ByTrey Granger

Aug 31, 2017

With more and more cities setting lofty recycling goals or striving for “zero-waste” status, one idea always seems to get passed around to hit the magic numbers: the mixed waste processing facility.

This concept goes by several names, from dirty MRF (material recovery facility) to all-in-one bin, but the explanation is pretty simple. Households are given one bin in which to put all nonhazardous items from their house, including garbage, recyclables and yard waste.

In a way, this is actually embracing the past, as curbside recycling didn’t even exist until 1980. Before MRFs were built to sort recyclable materials, it was up to solid waste staff and/or garbage truck drivers to sort recyclables out of the garbage.

The all-in-one bin idea has been explored by several cities, including Houston and Indianapolis, but we’ve yet to see a successful large city implementation in the U.S. So, let’s look at some pros and cons of the dirty MRF.

Pro: Less Money Spent on Recycling Education

There’s no standard when it comes to how much a city will spend to educate on proper recycling, as cities with low recycling rates usually need to spend more. But there’s no doubt that cities spend money on recycling education.

Your city may send out a recycling flyer or post ads at bus stops and on highway billboards, and all of these efforts are designed to increase participation in recycling. With an all-in-one bin, the only consumer participation needed is to not throw in hazardous materials like paint and batteries.

Con: Increased Contamination

Studies have shown that mixed waste processing facilities don’t divert a lot of waste, averaging between 10 and 30 percent recovered for recycling. When you consider the current U.S. recycling rate is 33 percent, this leaves a lot to be desired.

The biggest reason for the low amount of recyclables collected is contamination, specifically with paper. While it’s easy to rinse off bottles and cans that come into contact with coffee grounds or diapers from the garbage, the paper recycling market requires clean and dry material.

Pro: Reduced Collection Costs

Single-stream recycling requires two different collection trucks, and then a third for organic waste collection. Some cities even collect garbage and recycling on different days.

One truck collecting everything means fewer miles driven and less gas used, and also saves on the costs of collection. It can cost over $200 per ton to pick up recyclables at the curb.

Con: Not Taking Advantage of Changed Perspectives on Recycling

There are plenty of studies coming out showing that millennials are environmentally conscious and willing to take the time to properly recycle. The all-in-one bin system goes against that mind-set, because people can’t feel the sense of satisfaction from recycling if all their waste is going in the same bin.

Cities are now starting recycling education in schools, creating an even younger generation of potential recyclers. Tomorrow’s consumers will likely view recycling as more of a responsibility than a burden.

Pro: Great for Recycling “Starter” Cities

As mentioned above, Houston proposed the idea of creating a dirty MRF back in 2013. But there is some helpful context for that decision, given the prior history of recycling in the nation’s fourth largest city. As recently as 2009, Houston’s recycling rate was 2.6 percent, and curbside recycling wasn’t even available in many homes.

For a city looking to make a big splash in waste diversion without an established history of participation, all-in-one bins are an effective solution. It’s more difficult to justify making the switch for a city like San Francisco or Seattle, where recycling is second nature.

Con: Increased Labor Costs

Mixed waste processing facilities require extra sorting by humans because you’re going through a large amount (and variety) of material when compared with a single- or dual-stream recycling load. These are also less desirable jobs, because they are literally searching through garbage.

Pro: More Flexibility to Changing Recycling Markets

Just like the stock market, the commodity value of different recyclables is cyclical based on a large number of factors. Not all recyclables earn the same amount of money, and your curbside program may be recycling some materials at a loss depending on the market.

With mixed waste processing, cities don’t need to change which materials they will collect. They simply adjust the sorting requirement at the facility, so a low-value material would be temporarily omitted from the recycling stream.

Con: The Numbers Get Clouded

With curbside recycling, cities can easily determine and promote how much material was sorted for recycling and sold to cover the costs of waste collection. You can come up with one number to show the recycling rate.

For all-in-one collection, the numbers are often inflated by incorporating other technology like waste-to-energy (where garbage is incinerated instead of landfilled). So the recycling rate is actually 25 percent, but the city can claim a higher percentage of diversion.

One of the best benefits of recycling is lessening the need for virgin material in the manufacturing stream, and this only comes by collecting a high amount of material.

Ultimately, it’s up to each community to determine whether mixed waste processing is the right collection choice, as there’s no one right answer. Just keep in mind that if your city has an ambitious waste diversion goal on the horizon, you might start seeing only one collection bin in front of your house.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
One-Bin Recycling Is the Wrong Choice, Says Industry Group
Mixed Feelings on Mixed Waste, Still
University Recycling 101: How College Students Go Green

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.