Guest Column: Call it a ‘dirty MRF’ or not, a single-bin system can work

The below article, written by BHS’ Sales Operations and Marketing Manager Brian Wells, was originally posted to Waste and Recycling News’ website on June 2, 2013.

Dirty MRF

Two recent editions of this publication have provided a spirited debate about the merits of Houston’s plan to move to a single-bin collection system for waste generated in the city. Some call it a “dirty MRF”; others argue that it’s something different. It doesn’t matter what you call it: A modern, integrated waste processing and recovery system can and will deliver results when implemented properly.

Cities like Houston look to programs like the One Bin approach to maximize diversion from landfill by recycling in several forms and by producing much-needed energy. In communities where there is no other recycling or alternative collection process, 30-40% of the stream will consist of marketable recyclables (cardboard, paper, plastic containers, metals, etc.), 20-30% will consist of organics (food, yard and other waste) and the balance will be other items that are not traditionally recycled. To achieve the highest possible net recovery, piecemeal tactics won’t work. Cities must consider 100% of the waste stream and apply multiple innovative technologies in a comprehensive manner to maximize recovery.

Consolidation of the waste stream is the most effective method to mine 100% of the material in it. Proponents of multiple-bin, source-segregated collection rely on poor examples for their reference figures. When voluntary, these programs typically deliver poor participation rates, sometimes at a single-digit level. The alternative is compulsory programs that can be politically unpalatable.

When communities move to single-stream programs (one bin for recyclables, another for waste) voluntary participation rates climb significantly. This is good, but still directs much of the waste stream to landfill.

Give people a single bin, and participation is by definition 100%. Now you have something to work with.

A prior writer pointed out the experience of San Francisco’s waste diversion program. Well, Houston is not San Francisco. Measuring against idealistic approaches doesn’t necessarily provide sound guidance to cities that don’t have the same degree of environmental activism San Francisco does.

No comprehensive recovery program will succeed without an organics plan. Organics account for up to 30% of a city’s waste, so dealing with it is a priority. There have certainly been some noted failures of poorly designed anaerobic digestion facilities. The problem is not with the concept, but the design and application of the science. Properly designed dry anaerobic digestion systems are in use today throughout the world converting organic waste into clean, renewable electricity and compressed natural gas. The latter version provides a great example of closing the loop on recovery: powering collection vehicles with energy generated from the waste they collected.

Suggestions that single-bin collection programs are less successful without a thermal element are fair, but objections ignore recent developments. Large consumers of coal in the U.S. are actively seeking alternative fuel sources, and the waste industry is hard at work developing processes for producing fuel from MRF residues to fit this need. Several of these products have been granted non-waste status from the EPA, and stand poised to be utilized as a coal supplement and/or replacement. This recovered fuel could provide a net decrease in emissions in places where these plants operate, and will not be the disasters that some would label them.

The management of solid waste comes at a cost to every community. Some combination of environmental, financial, personal and political costs must be borne. When a city is determined to flex its collective muscles and reduce environmental costs, it must understand that savings in one area will be offset by increased costs elsewhere. Integrated recovery programs work, so long as communities are willing to develop a cost structure that makes sense for all concerned.

Houston is not alone in its desire to move beyond past paradigms of waste management. You only need to look at San Jose, which has effectively applied integrated waste processing solutions, for an example of what is possible. High participation and recovery rates, cleaner and more efficient collection methods with fewer trucks on the road, more recycled commodities, and energy production with compost creation — all of this can be achieved at a net financial benefit. It isn’t simple or free, and cities must make sure they partner with proven industry leaders, but it is a real solution to the challenge of reducing waste in our cities.

Brian Wells is manager of sales operations and marketing at Bulk Handling Systems.


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