The circle game

To many environmentalists, recycling seems a given — a way to conserve resources, curb pollution, reduce energy use, and avoid sending usable material to the landfill. It all seems so simple, and so right.

But even dedicated local recyclers might be surprised to learn some of the realities that lie behind the recycling bin. A lot of what people routinely put into it, for instance, still ends up in the landfill (because it shouldn’t have gone into the bin to begin with) or gets sold to some nonlocal buyer for less than it costs to transport it there. And because most plastics can be recycled only once, they will never really constitute a closed-loop resource. Meanwhile, some recyclable materials turn out to have major environmental impacts of their own.

Notwithstanding those complexities, however, area residents have embraced recycling to a remarkable degree. According to Stan Olenski, the general manager at Curbside Management, 80 percent of Asheville’s population recycles something. And that number, he reports, “is approximately the highest rate in the nation.” Our laws lead the pack as well, Olenski notes: “Aluminum cans and corrugated cardboard are banned from Dumpsters here. This is the first county in the state to ban corrugated.” Curbside Management, a private business, serves Asheville, Black Mountain, Fletcher, Hendersonville and Weaverville.

Judging by those numbers, Asheville appears to be sitting pretty. On average, Americans recycle 30 percent of the solid-waste stream, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Corporation for Enterprise Development, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes asset-building and economic-opportunity strategies. Among the states, North Carolina ranks 25th with a 26 percent rate. (Delaware is first, with a 59 percent rate, and Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Montana and South Dakota tie for 46th place, with a big fat goose egg — no statistically significant recycling whatsoever.) Buncombe County reports a 21 percent diversion of recyclables from the solid-waste stream in the 2003-2004 fiscal year.

Those local efforts appear to be paying off. Buncombe County’s latest figures indicate that the landfill’s life expectancy has actually increased since it was opened in 1990 — from 30 years at that time to 36 years today. The county’s recently published Annual Report to the People 2003-2004 states, “By recycling white goods, tires, cardboard, batteries and other recyclables and with the construction of the bioreactor project, the life of the landfill will be increased by an estimated 25 percent.” In July 2004, Ashevilleans recycled a total of 689,700 pounds of plastic, glass, aluminum, steel, paper and corrugated cardboard. (During the same month, Curbside Management handled more than 1.4 million pounds of material via its curb pickups in Asheville, Black Mountain, Fletcher, Hendersonville and Weaverville and its collection centers on Merrimon Avenue, Tunnel Road and in Woodfin and Biltmore Forest.)

That contrasts sharply with some developments at the national level. The Container Recycling Institute reports that the recycling rate for beverage containers in the United States is at its lowest point in 25 years. More than a trillion aluminum cans have been trashed in America since 1972, according to the CRI Web site. That’s about $21 billion worth of scrap aluminum at today’s prices, says the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit.

Unfantastic with plastics

Many recyclers are familiar with the triangle of arrows surrounding a number on the bottom of nearly all plastic packaging. But even this seemingly simple system is not the magic bullet it might appear to be: In Buncombe County in 2004, the only recyclable plastic containers are certain narrow-necked bottles. Period.

To make matters more complicated still, shoppers at Earth Fare now purchase food in containers that look like petroleum-based plastic, but are actually made from corn (see below). These environmentally friendly containers aren’t recyclable, but they will break down in hot compost.

So here’s the the first question to ask yourself when you sort your trash: Is it a narrow-necked bottle? In other words, is the business end of the container smaller than the body? Soda pop, milk, fruit juice, detergent, cat litter, shampoo, vegetable oil and water all come in narrow-necked bottles.

Now you can look at the triangle with the number inside. Is it a 1 or a 2? Bingo. In the bin it goes — unless it contained motor oil. Laura Wolf, Curbside’s marketing and community-relations coordinator, explains: “Oil is a contaminant. It penetrates the plastic.”

But unless the item in question satisfies both those criteria, it’s a no-go. According to Olenski, the No. 4, 5 and 7 narrow-necked bottles go straight to the landfill. And so do wide-neckers (yogurt containers, clam-shell fast-food boxes, chip-dip and soft-margarine tubs, buckets, etc.), no-neckers (clear plastic egg cartons and their kin) and motor-oil containers, regardless of their number. That’s because there’s no market for these materials, in the quantities generated locally, that’s close enough to make it feasible to haul them there. And every time we “helpfully” toss them in the bin we succeed only in raising the cost of recycling — because someone will have to sort it out later.

So why have a numbering system at all if the numbers are misleading at best? The unsatisfactory answer is that the numbers reflect the material’s basic composition but not its malleability. The plastics used to make narrow-necked bottles are blown up like balloons — a warm blank is inserted in a mold and inflated. But the other types of containers are injection-molded. For example, the No. 1 plastic used in narrow-necked bottles is softer than the No. 1 used in clear egg cartons, and they can’t be mixed together and reused. The same malleability divide exists between plastic bags and plastic bottles bearing the same number.

