increased processing rates. A 2016 Recycling Today article noted that Waste Management reported a 20 percent increase in processing costs over two years’ time due to increased contamination. Processors can also include monetary penalties based on the percent of wrong items, as well as additional charges to landfill the non-compliant material.

Knowing what ends up in the recycling carts and dumpsters is a must, but more important is obtaining a breakdown of what was not supposed to be in the recycling stream. If there is knowledge of what the top contaminants are from each audit, educational program development and effectiveness are measurable after the next material audit. Each item that is not supposed to be in the recycling stream can be evaluated resulting in public awareness programs or even policy development like extended producer responsibility.

Recycling is needed to support our consumptive economy and preserve our finite resources. As China’s National Sword program, which restricts the import of recovered paper and plastic, has now kicked in, recycling the right materials has become even more critical. China’s policy is that contamination within a commodity bale cannot be more than 0.5 percent. Recall the earlier factoid of the contamination averages from five cities, and you will see why it is essential to know about and attempt to eliminate contamination. Cities need to ask for more detailed audit reporting about the contents of the contaminants at a granular level which should include product type, weights, and percentages.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of other members of TxPSC, STAR, nor the City of Georgetown, TX.

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