What's Behind A Patchwork Of Recycling Rules? Robert Siegel looks at his own neighborhood in Arlington County, Va., to figure out why what you can put into the recycling bin is different depending on where you live. While most counties have different rules, one expert says the best policy is one that gets you to recycle as much as possible.
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What's Behind A Patchwork Of Recycling Rules?

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What's Behind A Patchwork Of Recycling Rules?

What's Behind A Patchwork Of Recycling Rules?

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, we sort out some mysteries of recycling - well, they're mysteries to me, anyway. Every week in my neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, two trucks come through and make separate collections - trash and recycling. The arrival of the recycling truck is quite a spectacle: half municipal service, half extreme team sport. The truck heads down the cul-de-sac, the crew jumps off the truck, they grab the yellow plastic bins and the brown paper bags, and they dump them into two separate compartments of the truck and drive off.

Here's what mystified me. I carefully follow my county's recycling rules, but in other counties nearby, the rules are different, and every few years Arlington seems to change its rules. What's going on? Well, it turns out, recycling is kind of like voting, every jurisdiction runs its own show.

Mike Clem, Arlington's environmental programs manager, showed up at my house to observe my recycling habits.

Mr. MIKE CLEM (Environmental Programs Manager, Arlington County): Goodness, you've got a lot of stuff.

SIEGEL: I got a lot of stuff.

Mr. CLEM: Yes.

SIEGEL: I put all the plastic, metal and glass into the yellow bin.

Mr. CLEM: Here's a plastic bottle. Right.

SIEGEL: And then I put all the paper products out at the curb in paper bags.

Mr. CLEM: What we're looking at is junk mail with a plastic window on it, that should be recycled.

SIEGEL: Recycle that?

Mr. CLEM: Right.

SIEGEL: Cereal box in here.

Mr. CLEM: Cereal boxes.

SIEGEL: Stick it in the bin. But can I put it in with the newspapers too?

Mr. CLEM: Yes, exactly.

SIEGEL: Same thing, with the newspapers.

Mr. CLEM: Everything goes together anymore.

SIEGEL: Here's another bag.

It turns out there's a name for this system of recycling. It's called dual stream. Put all the paper products in one place and then commingle all the rest. Commingle is recycle-speak for throw everything else together. Here's the theory: I dispose of lots of stuff. It either goes for recycling or it goes in the trash. Disposing of the trash is really expensive for the county. Recycling is less expensive because the county can sell some of the stuff for money.

So, as Mike Clem told me, the best recycling policy is one that gets me to put less in my trash dumpster and as much as possible in my recycle bin.

Well, of all this stuff that I've given Arlington County, or I'm about to give this week - plastic, glass, I got a seltzer can there, and - what's valuable here and what's less valuable?

Mr. CLEM: All right. When I look in the bin - if I were going to buy anything, where the money is, it's that little aluminum can there. If you've got three or four of those aluminum cans, they'll pay for everything else in there. A lot of those items, they're not worth a whole lot. The glass bottles are more of a headache than they're worth, but the aluminum and the newspapers - really good, ready market, and the cardboard boxes.

SIEGEL: Arlington County figures that the best way to get me to recycle is to make it very easy. I used to have to cut or fold the cardboard down to size and tie it with twine. But they figure, if it's too laborious, I may get lazy and just stick the cardboard in the trash. In fact, my county is eyeing an approach that makes it even easier than dual-stream does. It's called single-stream. It's the approach many jurisdictions are taking these days, including nearby Prince George's County, Maryland.

Again, the trash is separate but there, all the recyclables - plastic, paper, glass, cardboard, metal - all of it goes into a single plastic bin and it's all sorted out at a recycling plant that opened last fall.

Mr. DAVID TAYLOR (Waste Management Administration, Prince George's County, Maryland): Now, what Prince George's County has is really the latest and greatest that you can buy.

SIEGEL: This would be state of the art right here, you're saying?

Mr. TAYLOR: State of the art.

SIEGEL: David Taylor is with Waste Management, the company that runs this plant. It separates stuff by passing it through a series of screens and optical scanners, air jets and magnets. Very few human hands are at work.

Mr. TAYLOR: We really only have four true sorters. The machines do over 95 percent of the separation.

SIEGEL: David Taylor says there's a big upside to having everything thrown in together: there's no need for separate compartments in the truck.

