Recycling is a hot topic right now. Every media mode available has been covering the recent upheavals in the markets that drive what can and can’t be recycled. We think that’s great. Recycling is as central to Vermont values as Yankee thriftiness and ingenuity, and anything that important to our state’s economy and spirit should be turned over, poked, examined and analyzed from time to time to make sure it’s still working the way it should be.
Unfortunately, opinions about recycling and waste in general aren’t always based in fact. Case in point: The July 26 “My View” got almost everything wrong. But there was one point we can agree on: Recycling is not free and never has been.
The Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) manages the solid waste generated in Chittenden County. We function much like a water or school district, only instead of students and wastewater, we provide facilities and industry-leading programs and public services that have been benefitting Vermont since 1993, when we built Vermont’s first major recycling sorting facility. In industry-speak it’s known as a Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF (rhymes with surf).
MRFs are the blue-collar workhorses that exist solely to separate loads of blue bin recycling using mechanical systems — aided by dozens of human workers — that sort your cardboard, mixed paper, and containers and prepare them for sale.
We sort most of the blue bin recyclables from the northern half of Vermont, including those from Waitsfield and other members of the Mad River Resource Management Alliance. When our revenue from the sale of sorted recyclables has exceeded our costs, we have paid haulers for the recycling they bring us. When sales don’t meet our operational costs, we charge haulers a tip fee to make up the difference. Currently, the tip fee is $50/ton for recycling that comes from outside of Chittenden County. That might sound like a lot, but for a household that produces 0.25 tons of recycling per year — the average in Chittenden County — that translates to $12.50/year, or $1.04/month.
So, is recycling worth the investment?
Consider these facts, sourced from data collected by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the Aluminum Association, and CSWD MRF sales:
- Recycling aluminum saves more than 90 percent of the energy used in making it from raw materials.
- In FY 2018, CSWD sold 300,000 pounds of high-quality aluminum to companies in North America for roughly $200,000.
- Energy saved by using recycled plastics can be up to 87 percent over using virgin resins made from petroleum products.
- CSWD marketed more than 2 million pounds of plastic drink bottles to North American recycled scrap processors in FY 2018 for more than $300,000.
Aluminum and plastic drink bottles represent just two of the streams of materials we recycle. Each year, we keep more than 80 million pounds of recyclables from being trucked to Coventry to be wasted forever in our state’s last remaining landfill.
Our mission is to reduce and manage solid waste in an environmentally sound, efficient, effective and economical manner. We are constantly looking for ways to improve and evolve our programs and processes to fulfill that mission. We are looking toward the MRF of the future, better equipped to deal with the explosion of packaging formats that didn’t exist in the 20th century. (Who in 1993 knew that baby food, tuna fish and nut butters would one day come in a multilayered, single-serving squeeze pouches?)
We are fortunate that our members and the communities that send us their recyclables have largely taken the time to learn what we accept — and what we don’t. This is reflected in the impressively low level of contamination we see at our MRF. But we still see too many batteries, pots and pans, food-contaminated containers, and other examples of dangerous, careless, or just wishful recycling at the MRF.
Together, we can do better.
We invite anyone who wants to know the real story of how recycling happens in Vermont to view our MRF video or join the hundreds of students, citizens and businesspeople who tour our MRF each year. Find out how at cswd.net/learn.
Morris is the director of outreach and communications for the Chittenden Solid Waste District.