Does Recycling Really Matter?
You are walking to class when you finish a bottle of iced tea. You decide to walk the extra steps to put the empty glass in the recycling bins that seem to have cropped up all over campus. You feel satisfied that you’ve helped the environment, since the glass will now be reused.
But what makes you so sure?
Your glass bottle or aluminum can will leave campus with the intention of being recycled, a process that is overseen by Fairfield University Fire Marshall Joseph Bouchard.
“All our recyclables go to the regional center in Stratford, the same as the town of Fairfield,” said Bouchard. “ADS [American Disposal Services] picks up the recyclables, which is the same company that picks up for the town of Fairfield.”
But later on down the line, there is a chance that your bottle will end up in a landfill if nobody wants to buy and reuse the materials, something many environmental advocacy groups fail to point out when urging consumers to recycle.
How does it work? There are three steps to the recycling loop, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The bottle, can, paper or plastic must make it through all three checkpoints before actually being remanufacturered and reused.
The first step is collection of the recyclables, which in Connecticut happens individually by town, or in some cases by company or university. This is a combination of curbside pickup, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, and deposit or refund programs.
Steve Edwards, Director of Public Works in Westport, Conn. said his process is similar to the Fairfield University protocol. “If it’s authorized to go into the bin and it gets placed there, it gets sent to Stratford. They are responsible for finding markets for the materials.”
“Everything we have makes it to Stratford,but I know that at times they have difficulty finding a market for the materials we send over there,” said Stratford.
Who finds buyers? Once the bottles, cans, paper and plastic items are collected by the town or university, they are shipped to a state-designated location, which for Fairfield County is the Connecticut Resources Recovery Agency (CRRA) in Stratford. CRRA is also the home of the Garbage Museum where children are able to learn the correct way to recycle.
The CRRA is a partially private joint enterprise, funded by FCR, Inc., a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, Inc., and by the towns and universities served by the facility. The profits gained from selling recyclables to various recycled products manufacturers keep the plant in business.
The recyclables are sorted and prepared for purchasing in Stratford, which could mean bundling them into stacks of papers or crushing them into blocks of plastic. It is then the responsibility of the FCR administrators to find a buyer for these items.
Not all products are easy to sell, however. While items like clear plastic and white paper are in high demand, the market prices for recyclables vary widely, which is the point where the recycling loop often ends. The vision of your iced tea bottle being reincarnated ends here with a trip to the incinerator or landfill.
“When you’re searching for someone to buy the prepared recyclables and you have a difficult time, they start to build up on your loading dock. Eventually you have to make a decision about what to do with them,” said Edwards.
“The one problem is glass because it has a poor market value,” said Edwards. “We’re always looking for a place to put it – it’s been used in asphalt and common fill. Its primary use is to be recycled for glass, but unfortunately the demand is not overwhelming for that market.”
When FCR is successful in finding a buyer for the recyclables packaged in Stratford, they move onto the last checkpoint in the recycling loop. Due to sufficient consumer demand for recycled products, private companies are able to purchase and reuse these materials.
In 1999, the EPA estimated that recycling and composting activities prevented almost 64 million tons of material from ending up in incinerators with the rest of the garbage. Over 32.5 percent of the waste in the United States is recycled, which is almost double what it was in the 1980s.
The EPA also reported that 52 percent of paper, 31 percent of plastic soda bottles and 45 percent of aluminum cans were recycled in 1999.
What are we doing to help? Fairfield University has for many years offered various drop-off centers on campus for paper, newspapers, cans, glass, and plastic bottles. A new voluntary system using bins called “worms” was instituted in residence halls this year by Dr. Dina Franceschi, associate professor of economics.
This system was installed, along with specific instructions about what items were allowed, in order to further encourage students to separate recyclables to facilitate the process of sending them to the state-designated station in Stratford. When recycled items are mixed with ones that do not belong, or co-mingled, the school has more trouble shipping them properly.
“Co-mingling recyclables costs us $3,100 a month which covers the cost of pickup, labor and transportation,” said Bouchard. “The idea here is to take as much solid waste out of the recycling to save money. If you can take paper and cardboard, we can make money.”
Two items that are shipped elsewhere from the Stratford plant are white paper and cardboard, due to their consistent market demand.
“All our white paper and cardboard go to a transfer station in Danbury which is a railcar facility. They actually load it onto the railcars and ship it out,” said Bouchard. “They go to the Great Lakes region where they are then shipped to the Asian market which is extremely interested in purchasing our white paper for production of recycled paper.”
The introduction of these “worms,” as well as placement of white paper bins all over campus, has shown results in the past year.
“Since Dina [Franceschi] started the white paper project almost 12 months ago, we save about $902 a month. We’ve been giving it back to her to maintain educational programs,” said Bouchard.
While recycling on campus continues to increase, there needs to consistently be a high demand for the items we send off campus to match the amount of items that are actually recycled.
According to Judy Belaval, who works for the Office of Recycling and Source Reduction in the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, recent years have shown an increase in purchases of these prepared recyclables.
“The markets right now are better than they have ever been. They’re taking over 50 percent of the material we collect and it’s being exported for reuse. There’s often a greater demand than supply,” said Belaval.
Asked how she felt about the possibility of recyclables being incinerated, Nicole Leissing ’08, an economics major at Fairfield University who typically recycles said, “I’m not really surprised. It makes sense because I didn’t really think that every last thing I put in the recycling bin gets reused.”
She said, however, that this trend will not stop her from recycling in the future.
“I think it’s the thought that counts,” said Leissing. “If I make every effort to do the right thing, it’s out of my control what happens next.”