You might think chaos reigns if you’ve been out to the public recycling center on Grimes Road lately.
Just look for the newspaper bin. It doesn’t exist. Instead, newspapers are dumped into every bin, along with milk jugs and tuna cans, shampoo bottles and egg cartons.

But there’s a method to the madness, said Rick Finch, head of WSU waste management. It’s called single-stream recycling.

Instead of asking consumers to sort their recycling into four or five or eight different categories, the latest development in the recycling industry is to collect most recyclables en masse, bundle them together and ship them to a recycling center where they are sorted mechanically.

Simpler is better
WSU began testing the system about eight weeks ago, Finch said, and the results look good so far, with the program on pace to exceed last year’s total of 1,963 tons of recycled materials.

“What we are seeing is that our programs become more successful as we simplify,” Finch said. “I really think if you simplify things, people will try harder.”

Finch is in the process of compiling data and writing up a business plan. If the numbers work out, he said, WSU might convert entirely to single-stream recycling. And if it does, Pullman Disposal Service and Whitman County will be watching closely.

“The advantage is you can recycle a whole lot more and the customer doesn’t have to sort,” said Devon Felsted, owner of Pullman Disposal.

Right now Pullman Disposal accepts seven types of materials for curbside recycling, but they must be partially sorted. With single-stream recycling, the list of recyclable materials would be longer — including nearly all types of paper products — and customers could toss everything into one bin and leave it at the curb.

But, Felsted said, converting to single-stream isn’t a simple matter. For one thing, any changes would have to be worked out with about five different stakeholders, including the City of Pullman, Whitman County and state regulators from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. Another issue is the startup costs for new bins and equipment.

But for now, Finch is evaluating WSU’s pilot program. For him, a successful program is one that helps WSU recycle more while spending less.

Reducing labor costs
In theory, the WSU recycling program is self-sustaining, but during the last six years the program  has lost money, Finch said. Last year the program generated $320,000 through the sale of recyclable commodities and interdepartmental charges for services, but expenses were higher than that.

The biggest expense in recycling is labor, Finch said, so this year the program has worked hard to reduce labor costs and make the entire program more efficient.

As part of that effort, WSU Recycling discontinued its two-year trial of placing collection bins on each floor of residence halls and instead returned to a single collection point adjacent to residence hall trash bins. Even so, WSU continues to provide 1,500 collection bins throughout campus in addition to operating the public recycling center. During this pilot period, WSU is continuing to provide separate containers for different materials everywhere except at the public facility on Grimes Road.

Automated sorting
WSU is working with SP Recycling in Tacoma, which is set up to accept co-mingled materials. At the facility, a contraption of conveyor belts, different gauge screens and air compressors sort materials according to size and weight into increasingly specialized categories. Eventually some hand-sorting is necessary, Finch said, but that was always the case when consumers self-sorted as well.

With each shipment, the recycling facility removes a sample and determines the amount of various materials by weight. Then, those percentages are figured for the entire shipment and WSU is paid accordingly.

No plastic bags
Visitors to the Grimes Road facility might have noticed other changes as well. Plastic bags are no longer accepted, nor are plastic-coated containers such as ice cream cartons or orange juice boxes, but Finch is unapologetic.
They don’t work with the mechanical sorting machine, Finch said, and, particularly in the case of plastic bags, there isn’t a market for them anyway.

“We aren’t doing anybody any favors by pretending that just because we accept something at a recycling center that it is okay to keep buying it,” he said. “We have to be responsible for making good consumer choices.”

So, if you want to recycle as much of your waste as possible, stick to plastics #1 and #2, use a cloth bag and look for products with minimal packaging.

Glass is another material that cannot be collected as part of single-stream recycling. It would get broken during bundling or separating, Finch said, so it is being collected separately. Most of it is being taken to Whitman County, where it is crushed and used as aggregate on road projects.

Aluminum and cardboard also a  re being collected separately, even though both can also be tossed in with single-stream recycling. Aluminum is being collected separately because it is more valuable and fetches a higher price if sold separately. WSU collects such a huge volume of cardboard that it would overwhelm the bins so it is being collected separately as well.