DEATH BY 1000 CUTS - never has just a few words summarised the detrimental flow on effect of co-mingled collection from most local and commercial recycling systems. It is essential to recognise that "diversion" is not recycling and that materials are not "recycled" until they are made into new products. Since communities do not track their materials through the whole system, they may not realise when the result is incomplete or processed improperly and marketed i.e. the majority of material is highly contaminated and in any case ends up in landfill after expensive transport and processing costs. Therefore any perceived saving in collection cost is more than reversed. Processed materials are downcycled to their lowest value and fail to achieve multiple high value recycling cycles as they cannot achieve high enough quality to make new products from them. In effect, the market for recyclable materials is eventually undermined.
Municipal Council program designs are driven by requirements for diversion from landfills, without recognition that diversion, by itself is not recycling. The failure to include quality requirements and yields for recovered materials in collection and processing contracts demonstrates the lack of focus on the health and sustainability of the entire recycling system.
Multiple stream programs do not require the same processing investment and can be more fully automated to return materials back into their original products. This can increase the participation as people can actually think and understand that perceived reduced collection costs does not mean higher rates of diversion from landfill. Eventually someone has to pay for higher priced manufactured products and/or higher landfill charges and therefore higher council rates.
Producers are not forced to utilise poor quality recovered feedstock. Embedded glass in the fibre bales delivered to a paper mill creates safety hazards for mill workers who handle the bales. They can be cut by pieces of glass and breathe in fine glass particles that are stirred up into the air when bales are handled and opened up before entering the pulping unit. The glass also gets into all parts of the finely tuned papermaking machinery. This equipment costs millions of dollars each year to maintain and prematurely replace and can finally end up in paper products further damaging machinery and finished products.
The metal, plastics and glass container industries are no different. Their processing costs also increase worker hazards, grit that grinds up the manufacturing equipment, and increases loads to be landfilled. In addition, significant volumes of materials are lost through poor sorting and are transferred to industries who can only return them to landfill at their expense which local governments ignore.
Collection and processing practices are not nearly so critical in achieving diversion as they are when the program goal is to provide high quality recovered materials to manufacturers so they can meet stringent finished product specifications. Unfortunately municipalities built their recycling programs on the foundation of the earlier successful entrepreneurial recycling system which were introduced in collaboration with manufacturers. When are they now? There was an assumption that new municipal programs could just expand on the previous entrepreneurial system, instead they overwhelmed it, introduced new types of contamination, work hazards and significantly changed it by creating business units whose only interest was short term profit by ignoring best practices and international guidelines.