One Bin vs. Single Stream vs. Dual Stream with ISRI’s David Wagger

June 22, 2015

 
John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. The ISRI edition of Green Is Good here in downtown Vancouver at the Vancouver Convention Center. We are so honored to have with us today David Wagger. He is the Director of Environmental Management at ISRI. Welcome to Green Is Good, David. David Wagger: Thank you very much, John. I’m happy to be here. John Shegerian: Well, to learn more about your great organization, our audience can go to www.ISRI.org, and we’re going to talk about ISRI and what you do there. More specifically, we are going to talk about one-bin recycling today. But before we get into that, share a little bit about your story, David. How you got to ISRI, and what was everything leading up to your interest in sustainability and recycling and things of that such? David Wagger: I’m happy to do that. Well, I grew up in California. I wasn’t born there. I grew up in California in the San Francisco Bay Area. John Shegerian: Okay. David Wagger: And things like recycling and things that were green – but we didn’t call them “green” – were quite common, and so I kind of had that for my upbringing. So it seemed perfectly natural to recycle, conserve energy, be energy efficient and those types of things. So I pretty much carried that with me my entire life growing up from the age of five. I always had some environmental bend. I studied Chemical Engineering in college and in graduate school, and I always had sort of a focus on trying to make operations better environmentally. I ended up in Washington D.C. after graduate school. I was at a fellowship with the Agency of International Development, working on energy and environment in developing countries. So it was kind of bringing that same sense of environmental conservation but helping people too who needed help and development. So I’ve always had that germ, that seed of sustainability and green, even before we called it that. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: I was in environmental consulting for a while. And how I got to ISRI is somewhat by accident. I would say that my career, so to speak, was not planned. It was more serendipitous. John Shegerian: Okay. David Wagger: It just so happened that I ran into Robin Wiener, the President of ISRI. I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know who ISRI was. We had a conversation and we both have kids about the same age and we discovered we have kind of similar backgrounds. She explained what ISRI was and I said, “Oh that’s very interesting, it sounds like an interesting organization.” So literally a week later I read an ad for the position of Director of Environmental Management, which is the position I have now. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So she gave me her card, and I emailed her and said, “Well, what do you think?” and she said, “Well, send me a resume and we’ll see if it’s a good fit.” So it took a process, a couple interviews and basically three months later I was working for ISRI. John Shegerian: As the Director of Environmental Management, what are your duties at ISRI, specifically speaking? David Wagger: I would say the big concept is member service. John Shegerian: OK. David Wagger: So we’re a trade association, and it’s basically – to oversimplify it – a club of like-companies in the same industry. We have recyclers. We have companies that provide services and equipment to recyclers. John Shegerian: Sure. David Wagger: But my first priority is to address their environmental needs – whether it’s understanding a regulation, if they have a compliance issue, if they need training, say, in storm water management or how to manage things like dust control and other type of things, I help them with that. I will also operate or work on their behalf when there is a regulation, say, that perhaps could be better crafted for our industry. I will write comments. I’ll discuss regulation with regulators both at state level and national level. So I have opportunities to advocate and teach at conventions like the one we are having in Vancouver. I just moderated a workshop on Design for Recycling, which is a very important policy principle for ISRI. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: Trying to get things that are manufactured to be manufactured with recycling in mind so that when they’re at their end of life they can be safely manufactured or, in some cases, reused if it’s, say, electronics or other types of devices. It’s good for our industry. It’s good for our members. It’s good for the environment. It’s a win-win-win. John Shegerian: Got you. David Wagger: So that’s really kind of what my goals are and my outward responsibilities are. John Shegerian: So today we’re going to talk about one of the elements of recycling: one-bin recycling. I’d love for you to start with the macro principal of what one-bin recycling is. Then, we’ll take a deeper dive into all the different other types of bins that are being used and how one-bin compares against everything else. David Wagger: One-bin recycling is a very specific term. Just a little bit of background, ISRI represents private sector recyclers. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So it’s typically business-to-business. There will be a manufacturer that has excess scrap, metal, paper, what have you and our members recycle it. The one-bin recycling is really down to municipal level, but the connect is typically commodities in common between what is collected on a municipal level and what our members collect and recycle in the private sector. There is a connection there through the commodities. Paper and plastic, I think, are the ones that are sort of the key ones at least at this intersection between what we do and one-bin. Now, one-bin recycling or one-bin collection is a short hand way of saying in communities where they don’t have specific recycling collection, they do have garbage collection, it turns out that everyone puts all of their garbage and things that are recyclable into one bin. So you get things like food residues or detergent residues that are contacting recyclable materials that if they were not comingled with this material would be quite clean and quite good high quality for recycling. What happens is one-bin causes the comingling, which causes a quality degradation of recyclable commodities and that’s bad, I think, for everybody. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: And that’s really kind of what is at stake. Paper is especially vulnerable, because paper really needs to be clean. So if you get food residue on it, it reduces the quality and it makes it less likely that it is going to be a recyclable commodity that a paper mill wants to have. So it could either end up in a landfill or because it has energy value – food residue, for instance, doesn’t really affect the energy value – it could end up going to energy recovery, which really isn’t recycling. So it could end up taking a lot of things that would end up being recycled into new paper or new plastic and send them along to be combusted for energy recovery and then you don’t have those materials anymore. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: You may have the internal energy contained in them but there is no longer an opportunity to recycle them again and again and again. John Shegerian: So for audience members and for myself, because I’m a little confused, how is one-bin different than single-stream recycling? David Wagger: Right. And before I came to ISRI, I didn’t really understand the different lingo there. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So one-bin is the comingling of, basically, garbage and recyclables. Single-stream is the separate collection of all recyclables in one container. So, in a single-stream collection recycling scheme, you’ve got separate collection of garbage by itself and then you have separate collection of glass, metal, paper and plastic in one container itself. What happens is that one container recyclables then need to go to a facility typically called a MRF or a materials recovery facility to separate the glass from the paper from the plastics from the metal. John Shegerian: So one-bin is really one bin. Only single-stream really means a bifurcation of waste and recyclables. David Wagger: Correct. John Shegerian: But when you put the recyclables in one recyclable bin is the possibility, even though there is allegedly no waste in it, is it still contamination and degradation possible in that one bin? David Wagger: I think, yes, it’s possible. It tends to be more feasible to separate in an economic fashion. There are even higher levels of recycling called dual-stream, and we have dual-stream where I live. John Shegerian: OK. David Wagger: Where it’s we’ve got separate garbage collection. We have a large container for all paper products. Magazines, cereal, boxes, cardboard, wrapping paper, newspaper – that goes in one bin. The other bin has plastics and glass and metal. So that’s dual-stream. San Francisco, I think, has three streams. They have organic separately. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: That’s separate from the garbage itself so you could, in theory, have as many streams as you wanted if you thought that you could do it economically and with good fidelity that the sorting is actually very good at the residential level or commercial level. John Shegerian: Got you. And then so explain, now, where is the battleground right now across America right now with regards to various cities and municipalities? Or what has become state-of-the-art? Is it one-bin? Is it single-stream? Is it dual-stream? What’s going on and what’s at stake here? David Wagger: My sense of it is the following. There is a large push – not unreasonably – for states to improve their recycling rates. Often what that means is they give targets to their municipalities and localities that “you need to be recycling.” In many states that have low recycling rates, they really want to raise them and that’s good. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: However, what that also tends to mean is that there are many communities that have no recycling program at all, and it could be those communities also say they don’t have infinite resources to create a recycling program. So one-bin collection is happening by default. If they have no separate recycling collection, everything goes into one bin. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So the simplest thing to do is to put a material recycling facility on the backend of that so all of the one-bin materials go into a materials recycling facility – often called a ‘dirty MRF’ because the materials that are going into it are comingled and cross-contaminated. John Shegerian: Compared to a pure MRF, which you just referenced a couple minutes ago. David Wagger: Which would have, say, a single-stream input or even a dual-stream input. