How much of the stuff we put in the blue bin in Austin is actually recycled?
Across America, recycling is suffering from a crisis of confidence. A stream of news stories show that stuff, carefully sorted and put into blue bins, can still end up in landfills. National reports conclude that the U.S. does not have the infrastructure to recycle even a fraction of the plastic it produces and uses, and, if it did, there would be no market for it anyway. It’s just cheaper to use fresh plastic.
But, here in Austin, thousands of us stand daily in our kitchens, stupefied, considering whether to toss or recycle that coffee cup lid, that piece of used tin foil, that cardboard container with a little too plasticky of a sheen to it.
We want to believe our system still works, even if we harbor doubts.
David Sing is right there, and it prompted him to ask ATXplained: "How much of Austin's curbside recycling actually gets recycled?"
Sing is a man with an interest in solving complex problems. He’s a retired nuclear fusion scientist, who works part time as a semiconductor manufacturing engineer. As a conscientious recycler, he jokes that he suffers from landfill anxiety.
“Landfill anxiety is basically: I don't want to throw this thing out,” he says, “if it can get used, if it can get sold, if it can get given away.”
He does what he can to make that happen.
When it comes to recycling, Sing is especially concerned with plastics.
“What I've been seeing certainly in the news is that we are kidding ourselves with plastics right now,” he says.
He’s referring to a report from Greenpeace that found only around 5% of plastic in the U.S. gets recycled. The report says it gets worse when you start breaking it down by type of plastic. That’s why Sing pays close attention to those little numbers surrounded by the triangle of arrows that you find on plastic things. They’re supposed to tell you what kind of plastic you’re dealing with.
"There are some plastics, like the No 2's, the milk-jug type of stuff, those are well known to be recyclable,” he says.
Other numbers he has serious doubts about. A piece of plastic with a number 7 on it, for example, means it’s unclassified.
“That probably is going to screw up the works,” he says. “But we're supposed to throw that in there!”
A review of the plastic items in Sing’s recycling on a recent spring morning revealed numbers 1, 2, 4, 6 and some plastic with no number at all.
Strong assurances, secret contracts
I emailed Sing’s question to the Austin Resource Recovery department, and spokesperson Paul Bestgen wrote back that about 80% of what people put in the bins is “recyclable.”
This number is arrived at by conducting surveys of what ends up in the bins and identifying what is recyclable and what is not.
Bestgen said the city maintains contracts with private recycling companies that stipulate that everything recyclable must be recycled. These companies are called materials recovery facilities or MRFs. They are the ones that take the recycling, sort it and sell it to other places.
The city assured me that almost all the stuff from the blue bins that gets thrown into a landfill is stuff that shouldn't have been put there in the first place: plastic bags, hoses, old shoes.
I wondered if some of the harder-to-recycle plastics were also getting dumped. Maybe Austin’s contracts with the MRFs provided more insight into what is considered “recyclable”?
But when I asked to see the contracts I hit a roadblock. The city said I needed to file a public information request, because the contract could contain trade secrets.
I also asked how Austin audits the contractors to ensure they are really recycling all the recyclable stuff they get. The answer: the MRFs periodically show the city bills of sale to prove they have sold the recyclable material to other companies that will turn it into new stuff.
“We don't necessarily know where those materials are going to, but we do know people are buying them,” acting Austin Resource Recovery Director Richard McHale told KUT. “I don't see why someone would buy something and throw it away.”
While the city is happy with the results of the audits, the audits themselves are also kept secret. McHale says the MRFs worry about divulging proprietary business information.
“Their concern is their competitors seeing who they're selling materials to,” he said.
A trip to the MRF!
There are two MRFs that handle Austin recycling: Texas Disposal Systems and Balcones Recycling. I had visited Balcones before and when I reached out they quickly arranged a tour. They even let David Sing come along.
If you’ve ever watched the city recycling trucks making their rounds and wondered where they all end up, the answer is the MRF.
Balcones handles about 60% of Austin’s residential recycling. From the outside it looks like a huge warehouse. From the inside, like a factory, buzzing with activity. There are catwalks, conveyor belts, huge metal machines clanking and whirring. Workers sort materials. Trucks, bulldozers and forklifts navigate it all.
After getting weighed on an outdoor scale the recycling trucks dump their contents in a wide open part of the building called the “tip floor.”
