This story is one of two this week about recycling challenges, global and local. This story focuses on global challenges and how they affect Moab; the other focuses on Moab-specific challenges.
Government officials, business owners and recycling experts gathered at the Grand County Library on Monday to discuss important but seldom discussed parts of the recycling process. The event was hosted by the Grand County League of Women Voters.
In particular, the panel talked about the ways in which recycling falls short in redressing environmental deterioration, the merits of different recycling systems and how recyclables in Moab will be handled as Monument Waste implements its curbside pickup services.
High-level problems and solutions
Among the panelists was Kate Bailey, Policy and Research director at Eco-Cycle, Inc., a non-profit recycling organization in Boulder, Colorado. Bailey opened the panel by talking about the ways in which the global system of recycling is “broken.”
Bailey highlighted three of the main problems she sees facing recycling systems: plastics, economics and the capacities of landfills.
Plastics are hard to recycle
Bailey said that over 90 percent of plastics that are used in products do not end up getting recycled. Sometimes this is because of the difficulties that come with recycling. Another effect is that due to its physical characteristics, plastic can be recycled fewer times than other products such as glass and aluminum.
Joining Bailey on the panel was Grace Szczepaniak, a representative from Renewology, a company founded at MIT in 2011, “with the vision to be a technology leader in developing solutions to landfill-bound waste,” according to the company’s website.
Szczepaniak said that her company offered a means of repurposing low-value plastics (namely, plastics with recycling IDs between two and seven) into diesel fuel. Petroleum is the originating material for plastics, which according to Szczepaniak is what makes this conversion possible.
Because of the economics of energy, Szczepaniak said the business proposition for converting plastic to fuel was very positive, with a $30 marginal cost of producing a barrel of petroleum out of plastic that can then sell for $90. Szczepaniak said the process also yields no toxic emissions.
Poor recycling economics
Bailey said that recent changes in the economy of recyclables have also made the market suffer. In particular, China has ratcheted down its buying and importing of recycled goods when it was once a leading consumer of recycled material.
“What we’re probably going to see moving forward is that a lot of recycling is not going to pay for itself, especially in rural areas,” Bailey said. “But here’s the problem: manufacturers are making this product and they’re shipping it out, and then why is it that cities and counties are footing the bill to clean it up?”
She alluded to pressures on companies to pay higher prices for recyclable materials or make new materials out of their old materials.
Landfills are getting full
Finally, Bailey talked about the finite capacity of landfills. She suggested viewing Moab’s landfills as assets, the lifetimes of which were to be maximized. “That’s something that you want to keep going as long as possible because if you think you just had a fight about single stream, wait till the fight you will have if you have to build a new landfill,” Bailey said.
One of the primary ways in which landfills get filled is via food waste. According to Bailey, 30 to 40 percent of waste is compostable material, like food, leaves and branches. This waste can be diverted to composting programs and centers.
In places where construction regularly takes place, such as Moab, construction debris (which can include clean wood, asphalt, metal and other materials) can represent another 30 percent of the waste stream. These materials also have recycling value and can re-enter the consumption stream rather than going to landfills.
City Council Member Kalen Jones spoke later and reaffirmed Bailey’s points about the current economy of recycling and emphasized that reducing food waste is among the high-impact activities that individuals can have.
Jones talked about Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation project, to illustrate his point. The environmentalists who initiated a project compiled a list of 100 solutions to climate change, compiled from 200 scholars, scientists, policymakers, business leaders and activists, according to project managers.
Refrigerant management and utilization of onshore wind turbines ranked as the top two on the list, respectively. Third was reduction of food waste, representing a 25 times reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to household recycling.