If you've ever wondered what happens to the old newspapers, water bottles and laundry detergent containers you put at your curb once a week, you might be surprised to learn where they go and what they're worth. The items that I thought had value didn't, but things that I thought were worthless were the stars of the recycle pile.
Environment and economics are the driving factors behind any recycling program. That's according to Craig Brandon, Montclair N.J.'s Supervisor of Solid Waste Management. Craig spent a good hour explaining some of the ins and outs of the recycling business to me when I visited him in his office.
Right now Montclair has a five-year contract to sell all of its recycled plastic/metal to a company in Clifton, N.J., called Green Sky. I talked with Green Sky and found that they take all of Montclair's metal and plastic waste in one unsorted lot. Their job is to separate the plastic from the metal and bale each one into parcels of about 1,250 pounds each. Those bales are then sold to plastic or metal processors.
Right now Green Sky pays our town $15 per ton for mixed plastic containers (marked No. 1 or No. 2) and metal. Craig told me that companies like Green Sky don't really want the plastic—it's just not nearly as valuable as the metal. There's an oversupply of plastic and much of it ends up being exported to place like China. That's a main reason it commands comparatively little money.
Our town makes even more money for the paper it recycles than it gets for the metal. Companies like Green Sky dole out $65 per ton for clean paper, which is mostly paper that hasn't been soiled by food. Cardboard commands more than that. Right now it's about $80 per ton. Clean paper and cardboard, it seems, are relatively hot commodities in the recycle world
I was wondering how much revenue the town got for all its recyclable garbage. I didn't get a total- year figure, but I was told that in 2008 Montclair recycled 3,900 tons of paper and at $65 per ton that alone puts $253,500 in the bank for the town.
It sounds like a lot of money, but the recycle business is actually a net revenue drain—at least in our neck of the woods. It actually costs Montclair more money to collect all the recyclables than the town earns from recycling. The costs include (but aren't limited to) paying the employees who collect the materials and purchasing and operating the trucks.
Speaking of trucks, after a very edifying lesson in recycling, Craig made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He took me out in his flatbed truck and we visited some local recycling bins, particularly those of neighborhood schools and businesses. What an eye-opener!
Craig made a point of telling me that Montclair is comparatively good at recycling. But it seems that the large institutions in town are not very diligent about separating precious paper from plastic and metal.
It Wasn't the Kids
We looked in a bunch of bins and saw through clear plastic garbage bags that piles of clean paper (used but not soiled) were mixed with bottles and cans. And this was on the Tuesday morning after Columbus Day. Kids were not in school the previous day, but teachers were in meetings, so the only conclusion was that the adults had mixed the paper with the other recyclables.
This is a real shame because it costs the town dearly in revenue! So this is a lesson for teachers as well as students. We should all make an effort to separate our paper from metal and plastic. It's good for the environment and great for the pocketbook. That's especially good news in this fragile economy.