“This is where the magic happens,” Alex Gyarfas, Balcones' marketing manager, told us.
The second this stuff hits the tip floor, it is transformed from household waste to a potentially usable resource. You can think of what comes next almost like a mining operation. Everything that happens is geared toward pulling out different commodities for sale.
From the tip floor, materials are loosened, then they go up a conveyor belt. Workers along a catwalk take out stuff that can’t be recycled or stuff — like scrap metal — that shouldn’t be in the blue bin but maybe can be recycled. Anything that’s put in a plastic bag is also taken out for the landfill.
“I will never get tired of saying: Please do not bag your recyclables,” Gyarfas says.
What’s left on the conveyor belt goes through a series of “screens,” sorting by shape, weight, type of material. Some of this sorting is pretty high-tech: One machine shoots lights at plastic to determine its composition, another uses jets of air to sort different kinds of cardboard.
But along the way there’s always also a human component. Workers sort white No. 2 plastics (milk jugs, mostly) from colored No. 2 plastics, (mostly laundry detergent containers). At a lot of the stages, they pull out plastic bags and other things that crept through earlier in the process. There are garbage bins all around to store this stuff.
As the process continues, the stuff on the conveyor belt becomes more uniform. Eventually, the sorted recyclables are compressed into huge cubes and wrapped tight with chord, to be shipped off to buyers.
The nonrecyclable stuff — plastic bags, styrofoam and some types of bottles — is landfilled.
You come out of the tour convinced the MRF is very good at sorting the stuff that’s in the blue bin. You also get a sense of how much of the stuff should not have been put in the bins in the first place. A lot of what goes from recycling bins to landfills is that stuff.
But how much of it might be hard-to-recycle plastic that David worries about? The stuff that may not even be recyclable, or that no one wants to buy and process.
“There are some plastics that exist in the waste stream that don't have a market,” Joaquin Mariel, commercial director of Balcones, tells us after our tour. He says the most difficult to recycle include plastics with No. 3, 6 and 7.
“I can tell you that it's exceedingly small," he says. "Percentages of 1%.”
Mariel says Balcones has contracts with companies that buy plastics based on long-term market expectations. So, even when the value of recycled plastic is low, they will buy with the expectation that it will eventually rise.
The big picture
When it comes to how much in the blue bin gets recycled, Mariel gives a similar answer to the city: around 80-85%,
How do you square that with reports, like the one from Greenpeace, that show as little as 5% of plastic is recycled nationally? Mariel points out, most of the stuff people put in the blue bins is not plastic. A lot of it is easier-to-recycle aluminum or paper.
More importantly, he says, those reports look at the entirety of plastic produced in the U.S., which have a much lower recycling rate than just the plastic packaging and single-use containers that comprise most of what ends up in a blue bin.
The study “goes into all types of plastic waste," he says. "Things like plastic tubing and piping, industrial plastics, auto, plastics, computer plastics.”
That is a lot more plastic than what ends up in the blue bins. So, he says, the 5% rate of recycling arrived at in the study is “not representative” of residential recycling programs like the one in Austin.
In one way that's good news. It means Austin’s residential recycling is more effective than you might think when looking at the national recycling statistics. In another way, it’s horrible news. It illustrates just how little of the plastic we produce as a society ends up in those blue bins, and how little plastic in this country we even try to recycle.
After our tour, Sing sounded a little more confident that easy-to-recycle plastics like No. 1 soda bottles and No. 2 milk jugs are getting recycled, but not the harder-to-recycle plastics like Nos. 3, 6 and 7.
He also says he’s going to stop throwing items he’s not sure about into his recycling bin. That stuff — along with small bits of plastic and metal — just appear to complicate the sorting process, he says.
When it comes to the bigger picture of how little plastic is recycled nationally, Sing said he will not let it discourage him from throwing what he can into the blue bin at home.
“I’m not gonna give up on it,” he says. “I refuse to be in the 'no hope' category. And I refuse to be in the stick-your-head-in-the-sand category.”
One surefire way to reduce plastic waste, he says, is to simply use less plastic.
It's Garbage Week on KUT News. It's like Shark Week, but with no sharks and more garbage. We'll trace the path of the junk Austin makes, including how your food scraps get turned into garden soil, how much of the stuff in the blue bins actually gets recycled and how we can all do trash disposal better. Listen on KUT 90.5 FM or find the stories here (new ones added throughout the week!).