What a difference five years can make. CleanTechnica visited Tel Aviv back in 2013 when the kinks were still being laboriously worked out of a single-stream recycling demonstration project that looked like a hot mess of a Rube Goldberg contraption, wedged into a cramped, noisy corner of the transfer shed at the city dump. Nevertheless, all that hard work has paid off, as revealed by a return trip this week as part of the Muni World conference.
Single Stream Recycling: What’s Not To Like? Er…
For those of you new to the recycling topic, let’s start with multi-stream recycling, in which consumers are responsible for separating certain recyclable items out from their regular household trash, usually paper products and containers of various kinds. In some parts of the US food waste recycling is also coming onto the scene, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
Two problems immediately surface when it comes to multi-stream recycling: how to get people to sort their trash, and how to get them to sort their trash properly, and what to do with the non-recyclable trash (okay so that’s three problems, whatever).
Single-stream recycling solves the first two problems right off the bat, by taking the human factor out of the equation. Everything goes in one bin, and the bin goes off to the sorting facility.
Single-stream can also potentially solve the third problem by reclaiming food scraps and other kinds of material in addition to basic paper products and empty containers.
Single-stream has been greeted with much enthusiasm here in the US and elsewhere, but some industry observers note that the desired result — less trash going to landfills — isn’t necessarily born out by the promise. Another area of concern is the compromised quality of recycled material made from recyclables sorted post-consumer.
The Island Effect
That last item about quality control leads into fraught territory for both single and multi-stream recycling. You can collect all the recyclables you want, and they can be as high quality as you want, but in the end you get commodities, and commodities need a market.
China recently upped the threat level in the global recycling market by banning the import of scrap plastic and paper among two dozen types of solid wastes, leaving recyclers in the US and elsewhere scrambling for options.
That brings us all the way back around to Tel Aviv. The new Hiriya Recycling Park facility is located at the city’s massive former landfill, which was capped and ambitiously rehabbed as Ariel Sharon Park.
On a tour of the facility this week, our guide made one point that puts single-stream into perspective. In terms of the global recycling marketplace, Israel is an island with relatively limited export-import opportunities. The country has depended on Turkey to take its plastic scrap, but the Chinese ban demonstrates that the export option is unreliable over the long term.
That’s where the question of what to do with recycled commodities really kicks in. If you can’t get them out of the country, you have to reclaim them in-house. That leaves small countries — and especially, island countries — wrestling with the problem of how to make room for a whole industry that recycles scrap into marketable products.
The Incineration Answer
Every country, every region and every local government has different options and resources available to it in the context of the global recyclables marketplace.
With that in mind, the logic behind Tel Aviv’s single-stream strategy begins to take shape. Hiriya Park takes a broad approach that includes both upcycling and downcycling. The basic idea is to make the most of products that can be used inside the country, preferably as close to the facility as possible.
Part of the park is dedicated to an ArrowBio municipal solid waste facility, which sorts out organic waste and uses it to generate biogas. Along with biogas extracted from the landfill itself, the gas is piped to a nearby textile factory for use as fuel. A byproduct of biogas generation is organic sludge, which can be processed for use a a fertilizer or soil enhancer.
The main facility consists of a hands-free system for sorting out basic recyclables including paper, cardboard, glass, metals, and organics. These are destined to be shipped to other recycling and composting facilities in Israel for processing.
In all, those recyclables account for up to 36% of waste at the main facility. Another 25-30% consists of dry (plastic, wood, and textile). This goes into a shredder and comes out as a powder-like material that is used as fuel by one of the country’s major energy consumers, the nearby Nesher cement factory.
Hiriya also processes yard and agricultural waste for use as mulch, and construction waste for use as gravel and other landscaping applications.
That still leaves a fairly large percentage of waste in search of a landfill. Plans are already in the works to pack more recycling muscle onto Hiriya Park, but it’s a good guess that as the population of the region grows, so will pressure on the landfill.
Despite all the progress, the ultimate takeaway is clear. No matter what recycling system you choose, the nut of the problem is that manufacturers and product designers need to take a full accounting of end-of-life issues. As it is, the whole mess is dumped into the laps of public planners, and ultimately taxpayers.
A more sustainable solution to the global waste problem is cradle-to-grave planning that includes product manufacturers from the outset. Until then, stay tuned for more interesting news from Hiriya.
For more waste and recycling stories from CleanTechnica check out our coverage of the ocean plastic problem, “smart” robotic waste sorting systems, a second life for used EV batteries, and a new take on the coffee-to-energy cycle.
All photos: by Tina Casey.
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