Alta looks at its bagless future

Friday, November 9, 2018

As Buena Vista County’s recycling center moves towards making all recycling collections bagless next July, cities that still use bags learning why.

With over 80 percent of communities in Iowa using a recycling program of some sort, and 58 percent offering curbside, recycling centers like Rowley look to improve efficiency in an effort to make recycling sustainable.

Single stream systems like Alta’s, where recyclable items are sorted at the center (as opposed to systems that require recyclable collections to be separated properly before collection) deal with issues that make the recycling system slow and inefficient.

Some of the biggest cons to collecting recyclables in plastic bags at the curb include hidden contamination, lack of uniformity, collection safety and inefficiencies.

Workers opening thousands of bags per day are slowed down significantly. Bags hiding garbage and other contamination take longer to individually open and sort out. Contaminated items—those that are completely unusable for recycling—take longer to find when concealed in bags. ”When recyclables come into contact with food, they’re often contaminated,” said Jeff Phillips of Barker Lemar, an environmental consultant.

It all adds up to a system that costs more.

A time study presented by Phillips showed that on a six-hour shift at a recycling center, about an hour is spent just opening bags throughout the day.

“We want to eliminate contamination and touching materials,” he said, so the center can process materials instead of spending time getting ready to process them. Each worker opens about 1,680 bags in a six-hour shift.

Permanent containers with recyclables placed in them decrease collection costs, create less potential for litter, present uniform options and increase opportunities for enforcement, the presentation said.

“My biggest fear with bagless is that people will put it in a can and it will dump everywhere,” said Brad Pederson from the Streets and Sanitation Department. Phillips said that rigid plastic totes should not have issues with litter getting into the streets, particularly ones with lids.

But Alta doesn’t have plans to move to a standardized tote system for garbage and recycling collection as other towns like Cherokee have done and Storm Lake has contemplated. “We will never do that because our truck doesn’t have the capability to do that,” Mayor Al Clark said, referring to the automated arms many garbage trucks have that allows them to pick up cans for collection from the inside of the cab. Garbage in Alta is collected manually by sanitation workers on a rear-loaded truck.

Drop off centers are great for businesses and churches, Phillips said, “but people like convenience.” Contamination is one of the biggest issues with a curbside pick-up system. On top of that, plastic bags are considered contamination to recycling plants, as they are not recyclable.

“A container gives a visual, so you’re more conscious of it,” said Lori Dicks, manager of the recycling plant. “We have not reinvented the wheel here.” She said that Buena Vista County’s system, which still allows collection in bags for now, is an exception to the rule that has been implemented in many other places.

The county’s recyclables, which are sorted and then sold to buyers, have seen a decline in prices and buyers—causing a turn to efficiency.

“Markets are horrible right now,” Phillips said. China, which used to be one the United States’ biggest buyer of recyclables, has banned mixed paper and plastic from coming in to the country. Market values for recyclable materials continue to struggle, which means that both quality and quantity are important in this business.

“If you have a lot of garbage in recycling, you’ve spent a lot of money to collect it separately and then pay to throw it away,” said Phillips.

“The volatility of markets will continue to impact us,” Dicks said. “We need to get ahead of that to have a marketable product we can move. We want to keep our great reputation with people who buy our products.”

She says the new rule will save the city money in the long run by reducing expenses.

The new rule would allow households to use any container smaller than 36 gallons. Different types of recyclable materials may be co-minged in those containers. “If we’re going to do this, let the homeowner decide which container they want to do,” Clark said.

The rule will go into effect July 1, by which time cities like Alta, Albert City, Newell and Linn Grove will need to decide on the best path to transition to the new system.