UMass Amherst the Latest to Take on Single Stream Recycling

This fall, UMass Amherst is joining communities across Western Massachusetts including Springfield and Chicopee, in opting for single-stream recycling. That means throwing bottles, paper, and even aerosol cans or clean pizza boxes into the same bin, instead of having to sort them into different containers.

Single stream recycling started in the Western US some fifteen years ago and has been picking up momentum in the east in the last five or so years. The convenience of single stream tends to boost the volume of a community’s recyclables from 25 to 60 percent. Recycling has changed a lot since John Pepi first got into it in 1970. Pepi — who’s head of waste management for UMass Amherst — says as soon as he learned glass bottles could be turned into other things, he and his classmates set up shop at their high school in Stamford, Connecticut to experiment with the process.

“We set up trailers in our parking lot and barrels in the trailers and opened up glass recycling to the whole city of StaMford. Myself and the other committee members would go out and crush glass with sledge hammers and crush glass in these barrels. I actually followed one of these trailers down to their mill in NJ and hitchhiked back when the load was delivered.”

Forty-two years later, Pepi is leading UMass’ transition to single stream. He says there IS still lots of manual labor associated with the recycling process. After all — one of the things the industry promotes is the number of jobs it comprises — from haulers to sorters. As recycling has gained popularity, manufacturers from carpet companies to those making nail files have realized the value of re-used materials. And it’s become big business.

Stephen London is the marketing manager for one company capitalizing on this current wave. It’s North Carolina Based ReCommunity Recycling, a firm seeking to make recycling easier and more profitable for communities across the United States. London met me in Hartford for a tour of the company’s Material Recovery Facility — what those in the recycling industry call a MRF.

“There’s a specific smell the second you walk into a MRF. And it smells like everything you’ve ever smelled in your life combined into one thing. For me I love it. For an outsider, probably not a great way.”

That’s because the Hartford facility receives a mix of everything Hartford-area residents throw in the ninety-two gallon recycling containers municipalities provide. London says what’s in the containers ranges from yogurt containers to cereal boxes — and occasionally a dead squirrel or skunk. But he says the beauty of single-stream facilities like the Hartford MRF is the efficiency of the sorting process. London says that’s due to a sophisticated system of machines — including a powerful mechanized magnet that pulls out aluminum and tin, and an extremely sensitive lens.

“The optical sorter is such a fun cool machine to watch operate. It identifies within a second a plastic bottle and blows it into a different shoot. And it’s amazing.”

London says once everything is sorted, it’s compacted into huge three-by-three-by-five foot bricks called “bails.” Then it’s shipped to wherever there’s demand. London says most plastics go south, cardboard to Syracuse, New York and small glass to South Hadley, Massachusetts. He says ReCommunity shares a percentage of the revenue from sales with communities choosing to participate in the program. And these are towns, London says, where many of the Hartford MRF employees live.

“A lot of people because of this are very engaged and ask for educational materials to really try to promote it. Because I think whatever you do, you want to promote what you’re doing if you believe in it. So I think these people get very passionate.”

Like — Bert Lin who relocated from Jamaica to East Hartford two years ago.

“My mind to recycling opened up when I came to this country, especially when I started working here. First and foremost, it does keep the environment clean. And you know, we don’t waste material, we reuse material. And it does create jobs. I have a job now because of recycling.”

Back on the UMass campus, the system is still in the works. Unlike the Hartford model, UMass won’t be saving money when it transitions to single stream — at least in the beginning. That’s because it will be using an older MRF in Springfield — the only one in Western Massachusetts. The Springfield facility is lacking the fancy technology of MRFs elsewhere, like the optical sorter in Hartford. So the sorting and compacting process isn’t as efficient and the bails don’t turn out as clean — so they’re less valuable. Even so, UMass’ John Pepi confirms it’s the right direction for the University and Western Massachusetts.

“There’s kind of a tidal wave in the north east going in this direction towards single stream so we decided to take advantage of it and get on the wave now instead of wait till later. There’s definite advantages to the system…so we’re making a fairly fast transition.”

Pepi says much of the material coming out of the Springfield facility is shipped to a company in Fitchburg, Massachusetts that makes game boards and book covers. He says in years past, the resources to make these things came from overseas instead of just down the highway.

“These materials represent a lot of energy usage and not having to mine them in countries across the world to be made into products but to have these resources readily available in our country and in our region for re-use is critical for energy conservation.”

Under Pepi’s leadership, waste management staff are attaching labels to about 15-thousand recycling bins around campus. After that, it will be up to campus leaders to educate users on the new single bin system. Pepi says that will be key to the program’s success.

“Our infrastructure and our system is top notch in terms of what we allow people to do and the convenience of it. But we’ve got some growth to do in terms of cooperation and participation rates. There’s still some room there. Particularly in the dorms.”

Danny is an engineering student who lives in a UMass dorm. He says based on his experience with single-stream recycling in Boston — where he’s from — he thinks the new system is convenient enough that students will have no problem catching on.

“People are honestly lazy. So the fact that they had single stream recycling made it easier for everyone to get involved in recycling, to be aware of it. Because everyone sees these big blue bins around and they automatically know that it’s for recycling now. So I believe that the single stream program will make it easier for us.”

Once all the bins are labeled and educational materials distributed, Pepi says he anticipates seeing recycling participation bump five to ten percent this school year.