When it comes to recycling plastics in Buncombe County, advises Olenski, the rule of thumb should be: “If you’re unsure, don’t put it in. Plastic lids don’t recycle. And clean styrofoam peanuts should be taken to pack-and-ship places for reuse.”

Water you drinking?

Of course, most of the plastic containers that pass through a typical consumer’s hands are bought for their contents, not for the packaging. But recent news about what’s in those bottles is troubling at best.

The fastest-growing item in the beverage biz is water. Bottled water seems to be everywhere these days, and growing numbers of consumers believe they’re buying it to protect their health. The scientific evidence, however, seems to favor tap water. And the plastic bottles in which most water is sold are a serious pollution problem — posing a direct, long-term threat to ground-water supplies.

The most extensive report on bottled water to date comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental watchdog group. Their thorough study concluded that average bottled water is probably not worse than average tap water — in fact, a lot of bottled water is tap water.

That said, there are two significant regulatory issues that affect bottled water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires public water supplies to meet strict standards and undergo continuous monitoring and frequent testing. Failure to meet those standards triggers serious enforcement measures, and the EPA has hundreds of staffers assigned to this effort. But bottled water is governed by far less stringent Food and Drug Administration regulations, and testing is performed only once a year. Furthermore, the FDA has no official procedure for rejecting contaminated water sources and doesn’t even have one full-time employee in charge of bottled water. in addition, any container material that was approved before 1957 isn’t subject to testing or regulation. So unless the water crosses state lines, there’s no federal regulation whatsoever.

And once bottled water leaves the plant, no further testing is required. That, it turns out, is a problem because plastic containers give off chemical contaminants. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment conducted one of the few chemically comprehensive tests reported to date, examining 80 samples of bottled water from retailers and manufacturers in that state. According to a story by investigative reporter Brian Howard (“What’s in Your Bottled Water?” Aug. 28, 2003 Hartford Advocate), “All 80 had detectable levels of chlorine, fluoride and sodium. Seventy-eight of the 80 contained nitrate (which can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome), 12 had nitrite, 53 had chloroform, 33 contained bromodichloro-methane, 25 had arsenic and 15 tested positive for lead.

“Forty-six of the samples contained traces of some form of the carcinogen (and hormone disrupter) phthalate, while 12 of those exceeded federal safety levels for that chemical.”

Clean Water For North Carolina Executive Director Hope Taylor-Guevara, a chemist who also runs a small goat dairy, told Xpress, “I buy containers from my customers, and I pay more for used bottles than the price of new ones, because older plastic has outgassed most of the toxics, and I consider it to be safer.”

The FDA standards for soft drinks are the same as those for bottled water, so the same concerns may apply. And while beverages in glass containers are not subject to contamination by phthalates, a survey of locally available bottled water conducted by the University of Winnipeg reported that lengthy storage in glass containers can lead to lead contamination.

To further compound the problem, both the manufacture and remanufacture of plastics involve significant air and water pollution — hardly the goal environmentalists had in mind when they started pushing recycling. And because recycled plastic becomes inelastic through reuse, even if the loop were closed and recycling reached 100 percent, virgin plastic would still be required to extend the life of old material. Meanwhile, all the plastic water bottles that litterers toss out the car window continue to leach chemicals, including phthalate, into both surface and ground water.

A recent study of plastics pollution led by Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth, England (Science, May 7, 2004), found that the continual grinding action of sand and waves is reducing ocean-dumped plastic waste to very tiny particles that don’t degrade — but do enter the food chain. The study revealed that the sea is heavily polluted with microscopic particles of synthetic polymers such as nylon, acrylic and polyester. Reporting on the findings, Adbusters Magazine noted: “Their equipment only allowed them to spot particles 20 microns or larger, which means that many more probably went undetected. If you are what you eat, then we’re all part plastic now.”

Fooling Mother Nature?

You think it’s plastic, but it’s not. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is plastic, but it’s a plastic made from cornstarch rather than petrochemicals. That means the product’s chemistry, manufacture and breakdown are all very different from those of petroleum-based containers.

Earth Fare — the Asheville-based retailer that’s now the third largest natural-foods chain in the nation, with eight stores in the Southeast and four more opening soon — has switched to NaturesPLA, a product from Cargill Dow LLC. The new, environmentally friendly containers look and function pretty much like the ones they’ve replaced. They are certified food-safe. (Hey,they’re made from food! But, no, they aren’t edible.) And they can be microwaved — though, like other plastics, they will distort when zapped. They won’t break down under normal room or refrigerator temperatures.

