The pile was 9-feet high and stinking, a rank melange of old craft beer bottles, milk jugs, cardboard and soup cans.
Sitting on the tipping floor of Recycling and Disposal Solutions on the western edge of the Norwich neighborhood, the heap was money waiting to happen.
The problem is, this mountain just collected from the recycling bins of dozens of Roanoke homes and dumped by a city solid waste truck isn’t worth what it used to be.
The Chinese markets where much of the recyclable plastics and paper have gone for years dried up earlier this year. That’s in part because too much of the recycling product produced in the U.S. was proving to be contaminated — fouled by nonrecyclables in the stream.
Proof of that was sitting right on the RDS floor. That pile just dumped included an extension cord, a toilet seat, even a few asphalt shingles.
RDS’s warehouse is stacked ceiling-high with bales of sorted recyclables waiting for a market and a decent price. In the meantime, with no place to sell them, the solid waste departments RDS takes recycling from — including Roanoke — have told residents to cease putting plastics numbered 3 through 7 in their bins for collection.
“It’s very hard to operate at a profit,” said RDS President Joe Benedetto. “What I’m telling you is, we are not profitable. We understand there’s a cyclical nature to commodities. So we hope to see the pricing come up to where we are profitable.”
Changes in the market and RDS’s current difficulties have raised the specter of whether the city’s popular single-stream recycling program, which began three years ago this month, is sustainable for the long term.
“We’re challenged right now,” Roanoke Sustainability Coordinator Nell Boyle acknowledged. “The contamination’s become a real issue.”
With two years remaining of a five-year contract with RDS to process waste from its single-stream recycling program, city leaders say they remain committed to their recycling program, but market conditions could trump their best intentions.
In just three years, the recycling world has changed. Originally it told tens of thousands of recyclers that they could almost indiscriminately toss plastic, paper, cans and bottles in their Hawaiian blue collection bins. Now, the city pushes a message that they need to be more choosy.
After years of tallying recycling success by tonnage, the whole recycling industry is pushing a new message that a leaner, cleaner stream is better and that, in effect, less is more.
‘At least you can do this’
Anne Sampson’s kitchen recycling bin reveals her mania. Amid beer bottles, newspapers, cardboard packaging, are sticky notes. She can’t bear to consign even those tiniest bits of paper to the landfill.
The Roanoke photographer, 59, grew up when public service announcements shaming “litterbugs” were nearly ubiquitous.
That early influence, she said, shaped her fixation on anything that promotes respect for the natural world.
Today, that urge it manifests itself by what she puts in that recycling bin in her apartment at the base of Mill Mountain.
“There are so many assaults on our environment,” Sampson said. “It feels like, at least you can do this.”
She’s been conditioned to an approach to recycling summarized as, “How much of this can I keep out of the landfill?”
A few miles away, in the Edgehill neighborhood, Emily Jarrett, has the same recycling mania.
She and her family moved here from Tupelo, Mississippi, in July. Raised by hippie parents, she has not one, but two, city recycling bins. And, especially as her family continues to unpack from an interstate move, some weeks even those aren’t enough.
Her bin shows the same symptoms as Sampson’s: Even wadded store receipts land in it.
“If it’s so easy, why not?” she asked of recycling. “It’s teaching my children that even small things make a difference.”
Sampson and Jarrett are prime examples of people recycling the way advocates taught them to — eagerly rescuing every scrap they can from a landfill that can be saved and reused.
Boyle, the city’s sustainability guru, describes recycling as a kind of gateway drug to other environmentally sensitive habits.
“It’s often the way people get into the practices,” she said.
In the spectrum of all the city does toward sustainability, recycling is but one small part. The city annually calculates the local government’s and the overall community’s contribution to greenhouse gases that fuel climate change. When they changed the calculation for the community to exclude credit for recycling, the impact was a rise of just 5 percent.
And yet recycling has an outsized presence in the public’s mind because it’s participatory and highly visible. Because of that and its roll in fostering other sustainability practices, and because it’s a virtue in itself, the city pushed into the realm of single-stream recycling in 2015.
Single-stream allows residents to recycle without sorting — plastics, paper, cans and glass all in one bin.