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So what happens is… John Shegerian: Now you’re at dirty MRF. What do we do? David Wagger: Well, the thing is that there is a lot of economic pressure on the one hand to minimize costs. On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure to increase recycling rates. The simplest thing to do doesn’t require new trucks, more employees to drive, let’s say, two sets of trucks one for recycling and one for garbage. The simplest thing to do to avoid all that expense is to have a MRF put on the backend of it so that you can send all of this and hopefully get recyclables out of it of a good enough quality that they will hit the recycling stream and end up being new plastic, new paper, metal and so forth, with the things that are not recyclable quality either being landfilled or going to energy recovery. There is even value proposition on the energy recovery side. From our perspective, from ISRI’s perspective, energy recovery isn’t recycling. And to the extent that it takes paper and directs it not to recycling but in that direction because of contamination, we think that’s bad for everybody. John Shegerian: For our listeners and our viewers and our audience that just joined us, we are honored to have with us David Wagger. He is the Director of Environmental Management of ISRI. www.ISRI.org. This is the ISRI Green Is Good edition from downtown Vancouver at the Vancouver Convention Center. David, so incineration is not recycling. Is that towards the waste-to-energy model? And that means incineration and that we’re not considering recycling right now for ISRI’s purposes? David Wagger: I would say even the EPA agrees that energy recovery or incineration – well, energy recovery means that you are taking a material as a fuel. You are combusting it and the energy that comes out of the combustion process generates steam or electricity. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: That is energy recovery. Incineration is simple burning it to get rid of it so it doesn’t go in a landfill. So there is no product that comes out of it, whether it’s a material or whether it’s energy. Although some would say that if there is any metal contained in the material, it will drop out of the bottom and that has some value. But from our perspective, and the EPA would agree, that in the hierarchy of materials management that is not considered recycling. John Shegerian: Got you. So talk then a little bit about the advantages and disadvantages of one-bin, and where do you fall, and ISRI fall, philosophically on the one-bin movement? David Wagger: The advantages and disadvantages actually apply to different stakeholders in this whole thing. So the an advantage to the municipality that needs to have a recycling program but can’t afford, let’s say, the extra collection and bins and so forth is to implement that as a way to get some recycling out of what they currently do. John Shegerian: Got you. David Wagger: It minimizes the cost. It produces recyclables of some quality. So I think from their perspective it meets their need to raise their recycling rate. On the other hand it has the high probability of taking commodities that could be recycled easily if they were separately collected and making them less recyclable. Some of it, say the paper and the plastic that has energy value, might end up going toward the energy recovery side and fewer and lower quality material will get to the recycling side. John Shegerian: If we were to poll the great members of ISRI here at this convention, where do most members today fall on this whole one-bin phenomena? David Wagger: Well, I think they are fully behind ISRI’s policy, and I’ll try to summarize it. John Shegerian: Yeah. David Wagger: Basically, ISRI supports separation of materials from each other that are distinct commodities and the maximum collection so you can get the maximum amount of recyclables out of this. They support pre-sorting. They are against comingling of materials, because it lowers the quality of recyclables that end up being, let’s say, separated from that stream of materials. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: I think that – I can’t think of any member that would be against that policy. We’re about recycling. We want high quality commodities, because quite frankly it’s better for us; it’s better for our customers; it’s better for our society to have recycling that has greater economic value and lower environmental impact, because it takes a lot of effort to actually clean materials that are cleanable. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So it sort of lowers the value environmental protection proposition. John Shegerian: For all the stakeholders. David Wagger: Correct. John Shegerian: So therefore one-bin is really not – even though as you say philosophically and in practice it would help a municipality, city or community that is desperate to raise their recycling rates and managing a very tight budget. But overall the contamination that carries along with this really degrades the value of the recyclables and therefore isn’t good for anybody in the recycling chain. David Wagger: I would say that is a fair characterization. I think the challenge is to go to municipalities and give them the value proposition of actual single-stream or dual-stream recycling. I think there is a value proposition in there, but because of their own priorities and the way that they manage their own budgets and operations, I think that’s a conversation that we need to have and really try to understand each other and where we’re coming from. John Shegerian: Is part of ISRI’s role then, David, in the education of communities and community leaders, city leaders, municipality leaders across America to find a better way? David Wagger: I certainly think that is true. Another disadvantage that I didn’t raise about one-bin is to the extent that people think, “Oh, I don’t have to do anything to recycle, all I have to do is throw it into that with the garbage and it’s done, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” that kind of is almost de-educating people, desensitizing them that recycling, well, takes some amount of intentionality. It’s helpful to think about it because what happens is if they go away from home or they’re somewhere else, they may just instinctively throw it in the garbage can because that’s what they do at home. It’s sort of a reflex. