Garbage In, Garbage Out | Letters | Chicago Reader

Garbage In, Garbage Out 

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To the editors:

I usually have no problem with writing that is supposed to be "objective," but which, nevertheless, fails to hide the author's prejudices. In fact, I think I prefer slanted writing to that which passes for balanced journalism. That's what makes the Reader such an interesting publication.

That said, how likely is it that David Moberg began his article on recycling in Chicago [September 20] thinking: "Gosh, I wonder what the truth is about this darn blue bag recycling program?" Not very likely, I'd say. But I have no problem with that. That he started out with a preconceived idea about blue bags, which he then sought to support with evidence that he happened to like, really doesn't matter too much. There's nothing wrong with his approach as long as his evidence and his conclusions are right. It's just that there is nothing much that's right about either.

The exaggerations, distortions, and fallacies in Moberg's article are too numerous to mention in full. A brief inventory will have to do. First, Moberg grossly misrepresents the plan put forth in the Solid Waste Management Review Committee's report. The plan does not "anticipate. . . . expanded incineration" for Chicago. Under Alternative I--the plan that the city is most likely to adopt--recyclables will be co-collected (in blue bags) and the city will award a contract to build and operate MRRFs designed for processing of both mixed waste and bagged recyclables. Other than maintaining existing capacity at the Northwest W-T-E Facility, no new capacity is envisioned unless a feasibility study shows otherwise.

Under Alternative II, which represents the CRC proposal somewhat, the city will gradually phase out existing capacity (at Northwest) with no consideration given to expanding incinerator capacity. Only under Alternative III is waste incineration proposed as a principal means of waste disposal or as "a major option for Chicago." And should co-collection turn into no more than a failed experiment, it hardly follows that building new incinerators is the only alternative. The city could select Alternative II or perhaps try collecting blue-bagged recyclables without the trash, using only compactor trucks. Results from demonstrations of the latter technique in Concord, New Hampshire; Madison, Wisconsin; and Pittsburgh have so far been positive--with high rates of bag recovery and minimal contamination from broken glass. In any event, because of severe problems involving siting, permitting, community support, and enormous capital costs, it is unlikely that any major city in the U.S., including Chicago, will even consider developing new incinerator capacity in the near future.

Though co-collection remains an unproven technique and problems relating to its use in large urban areas must still be solved, most of Moberg's criticisms of it are nonsense. He says, for example, that "only one other city--Omaha, Nebraska--has attempted co-collection." In fact, co-collection was tested--unsuccessfully--in Modesto, California, as long ago as 1982. Recently, pilot projects have been undertaken in at least a dozen cities or counties, including Houston; Pullman, Washington; and Rochester, Massachusetts. Besides Omaha, Missoula, Montana, and Saint Louis County, Minnesota, have successfully implemented co-collection programs. Furthermore, Moberg must know that the widely reported difficulties relating to the Omaha program had nothing to do with the city's co-collection system itself, but with poor financial planning by the contractor.

Moberg's remarks about Chicago's plans to use co-collection are similarly confused. For example, he thinks that mixed-waste processing will be used for "retrieving and opening the plastic bags" containing commingled recyclables. But the city's plans call for mixed-waste processing to be used to sort and retrieve recyclable materials from "non-source-separated municipal refuse"--that is, regular trash picked up with the blue bags--not the blue-bagged material, which will be sorted separately. In any case, his claim that mixed-waste processing "has been an overwhelming failure in its limited trials in the United States" is just hyperbole. At worst, one could describe the results of its use as, well, mixed (see the September 1990 issue of Resource Recycling).

As for the recent demonstration project, Moberg incorrectly claims that 10 percent of the bags could not be retrieved and that an additional 10 percent of materials were lost because of breakage and contamination. Yet, the city itself reports a 91 percent material recovery rate, which, despite Moberg's claims, is comparable to what other programs normally achieve with separately collected bins. And, Moberg ignores the fact that once the MRRFs begin operating, they will be capable of recovering much if not all of the unrecovered portion of the bagged recyclables.

Is it really plausible that CRC could undersell the city with separate collection? I don't want to be dogmatic about this, so I won't make a final judgement about it. But consider that Los Angeles, with 720,000 households to serve, anticipates spending $30 million annually for the next seven years on a bin-based program. Needless to say, capital costs for purchasing both bins and a fleet of 400 special recycling vehicles are the biggest line items here. And in New York (1.8 million households), where participation is mandatory, the recycling budget now runs to about $130 million per year. Given this, it's hard to take seriously the CRC estimates of what it will cost to service 651,000 Chicago households.