The program costs the city $765,000 a year. That includes paying RDS $34.55 per ton to receive and process recyclables that city trucks collect, versus $51.50 for every ton that goes to the landfill. RDS is paid for 700 tons monthly, though the city typically collects about 500 tons. That difference was necessary to allow RDS to take on supplying and distributing those Hawaiian blue bins to every household in the city, Assistant City Manager Sherman Stovall said.
The program has been successful. Typically about 40 percent of households recycle now, and it’s been as high as 70 percent to 80 percent. The 225 tons collected per month on average before single-stream immediately ballooned to more than 500 when the program expanded, and it’s remained close to that.
Though the city still measures its recycling in tons, inside the recycling industry, some are questioning whether that approach is the correct measure of success, given that lots of packaging weighs less than it used to. Waste Management Inc. reported that in 1992 it took 65,000 water bottles to produce a half-ton bale of material, according to an article in Public Works magazine. Today it takes 90,000.
Worse, some believe it may have fostered the “save it from the landfill” mentality that’s exacerbated contamination of the recycling stream.
That’s the very mindset the city and the industry are now attempting to reset.
Especially since the city advised residents in July it would no longer accept all numbers of plastics, but only the higher grade number 1 and number 2, the message to recyclers is, as Boyle put it: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Dylan de Thomas, who is vice president for industry collaboration with the Oregon-based Recycling Partnership, modified that idea a bit too, “When in doubt, figure it out.”
Sampson and Jarrett have tried to take that message to heart. Though it pains Sampson to toss out a plastic tub with a number 5 on it, she does it.
Jarrett has tried to just avoid buying products in nonrecyclable containers — such as bottled milk.
But the message has yet to fully sink in, as that 9-foot high pile of recycling on the tipping floor at RDS showed.
‘You name it, it comes in here’
“Looks pretty good,” the staff at RDS proclaimed after an eyeball survey of the heap, despite the visible presence of Styrofoam egg cartons, garbage bags and plastic grocery bags — all of them nonrecyclable.
But that’s just what they could see.
After being fluffed and dumped into a hopper that spreads the material out on a conveyor, it slid past Michael Bruce and Anderson Denoye, who used simple broom handles with nails on their ends to pick out nonrecyclables.
Mostly it’s grocery bags — a bane of RDS’s process because not only do they not recycle them, the bags gum up the company’s elaborate system of conveyors and separators.
In a few minutes, along came a nylon tarp, roughly 10 feet by 14 feet, followed by an entire golf bag.
“You name it, it comes in here,” Maintenance Manager Jeff Troxell shouted over the rumble of the sorting machines, the constant tinkle of glass and the clunk of tin cans.
In various piles around the plant sit samples of contamination or nonrecyclables: a vacuum cleaner, a VCR, a couple of basketballs, an entire baby pool, yards and yards of plastic strapping. There’s a separate bin just for wood — logs, tree branches, porch railings.
Since the drying up of the market for numbers 3 through 7 plastics, those items now amount to contamination as well.
All of that material becomes trash, which the city must pick up and haul to the landfill at an estimated cost of $70,000 to $120,000 a year, according to Roanoke Solid Waste Manager Jeffrey Powell.
Troxell, 49, has only been with RDS for about six months. Prior to that, he didn’t recycle or even give much thought to the waste he produced.
“I thought a trash can was a magic hole. I stick stuff in it and it goes away,” he said. “After working here, you get ornery with store clerks that want to put your beer in a plastic bag.”
Now he recycles enthusiastically at home and at work makes sure the sorting machines keep moving.
Together they make a winding path that by hand and clever technology sorts types of recyclables from one another and filters out the stuff that doesn’t belong .
Wheels and streams of air bounce and separate paper materials from heavier plastics, cans and glass — like panning for gold, Troxell said. Glass is crushed and filtered through a screen. An infrared light identifies PET plastics — those numbered 1 and 2 — and a puff of air pushes them off into their own bin. A magnet lifts out metal cans. A device called an “eddy magnet” uses electric current to cull out aluminum cans.
What’s left at the end is often run through the process again to catch as much useful material as possible.
Within about an hour, the load dropped off by the Roanoke recycling truck was processed and ready to be baled.
Unfortunately for RDS, after a rapid-fire method to produce those bales, they too often come to rest for long stretches in the company’s warehouse. All that glass gets added to a stockpile out back that covers an acre or more.
In the current market conditions, RDS might take in 6 tons an hour. Trucking it back out to buyers moves at a much slower pace.
