Friday, November 14, 2008

Where does the recycling go?

Plastic heads to China, cans to the Midwest

Express Staff Writer

Bales of crushed cans at Ohio Gulch Transfer Station waiting to travel to a recycling center in Boise. Photo by Mountain Express

There is a reason recycling is ranked third in the old 3 R's waste hierarchy of "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle." So far, it is difficult to calculate whether the cost of transporting and reprocessing recycled materials effectively offsets the benefits of putting fewer materials in landfills.

The Wood River Valley's recycling is not immune to the pitfalls of transportation and reprocessing.

When people in the valley recycle their cardboard, glass and plastic the materials eventually make their way to Ohio Gulch Transfer Station in mid-valley. There the materials are sorted and then shipped to Western Recycling, a recycling company in Boise.

From Boise, the materials go just about everywhere. The plastic travels the farthest from Boise to Tacoma, Wash to Hong Kong, China where it is sorted, cleaned and melted down. Officials with the company charged with processing recycling for the Wood River Valley say that China was chosen because of cost-benefit considerations.

"There are some reprocessing factories in the US," said Rick Gillihan, General Manager for Western Recycling. "More of a factor is that the labor in China is really inexpensive. And as the Chinese economy has grown, the need for raw materials has grown."

Recycled cardboard, tin and aluminum do stay in the United States. Most of the cans are sold to smelters in the Midwest. The cardboard is sold to mills that make new liner board and remanufactured boxes.

Ohio Gulch sends out anywhere from 100 to 200 tons of cardboard per month.

What does not get transported out of the valley is glass. The reason for this is that, for now, glass is not high in demand. It is often used either to make sand, which is plentiful in most areas, or bottles, which are being used less and less.

"The market share for glass is simply shrinking," said Gillihan. "No one wants to buy it."

All of this transportation begs the question: Is recycling really worth it?

Craig Barry, executive director of the Environmental Resource Center, is not entirely sure.

"I have never seen an assessment of what the environmental cost of doing this is," said Barry. "To a certain extent we rely on the free market to help us determine what is efficient and what is not efficient."

Barry is also quick to point out that transportation is inevitable for all commodities whether that product is an iPod or a pile of used plastic bottles.

"It is important to remember that once they are made they will end up in one of three places: either as litter, in a landfill or they will be recycled," said Barry. "If we recycle these things there are definite benefits for carbon emissions, but whether they offset the carbon that is emitted through transportation is unclear."

What Barry can say is that through its recycling average the Wood River Valley is preventing on average 11 million pounds of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere.

But he puts the responsibility more on the shoulders of the companies producing the products that ultimately end up in Ohio Gulch.

"I think a lot of this stuff goes back to manufacturer's responsibility," said Barry. "This is not about recycling, this is about design. You need to have manufactures who are designing for reusability. Once you do that then you have qualitatively shifted the carbon footprint issue."

While manufacturers in Germany have jumped on the reusability design bandwagon, that movement is still in its infancy in the United States.

"There are some manufacturers that have stepped up to the plate but it has been slow and with considerable amount of pressure and little federal support."

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