However, they are compostable. Cargill warns that breakdown requires the high temperature and humidity achieved in commercial composting operations (though there’s no theoretical reason why seasoned home composters couldn’t achieve the same results). Under the right conditions, NaturesPLA “will degrade into water, carbon dioxide and organic material,” according to the manufacturer.

One-third empty or two-thirds full?

Glass recycling is a little simpler than plastic. All bottles and jars can be recycled (but not drinking glasses, window panes, auto glass, ashtrays, light bulbs, TV picture tubes or mirrors). Most glass containers are either clear, brown or green, and for recycling purposes, they must be separated by color.

Again, however, regional variations in demand loom large. “We don’t have enough wineries or a Rolling Rock plant to use green glass, so it goes to Georgia, where it sells for $12 per ton,” notes Olenski. “It costs $21 per ton to get it there, but the $9 loss is better than paying a $32-per-ton tipping fee to the landfill.”

This underscores a critically important aspect of the practical reality of recycling: It may be the right thing to do in terms of our big-picture impact on the environment, but in the near term, it also has to work economically, or politicians and taxpayers won’t make it happen. Curbside, says Olenski, is satisfied if it can break even on glass, overall.

In the current economy, he explains, “The sale of the material won’t pay for collection of the material, but sale at least means that the people aren’t paying the whole cost of disposal.”

Cameron Pace, general manager of Asheville Waste Paper, concurs. “Glass is a bad dog,” he observes. “They’ll reject anything that’s not perfectly clean, and even if they take it, you can’t make any money at it.” Asheville Waste Paper now handles the blue-bag recycling program in the unincorporated portions of Buncombe County.

Meanwhile, the whole economy of glass recycling is in flux. Pennsylvania now uses ground glass in road-surfacing material, and some landfills have approved the use of ground glass as a landfill cover. That moves the material from the category of solid waste (for which a tipping fee is required) to clean fill — which is used to bury the waste. In this case, the disposal cost for green glass would drop. Of course, use as clean fill hardly qualifies as “recycling” to those who support conservation of resources.

Wolf notes, “The purchasing end is a good position of power. If I have the choice of buying a beverage in clear or brown glass instead of green, I would buy that. Not all recyclables are created equal at the local level.”

Fiber in the diet

When it comes to landfills, recycling and conservation, paper and cardboard are the gorilla in the living room. According to E Magazine (May/June 2004), “Paper is also the dominant material in solid waste. And in the United States, paper-producing companies are the third-largest energy consumer.”

The demand for recycled pulp is huge and growing. Michael Klein of the American Forest and Paper Association told E, “One hundred percent of the paper and boxed fiberboard that people put on the curb [to recycle] is used.”

Despite the escalating demand, however, the percentage of recycled content in U.S.-made paper is falling — down from a high of 10 percent in the early 1990s to less than 5 percent today. The Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance recently partnered with the San Francisco-based group Forest Ethics in a boycott campaign that persuaded Staples and Office Depot to increase the average recycled content of the paper they sell, but most consumers are not asking for recycled paper, according to the retailers.

Nonetheless, the current price for used-paper pulp remains unusually high — due largely to huge Chinese purchases for corrugated-box production. In the past few years, Chinese demand has grown from virtually nothing to a full 35 percent of the U.S. market. (This, in turn, is substantially driven by this country’s massive imports of Chinese goods.)

“The mixed-paper market has come a long way; it is the next big fiber market,” Pace predicts, adding, “I would like to see the county put no more paper in the landfill.”

In response to the commodity’s higher price, Curbside Management plans to add paper sorting to their new materials-recovery facility (known as a “MuRF” in industry jargon). Soon, paper from offices that generate a high percentage of white bond will be run through a hand-picking operation to take advantage of the price differential between generic mixed paper and the more valuable kinds. The paper-sorting operation is slated to be up and running later this fall, Wolf reports.

Asheville Waste Paper has collected and sold multiple grades of paper for years. Still, “Corrugated pays the light bill,” notes Pace.

Precious metals

Aluminum cans are the gold nuggets of the consumer-recycling biz, and the premium price paid for well-sorted aluminum underwrites the losses incurred by handling glass and plastics. Steel cans, while considerably less valuable, also find a dependable market year in and year out. Moreover, because it’s magnetic, steel is the easiest material to pull out of a waste stream.

After that, however, much of the local recycling picture remains cloudy and subject to continuing shifts in the economy, the political climate, and larger market forces.

And then there are the ironies. Is it riskier to drink bottled water (which might be contaminated by its plastic container) or ground water (which might be contaminated by any number of things — including leaching plastic containers in landfills)? Is nonrecyclable, corn-based plastic that breaks down only at high temperatures really an improvement? And if enough sustainability advocates boycotted imports, would the market for recycled paper pulp tank — sending your paper and cardboard right back to the landfill?

Whoever said life was simple?

[For more information, consult the online quarterly put out by Buncombe County Solid Waste Services (]

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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