And now for something really confusing

The full story on plastics recycling turns out to be far more complex than the simplified version presented in our story. (Who has time for nuances when you’re dealing with 320 tons of trash each month?) Asheville resident Sandi Childs, who’s spent the last 15 years in the region’s recycling industry, filled in Xpress about the devils in the details.

“There’s no market for No. 3 and No. 6 plastic, because they are so cheap to make and reprocessing costs too much. No. 4 and No. 5 can actually be mixed with No. 2 plastic [provided you have sufficient quantities to satisfy your buyer], and No. 7 is really No. 2 with nylon fibers entrained for strength, which can be removed in processing. The brown-plastic beer bottles, which have just come on the market, are No. 1.”

Greenville, S.C., our neighbor to the south, has about one-third more people in its metro area, which gives it an advantage in terms of volume. Greenville reports that it accepts narrow-necks No. 1-7 (which might seem to contradict Childs, except for the fact that No. 3 and No. 6 aren’t used to make narrow-necked bottles).

Cameron Pace, the general manager at Asheville Waste Paper, explains: “Plastics other than No. 1 and No. 2 are recyclable, but you have to have enough volume to do it. The plastic market is finicky. Right now it is pretty good, but I’ve seen times where you couldn’t sell it anywhere.”

MuRF’s law

Local recycling afficionados raised a knowing eyebrow last summer when Curbside Management instituted a surprising change in its collection bins. Gone were the separate sections for No. 1 and No. 2 plastics; clear, brown and green glass; tin (steel) cans; and aluminum. Suddenly all recyclable containers could be mixed!

Others noted that street crews were no longer sorting on the fly, but simply dumping containers into a common hopper.

Conspiracy theorists, convinced that it was all going straight to the landfill anyway, saw this as confirmation. The pretense of sorting had simply been cast aside.

What actually happened is that Curbside opened its new materials-recovery facility (known as a “MuRF” in the industry) in response to what might be called MuRF’s Law. Eye/hand coordination seems simple enough on a person-by-person, container-by-container basis, but as a group, human recyclers make lots of mistakes. So a recycling company almost invariably has to re-sort the material from the ostensibly “sorted” bins.

If it all has to be re-sorted anyway, it’s more efficient just to let the professionals do it. And combining all materials in the same bin reduces the problem of different rates of accumulation. (With seven specialized bins at the same collection point, the aluminum and brown glass might be full after Super Bowl Sunday, while the tin and plastic are still nearly empty — yet the whole unit has to be hauled back to the plant. With mixed collection, the bin fills up more predictably.)

And in case you’re wondering where Asheville’s recyclables end up, here’s the deal:
newsprint – Southeast Paper, Dublin, Ga. (the nation’s largest newsprint recycler)
corrugated cardboard – Somerset Fiber Co., Cowpens, S.C.
no. 1 plastic – carpet industry in Georgia
no. 2 plastic – usually to Alabama
aluminum cans – Anheuser-Busch (the world’s largest aluminum recycler)
mixed paper – Tennessee, to be converted into mulch for hydroseed machines (the green stuff sprayed on highway shoulders)
steel – Sparrows Point Steel Plant, Baltimore, Md.
glass – to Georgia.

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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