This letter to the editor written by recycling educator Louise Mann originally appeared in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Wednesday, August 30.
The recycling programs I do trust in Northwest Arkansas include Bella Vista AARP, city of Siloam Springs and the Huntsville drop off center in Madison County. The common threads are their collection methods, transparency and ownership. They all keep recyclables segregated during collection, just the way end-users like. End-users are the companies trying to make new products from your recyclables. When you buy a white cake mix you do not want to discover chili pepper sprinkled throughout. Nor does a paper mill want to discover bits of glass, plastic, metal, garbage or liquids in the paper bales they purchase from your recycling program.
When you toss glass, plastic, paper and metal together in a single-compartment truck (single-stream recycling) you make one big mess. Do we know how much garbage lands in the single-stream loads since few, if any bins get checked at the curb with this automated system?
None of the above-mentioned communities have allowed garbage haulers to take total control of their recycling programs. That's great, because to do so would be a conflict of interest. Recycling is supposed to be the lowest priority in a Three-R program: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. If a community invests in an extremely high-tech recycling facility, they must continually finance it. You can't seriously promote reduction and reuse while continuously financing a high-maintenance facility. Same problem with an incinerator.
Transparency is the norm at the above-mentioned communities. You can walk in unannounced anytime and see the trucks dumping. Unannounced is the key word here. Fort Smith got caught trashing their recycling. Unfortunately they've hired another single-stream company. You are not allowed to go unannounced to see the single-stream trucks dump. Would unannounced observation reveal dirty diapers, needles, food waste, and even dead animals mixed in with the recyclables?
On July 18, the World Trade Organization sent out a memo from China. Starting in January the Chinese will no longer take certain paper and plastic grades coming from the United States. The Chinese are fed up with America's trashed recyclables. With curb-sort collection, (the truck has segregated compartments for each recyclable), the contamination rate is less than 5 percent. Little Rock admits around 40 percent contamination with their single stream program. Collection methods matter.
Communities must insist on clean collection methods. Transparency measures from the curb to dumping and baling must be in operation 24 hours a day. Collection and baling facilities must allow anyone anytime to view the dumping and baling of recyclables. Accountability and transparency laws must be passed in every community, with punishment for fraud spelled out.
Curb-sort collection (truck has separate compartments for each item) programs can be made more cost effective and easier for all parties.