Mr. TAYLOR: In the past, you had trucks with a diverter in the middle. Bottles and cans, they take up a lot of space, but they're not very heavy. The newspapers - heavy, but they don't take up much space. So the trucks had to make multiple trips as the plastic would fill up. Using this new technology, the county really benefits by being able to use the same truck that they collect trash in one day, to go back and collect the recycling the next day. You can compact the loads. In a dual-stream system, you might get two, three tons in that truck every trip it makes. Now, you get eight, nine, 10 tons.

SIEGEL: Which explains a mystery of recycling that has puzzled many a recycler in a single-stream system. Why is the garbage truck hauling away the recycling? Are all those empty cans and bottles going to be dumped in a landfill? No, they're just getting better use out of the garbage trucks and saving gas and money.

The downside to single-stream is that despite the high-tech sorting devices, there is contamination - plastic bits in the paper, for instance. Quality suffers somewhat, and the end product sells for less. And, of course, it costs a lot of money to build a new, more automated recycling plant. So some places are sticking with dual-stream, keeping the paper separate from everything else. Neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland is one of them.

On the day I visited their recycling center, they had other big news - or at least what passes for big news in the recycling field.

Mr. ISIAH LEGGETT (County Executive, Montgomery County, Maryland): Now, we're taking our recycling program in a different level.

SIEGEL: That's Isiah Leggett, the Montgomery County executive.

Mr. LEGGETT: Up until now, our plastic recycling program was limited to plastic bottles. Now, however, you can place your plastic bottles, containers and lids - yes, lids - in your blue recycle bin each week for collection at the curb.

SIEGEL: Whoa. Plastic containers, lids, even plastic flower pots - eat your margarine tub out, Prince George's County.

Montgomery County's recycling center manager, Tom Kusterer, told me how his county made the decision to pick up stuff for recycling that other jurisdictions don't.

Mr. TOM KUSTERER (Recycling Center Manager, Montgomery County, Maryland): We've considered these tubs and lids and the flower pots for a while, but the market demand wasn't there. And we need to know that there's a market demand not only that people will buy our products, but that we're assured that these products will become new products when they're recycled. That kind of assuredness wasn't there until the last few months.

SIEGEL: And people are going to make things with this. What sorts of things will we see on the market?

Mr. KUSTERER: Yeah. Some of the uses that some of these - the tubs and the lids and flower pots - can go back into would be plastic lumber, plastic pallets, spacers that they use - plastic spacers in shipping boxes and things of that sort, to make sure materials don't shift around, and flower pots.

SIEGEL: Here's a catch with recycling: Once a county or a city decides to accept, say, plastic tubs and lids, it's pretty hard to tell people two years later, sorry, there's no more market for that stuff. So these decisions tend to be for keeps.

Right now, the good news is there is a strong market for most recyclables and plenty of tax money to be saved by getting us to recycle more, even enough to keep Ron Gonen in business. Mr. Gonen is CEO of a private company called RecycleBank, which contracts with local jurisdictions. So far, RecycleBank services over 100,000 homes and it's expanding very quickly.

Ron Gonen's idea is: Don't just make it easy to recycle, make it financially rewarding.

Mr. RON GONEN (CEO, RecycleBank): The way we do that is by providing every home, in the cities that we service, a new RecycleBank recycling container. There's a chip embedded in that container. We retrofit the city's trucks with a mechanical arm that picks up your container, reads the chip, identifies that the Siegel household has recycled and how much you've recycled.

SIEGEL: How much by weight, you mean?

Mr. GONEN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GONEN: And the amount that you've recycled is translated into RecycleBank points. You can then use those RecycleBank points to shop at over 400 different businesses, from national businesses like CVS to a whole host of local businesses.

SIEGEL: So the idea here is that you're trying to get me and my neighbors to recycle more and more and more, and there's this incentive that we get?

Mr. GONEN: Yes.

SIEGEL: RecycleBank points for doing it.

Mr. GONEN: Yes. It's a significant amount of money that American cities today spend to dispose of material that's actually recyclable that they could generate revenue for into the landfill. We roll out our program to cities for free. Every ton that we're able to motivate people to recycle and thereby divert from the landfill saves the city money. We take a cut of that savings.

SIEGEL: Ron Gonen says a family can earn three or $400 worth of RecycleBank points a year. He claims that in one Philadelphia neighborhood where RecycleBank operates, recycling went up more than tenfold in a matter of months.

In the small world of recycling, it turns up that Ron Gonen's RecycleBank is actually pitching my county, Arlington, Virginia. And Arlington is going to start collecting plastic tubs and lids next year.

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