Troxell concluded his guided tour of the RDS plant with a stroll through the warehouse area of the facility, passing through a canyon of bales stacked to the ceiling — huge cubes of aluminum cans, water bottles, mixed paper.
In the past, the stuff wouldn’t pile up so much, but with fewer places to sell , it sits, waiting for a buyer or at least a better price.
“China and their push for quality has had a pretty big impact on what we can and can’t sell, and basically what is recycled and not recycled,” said Benedetto, the RDS president.
For a quarter century, China received much of the developed world’s recyclable materials, especially plastics, but also mixed paper.
Since 1992, 106 million metric tons, or about 45 percent, of the world’s plastics have gone to China as documented by the United Nations and reported by National Public Radio.
That included the lower grade number 3 through 7 plastics for which there is little market in the U.S.
But last year China banned the import of plastic waste, citing environmental and health concerns, effective January 2018. China also imposed stricter standards on paper waste.
The result has been a glut of recyclables on the U.S. market in search of buyers for the commodity, which has driven down prices if companies like RDS can find a buyer at all. And that means stockpiling.
Even if a recycling facility sells to local buyers, and not to China, the product glut caused by the Chinese market’s closure has an impact.
“It has cascading effects so it gets to everybody,” said de Thomas, of the Recycling Partnership.
For RDS, part of the solution was getting the communities it serves to stop collecting unmarketable kinds of plastics.
Paper, while getting less attention than plastics, presents at least as much of a problem.
It accounts for a huge portion of the household recycling stream, and it’s heavy. Yet the market for it is also constrained, de Thomas said. So there’s a glut of paper coming in, and fewer places for it to go out.
More locally, Benedetto said he currently doesn’t have a buyer for glass. For a while RDS was selling it for use as aggregate in extending the roadway into a landfill in Rockbridge County.
Now it’s being stockpiled in a huge heap behind the RDS building in Roanoke while Benedetto works on approvals for a new process the company has developed that will reduce the glass to sand that can be used for everything from fill material to an ingredient in concrete.
Aluminum, steel, high grade plastics and cardboard, however, are in demand, according to de Thomas.
“Those all have robust markets here in the U.S. and are moving just fine,” he said.
De Thomas said there’s also growing domestic capacity to process other kinds of plastics, and paper mills are retooling to handle more mixed paper.
But for Benedetto, it’s a nerve-wracking wait for buyers to come back around.
And Benedetto’s worries necessarily become the worries of people who run municipal recycling programs like Roanoke’s.
‘We’re going to keep on going’
Benedetto’s family has been in the waste and recycling business since 1896 when it used a horse-drawn wagonfor collections.
The Portsmouth-based company came to Roanoke in 2010 largely to service the city’s recycling program, years before the advent of single-stream here.
They’ve seen their fortunes rise and fall. The current tough times will pass, Benedetto trusts.
“We do anticipate that will correct itself because it is a cyclical industry,” he said.
The city is watching for that bounce back, too.
If markets for recyclables don’t come around, and worse, if RDS can’t survive, it could spell the end for recycling in the city, and possibly for other localities that send their waste to the company.
“I think that’s probably worst case scenario,” Assistant City Manager Sherman Stovall said.
“We’re still committed to the program, because we’re committed to the concept of sustainability,” he added. “It’s hard to predict what may happen in the future, but what I would say at this point is that any pivot we do in the future is going to be driven by the market.”
And recycling remains an important but small part of a municipal sustainability program in the city that includes bigger-ticket items like overhauling mechanical systems in city buildings, replacing traffic and street lights with more efficient LEDs, adding electric and alternative fuels vehicles to the city’s fleet, green building and possibly even solar-powered city facilities one day soon.
Both sides are recalibrating expectations for recycling.
The city launched its single-stream program with the prediction that it would save enough money to be a break-even operation by 2019.
“Given the change in the market, I don’t think you can use that for a benchmark,” Stovall said.
The city’s contract with RDS runs for two more years. After that, it contains the option for annual renewals with agreement by both parties.
Both parties remain committed.
“We’re going to keep on going on until something changes,” Boyle said.
Benedetto said his company has an “excellent relationship” with the city, and he praised them for “how they’ve worked with us during these challenging times.” That includes flexibility on which plastics they collect.
“We would go out of our way to repay that favor,” he said.