Despite a switch to single-stream collection a year ago, St. Paul, Minnesota has seen its recycling activity remain flat. The lack of growth seems to be a factor of lightweighting trends in packaging, a lack of markets for glass and continued reliance on bins.
Officials in St. Paul have announced city residents recycled 20,028.6 tons of material through traditional curbside recycling services as well as multi-unit recycling, drop-off and cleanup events in 2014. That’s down about 1 percent from 2013’s total of 20,484.2 tons. According to the city’s calculations, curbside recycling totaled 15,868 tons in 2014, compared with 16,111 tons in 2013.
In April of 2014, the City switched to a single-stream program. It had been a longtime champion of the dual-stream collection system in which fiber and containers were sorted into different bins by residents.
“Our numbers have been fairly flat for five years or more,” Kris Hageman, the environmental coordinator for St. Paul’s Public Works Department, told Resource Recycling. “We had a significant drop in glass, and other materials are being light-weighted, so it’s all part of the picture.”
In 2014, 4,244.5 tons of glass were recycled, more than 20 percent below the 5,392.7 tons of glass recycled in 2013. Had glass recycling remained on par with 2013, recycling would have increased in 2014.
According to Hageman, the city’s primary glass recycling partner, eCullet, closed its St. Paul operation in August 2014.
While the St. Paul location of Strategic Materials stepped in to recycle some of the city’s glass, Hageman said “they were not able to absorb everything that had been going to eCullet.”
Another major factor in the flat tonnages appears to be the fact that St. Paul’s switch to single-stream did not come with the usual transition from bins to larger carts.
“I do think it is unique to St. Paul,” Hageman said of the use of bins in the single-stream program. “When most communities switch from dual stream or multiple stream to single-sort, they’re jumping to the carts right away … and they do see at least an initial big increase in tons.”
According to Hageman, the high cost of switching from 14-gallon bins to 96-gallon carts has made for a delayed transition. The estimated cost for the project is $4 million.
Cody Marshall, who serves as a project manager for the Curbside Value Partnership, suggested the switch to carts, as well as education and outreach, is crucial in driving growth for recycling programs.
“Just transitioning to single stream can decrease collection costs for muncipalities, but they typically won’t realize large increases in tonnage until they incorporate cart-based collection for all homes while providing strong education,” Marshall said.
Minnesota’s switch to carts likely will not come before 2017, when a new recycling and waste hauling contract will go into effect. Hageman said once the contract is in place the multi-million dollar investment in carts will be spread “over a three-, five- or seven-year period.”
Tim Brownell, co-president of the city’s current contractor, the nonprofit group Eureka Recycling, said his organization had hoped to see carts out on streets earlier. “We’re disappointed we were unable to move over to carts this year,” he said. “That had been the plan and trajectory that we were all working on.”
He pointed to additional nuances behind the flat tonnage numbers. For one thing, he said, some materials did see growth.
In 2014, the weight of plastics collected at the curb increased dramatically. With the switch to single-stream recycling, Eureka Recycling began accepting plastics Nos. 4, 5 and 7, in addition to the plastics Nos. 1 and 2 it previously accepted.
And, while the switch to single-stream increased the residual rate from about 0.9 percent to 1.6 percent, the new rate was still minimal, meaning residents get the message about which items are recyclable, he said.
According to Brownell, the continued migration toward lightweighting also resulted in increased volumes – evidenced by Eureka’s need to deploy additional trucks after the switch to single-stream – but not higher weights.
Hageman of the Public Works Department stressed the City would now be focusing “beyond traditional recycling methods,” such as public space recycling, organics collection and construction and demolition debris recovery.