Finally, Moberg's emphasis on the importance of quality is misplaced. The real issue for the next decade is oversupply. Why? Because, at some point, the quantity of collected post-consumer materials will reach a level where it will not make much difference how pristine one's recyclables are. There will simply be too much of the stuff for end users to absorb, regardless of quality. The solution must lie in efforts by government, industry, and recycling activists like CRC to increase end users' (i.e., paper mills, plastic resin and glass container manufacturers, etc) capacity to use secondary materials. This may mean using a combination of financial incentives, recycled content laws, procurement policies, or other techniques yet to be devised.

The shift from the use of virgin materials in the manufacturing sector has begun and, at some point, a balance between supply and demand seems likely. In the meantime, however, we can expect insufficient demand for recyclables, especially as more cities start collection programs. If co-collection really does cost less than separate collection, then cities like Chicago may be in a better position to manage the cost of having to store or dispose of the oversupply.

Eric Melvin

W. Pratt

David Moberg replies:

(1) The Solid Waste Management Review Committee clearly favored what it labeled Alternative I in its draft plan, and that plans calls for increased incineration. The Northwest Incinerator now burns at most one-third of residential garbage, but the plan states that rehabilitation will permit burning 40 to 45 percent of residential garbage.

(2) Although Melvin contends that no city will even consider developing new incinerator capacity, New York is among the cities now planning for new incinerators, and Reading Energy is proceeding to build a large incinerator in the south Chicago suburb of Robbins. The Solid Waste Management Review Committee plan states that "additional energy resource recovery capacity [the sanitized phrase for burning solid waste], through combustion at both existing non-operational facilities and new locations, will be analyzed." He's right that there are severe problems with all incinerators. The city shouldn't even consider incineration, but it is indeed doing so.

(3) Omaha is the only moderately large city to try cocollection of recyclables and garbage. Missoula services only 14,000 households, South Saint Louis County only 1,500 households. Many of the pilot projects and tests, including locations Melvin doesn't mention, concluded that cocollection was a bad idea. After a yearlong test, Houston recently decided not to adopt that technique.

(4) The Omaha World-Herald reported that the original Omaha contractor did have problems with equipment. Moreover, the operator's "poor financial planning" is very relevant to Chicago: Omaha's mayor said city officials and the contractor had been "overly optimistic," just as Chicago's public officials and private contractors are today. Now with its second contractor, Omaha has found that its rates are much higher than the Department of Streets and Sanitation projects for Chicago.

(5) I clearly stated that the city plans to both sort the recyclables retrieved from the blue bags and pick through the waste stream for any salvageable materials (mixed-waste processing). But even the best mixed-waste-processing systems retrieve only about one-fourth of the waste stream, much of it of such low value that it is used only as landfill cover. Mixed-waste processing has been used in Europe to prepare waste for incinerators.

(6) The city's report on the blue-bag trial states that 9.1 percent of the bags were not retrieved, and an additional 10.9 percent of the material in the bags could not be retrieved--for a total loss of about 20 percent of the material. This is far higher than the "residual," or loss, in source-separated recycling programs. Melvin asserts as fact that the MRRFs (materials recycling and recovery facilities) will recover all that is now lost. That's not fact; it's "overly optimistic" speculation. Indeed, operating at higher speeds and on a mass scale, these facilities may do worse than the slower hand sorting that was used during last spring's blue-bag demonstration project.

(7) The Chicago Recycling Coalition (CRC) isn't in the business of collecting or underselling anyone: it's a coalition that attempts to educate the public and influence public policy. In any case, the CRC estimate of $100 per ton for collecting recyclables should not be so "hard to take seriously" when Seattle currently pays $55 a ton. The city could find out how serious the figure is very simply. It could request bids from source-separated systems and then compare them with the blue-bag/MRRF proposals--the details of which are still being kept secret.

(8) Finally, if "the real issue for the next decade is oversupply," then the materials that will command the highest price will be the good-quality ones. Indeed, in a glut, contaminated materials may find no market at any price, or they may be used for low-value uses such as landfill cover, glasphalt paving, or sandblasting--not for closed-loop recycling that reduces solid waste and saves natural resources.

It's obviously important to use public policy to expand markets. One way to do so is to make sure that the materials meet the needs of users by being of sufficiently high quality. As Tom Kacandes, from New York's Office of Recycling Market Development, wrote in the current issue of Resource Recycling, "The biggest single barrier to developing demand from recycling industries right now is (believe it or not) a lack of suitable supply. Poorly planned municipal programs seek to dump commingled, contaminated materials on industry, but our customer clients are not interested."

Melvin's assumption that cocollection is cheaper is in doubt. But even if it were a bargain, without a market for the contaminated recyclable material, Chicago won't get a good deal on storing and disposing the oversupply. Instead, the city will pay twice--first to collect and process the unusable recyclables, then to pay the MRRF operator to dump that material in a landfill (while counting the dumped materials as "recycled"). That would hardly be good management. It would be a very expensive fraud.


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