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Theme/tags: Rants, communication (or lack thereof), short (relatively)

Note: Less than a week after I wrote this musing, the College posted a much more positive note about recycling. You can read my followup musing for more details.

I don’t understand recycling.

Years and years ago, recycling seemed sensible. We’d separate the different kinds of goods (cans, plastic, glass, paper) into different bags and put them out on the curb once a week. I’d see the sanitation professional take each bag and put it into a different section of the truck. On campus, we’d put the different kinds of goods into different bins and I assumed something similar happened.

Then, a few years ago [1] the city [2] of Grinnell decided to go to single stream recycling. The idea of that seems to be that since people aren’t perfect about separating their goods, we might as well not ask them to do so. Instead, people post-process the recycling, sorting out each kind of recycling. That seems to be a good way to ensure that at least some of the recycling will get contaminated. The College adopted the same approach, we led to the Norman bins that I’ve complained about previously.

A few weeks ago, we got a message from the city that they are no longer accepting glass for recycling. Why? Because broken glass is hard to deal with and contaminates other recycling. Duh. But isn’t glass one of those materials that’s really easy to recycle? Wash it. Grind it. Melt it. Form it. Voila! New glass. Oh, I suppose you have to sort it first. But that sort/wash/grind/melt/form doesn’t work as easily if the glass is mixed in with other recycling.

Nonetheless, the city is no longer accepting recycling. I hear from one student who didn’t get the message about glass recycling that the sanitation professionals in town carefully took all of the non-glass from their recycling bin, but left the glass in it. Fascinating, isn’t it?

In contrast, my former home state of Massachusetts bans the disposal of glass in regular garbage. I’d expect that means that people have to recycle glass.

Can’t we do just as well?

When I first heard about the glass recycling issue, I took some notes that led to the musing above. Then we got the Campus Memo about the effect of the city changes on the campus.

The short version sounded great. Changes in City Recycling[.] No changes in collection on campus[.] I thought to myself Cool, I’ll just bring my glass to campus to recycle.

But then a friend told me to read the full article associated with the headline. Here’s what the article [3] says.

The city of Grinnell’s contract for transport and processing of recyclables, including material received from the College, expired at the end of March with no option for renewal. The city is actively seeking a new contract with another recycler. The reduced global demand for recycled raw input has apparently diminished the business viability for many recyclers.

Due to the reality of longer transport to Des Moines or Iowa City, higher associated costs will be passed on to all community members participating in the city’s garbage/recycling collection program, including Grinnell College. For an idea of costs, the city currently pays approximately $62 per ton for transport and processing of garbage and $15 per ton for mixed-stream recyclables. The cost for mixed-stream recyclables, excluding glass, will likely rise to that of garbage. Facilities Management will continue to collect recycling on campus. However, only sorted cardboard will actually be recycled in the interim because it is easy for the city to bundle and store. Cardboard also has a relatively high value. Until the city has a contract with a new recycler, all other collected recyclables will be sent to the landfill.

Glass will no longer be accepted as a recyclable, in part because none of the potential bidders will take it. Recycling glass has become a losing proposition, given the difficulty to separate broken glass from a mixed collection. Also, it has virtually no commercial value.

FM will continue regular check-ins with the city about a new recycling contract and any associated changes in collection or transportation.

In case that didn’t sink in, it appears that No change in collection on campus means We’ll continue to collect stuff from the recycling bin. We’ll just put most of it in the normal waste stream, which goes to a landfill.

I still don’t buy the claim about glass. For example, this industry sheet about glass production includes comments like

[There is] a big increase in [glass used for storing and transporting] food products - that is the growing market, Adeline Farrelly, secretary general of the European Container Glass Federation (FEVE), told Industrial Minerals.

You know what? I bet if we went back to mixed-stream recycling and got closer to the $62 per ton, people would be much more enthusiastic about glass recycling.

For now, our beer bottles are going to the recycling bin outside of Fareway, glass jars with lids are probably going to Studio Art, which always seems to need some of those jars for cleaning brushes and such, and the remaining glass is probably going into a box in a corner somewhere as we wait for people in authority to come to their senses.

I’m not sure what bothers me more … that we’ve given up recycling or that the primary message to the campus clearly misled people. No, I’m sure. I’m more bothered that we’ve given up recycling. But I still think we could be honest about it.

I’ve complained to my representatives on campus and asked them to raise the issue. If you’re a Grinnellian, I’d encourage you to do the same.

Everyone (myself included) might want to consider the adage of one of my colleagues: The goal should not be to recycle more of the waste you generate; the goal should be to generate less waste.

Postscript: Soon after I posted this musing, a friend indicated that the College was again recycyling everything except glass. I’m still waiting for an official notification.

[1] Okay, it might be a decade. My time sense sucks.

[2] I find it strange to call a community of about 10,000 people a city. I seem to recall that where I grew up, we expected communities to have about 100,000 people before they qualified for that appellation.

[3] Like many things on campus, the full memo is hidden on GrinCo behind a password wall. It’s only been five years since ITS promised to provide good public Web access for materials.

Version 1.0 released 2018-04-12.

Version 1.2 of 2018-04-12.