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: So I think that it also is sort of a reversal of all the education efforts going back to Earth Day originally back in the 1970s. It could sort of de-educate people, desensitize it, even make recycling sort of lose the value proposition. It remains unclear how it will unfold in terms of people’s behavior. But we think it’s probably going to be a negative behavioral impact with respect to recycling overall. John Shegerian: And against the recycling movement that we’ve seen action and activity in. And especially even in the last 10 years, the sustainability revolution and movement has seemed to go into full steam finally here in the United States. David Wagger: Right. And certainly I think there are many subcultures that would agree that sustainability includes if you create a material you want to keep it sort of in commerce, in use, at all phases of its lifecycle before eventually it will become so difficult to use again that eventually it will have to be disposed of. That happens. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: Through degradation, through oxidation, all sorts of processes. John Shegerian: Right. David Wagger: But it’s really keeping the materials that we took all the effort to make in the first place in play. John Shegerian: Our company is a proud member of ISRI and we are so proud of all the efforts that ISRI does. What we love to give here on Green Is Good are solutions and things that our audience can do. Now knowing and learning myself today – and I’m sure you’ve done a great job also educating our audience members – that one-bin really is not great for recycling purposes and not great for our country and our environment overall, what can our listeners and our audience members do to help their community improve their recycling practices? What can they do? Because this is something that can be not only a top-down effort from ISRI on down, but it could be a ground-up effort also. David Wagger: I think that as citizens of where they live, certainly, they have the opportunity to work with their elected officials to raise their awareness about the importance of recycling and collecting recyclables and doing it well where it provides the most value to the society as well as to the municipality. Again, that is a conversation that we need to have and certainly from the grassroots that can move a lot of people to perhaps make different decisions than perhaps other forces might want them to do without the input from the citizenry. John Shegerian: We’re down to the last couple minutes, David. What is your feeling in terms of the future of one-bin recycling and the future of better separation and less contamination of recycling in the years to come? This is 2015. Is there going to be a leveling off? An increasing of one-bin? Or now we’re going to start seeing it move in the other direction? David Wagger: Well, I think that’s very hard to predict. John Shegerian: Okay. David Wagger: Again, it depends on where a municipality is coming from. John Shegerian: Yeah. David Wagger: So for municipalities or localities that don’t have a recycling program in some sense one-bin recycling with a Dirty MRF on the backend is a step-up. What we fear is municipalities that have single or dual-stream to say, “You know what? I see what they’re doing and maybe I can reduce our costs, and if they’re telling me that this MRF that can take one-bin comingled materials and can do just as good of a job as presorted materials,” maybe they will actually go backwards and backslide into this other behavior, this other one-bin scheme, which I think would be extremely bad. So we have to see sort of which segments of localities are going in which direction. For some, it might be a step-up. For some, it might be a step-down. I’d be concerned about the step-down more than about the step-up. I think, certainly, at some point, you can approach the ones that have put the MRF on the backend and say, “Well, I think it’s a relatively inexpensive matter to do single-stream with the system that you have,” and you can migrate them to single-stream or dual-stream. I think going from single and dual back to one-bin would be unhelpful. John Shegerian: Unhelpful. Any last thoughts for our audience before we sign off today? David Wagger: No. I appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation with you and reach out to your audience and our audience and certainly anyone should feel free to contact ISRI or contact me if they have questions or wanted to share their thoughts. And I just want to thank you for the opportunity. John Shegerian: Oh, thank you, David. David Wagger, the Director of Environmental Management at ISRI. This is the ISRI edition of Green Is Good and, of course, you can find David and all of his colleagues at www.ISRI.org. Thank you, David, for joining us. David Wagger: Thank you, John. John Shegerian: Your thoughts and your comments today were very inspirational and also very educational, and you are truly living proof that Green Is Good.