After study, recycling authority decides against switch to single stream

Workers double check and sort plastic at the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority on Wednesday. Plastics are double and triple checked for trash and other materials.
Workers double check and sort plastic at the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority on Wednesday. Plastics are double and triple checked for trash and other materials. adrey@centredaily.com

After fielding questions from residents and public officials about why single-stream recycling isn’t offered in the county, the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority decided to hire a consultant to look into the benefits and drawbacks of switching.

MSW Consultants studied the associated costs and repercussions of the authority moving from its current source-separated method of curbside recycling to single stream.

Single-stream recycling is a collection system where recyclables — cardboard, paper, metal, glass, plastic bottles — are put in the same container at the curb. The container is tipped into the truck and then separated at the processing facility.

The study, which took more than a year to be finalized into a report that the authority received in October, looked at three aspects: single-stream collection of recyclables, single-stream processing of recyclables and the current rate structure, said Ted Onufrak, executive director of the authority.

The trend in the industry during the past 25 years has been more automation, said Joanne Shafer, the authority’s deputy executive director and recycling coordinator.

When the report was completed, the authority’s board decided to continue with source-separated recycling rather than switching to single stream, Onufrak said.

The authority serves about 26,000 households and almost 1,000 businesses.

Single stream is “more about perception than reality,” he said. The way the authority collects recycling now, the only thing people have to separate is their bagged paper.

“But still, it’s our guys that are separating all the material,” Onufrak said.

The study found that the advantages of single stream would be a reduction in collection costs because only one person would be needed to operate the collection truck, rather than the two it takes now, he said. In addition, worker compensation rates are lower and crews can make more stops per day.

It’s perceived that — because people think single stream is easier — more people will participate in the recycling program, Shafer said. But, the authority’s participation rate is in excess of 90 percent.

The drawbacks to switching to single stream, however, were significant enough not to make the switch.

Costs associated with the switch would include buying new automated trucks, upgrading from recycling bins to larger containers and about $3 million to convert the processing facility, Onufrak said.

With conversion to single-stream collection and processing, the only case where there would be a financial savings to the customer would be to switch to biweekly recycling collection.

Though, biweekly collection might be something the authority looks into anyway to avoid increasing the amount customers pay each month, Onufrak said.

The revenue from selling recyclables brings in about $1.4 million — $2 million when the markets are strong, he said. But, the markets are low, which means the authority is losing revenue that subsidizes its programs.

“While we certainly need to be ... fiscally responsible, we’re not profit driven. So we do have a goal, countywide, of zero waste in about 35 years ... . Our goal is to maximize recycling, waste reduction and other alternatives to disposal so that eventually we have ... zero landfill waste,” Shafer said.

Contamination with single stream is another issue.

The average contamination rate, by weight, nationally for single-stream programs is 16 percent, Shafer said, meaning that 16 percent of what people put out for recycling ends up being thrown away — whether it’s soggy paper, broken glass or something that’s not even recyclable.

Shafer calls that “wishcycling.”

The authority’s contamination rate is zero for residential pickups because crews can leave behind items that aren’t recyclable, she said. It only increases to 2-3 percent when adding in dropoff locations.

To switch to single stream would also certainly result in dropping glass from the recycling program, Onufrak said.

“I mean, who wants to quit recycling glass,” he said.

Onufrak said the authority processed 13,000 tons of recycling last year — of that, 2,500 tons were glass.

Even aside from contamination, having one bin for recyclables that doesn’t get sorted through until it’s at the processing facility creates problems for educating people on what’s recyclable and what isn’t, Onufrak said.

“We’ve educated a whole generation of people in Pennsylvania to recycle and that recycling is a good thing,” Shafer said. “I’m not sure that taking that awareness away by saying put it all in a bin that looks like a garbage bin is a good thing.”

When it comes down to it, recycling is a process that goes beyond putting items in a bin at the curb, Shafer said.

“The recycling process doesn’t stop when the resident puts something out in the bin. It stops when the recycling is processed and sent to a manufacturer to make a new product,” she said. “... So it might feel good to put it in the bin, but it doesn’t do any good if we have to pull it out and throw it away anyway.”

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz