What Goes Around Comes Around

A recycling bin waits for pickup. Photo by Laura McKenzie
What Goes Around Comes Around

By Laura Fries

Companies compete to win San Antonio's recycling contract

Once a week, San Antonio puts out its green bins of recyclables for collection. A large City truck comes by, a man gets out, and bends over to lift the bin. He separates the paper from glass, plastic, and metal, sorting the items into two compartments. A Ziegenbock bottle with an upside down label, carefully rinsed and placed into the green bin, will be thrown into the belly of the truck. The bottle will make its way up 1-35 North to Abitibi Recycling, where it will be dumped onto the concrete floor of the warehouse. Later, a front loader will push a mound of glass and plastic bottles around on the floor. The Ziegenbock bottle will be dumped into another truck and taken to Vista Fibers, onto another concrete floor. There, it will go through a series of conveyor belts and separating machines. If it survives the process intact, it will be recycled, and perhaps return to H-E-B as another bottle of beer. But the chances of the bottle surviving are not great, and it is likely that the Ziegenbock, now in shards, will be landfilled.

Many in San Antonio doubt whether recycling actually occurs - as Abitibi manager Jason Petrie confides, "I had that perception until I came here." The City's recycling program has its flaws, like the issue with the broken glass, and the inability to currently recycle plastics Numbers 3 through 7. But the program is expected to be overhauled when companies both large and small vie for the coveted City contract. Bids are due April 26 - and the City anticipates radical changes in the recycling program.

Common Recycling Questions

How do I start the curbside recycling program?
Dial 3-1-1 for information.

Why can't people living in apartments recycle?
Because apartment dwellers do not pay solid waste fees on their CPS bill, they cannot receive City solid waste services, such as curbside recycling. Their trash is collected by private trash companies that have contracts with their landlords. Most major waste companies, like Waste Management and BFI have recycling programs, but will not provide them unless the landlord requests it.

Why can't I recycle plastics 3 through 7?
Right now, the City has a contract with a company that does not process those plastics. This will most likely change when the contract is renewed — meaning that those plastics could be recycled as early as next year.

Where can I recycle plastic bags?
Plastic bags can be recycled at H-E-B, which have collection bins by their front doors.

Currently, the City contracts with a private company, Abitibi, to process the recyclable waste that City trucks collect with the curbside program. Abitibi - one of the largest producers of newsprint - won the City's recycling contract in 1999, over Vista Fibers. Abitibi sorts the paper materials at its processing plant, bails the newsprint, and sends it to its paper plants. The bottles and glass - called the commingles in recycling jargon - are sent to Vista. It's an unusual arrangement for the winner of a contract to subcontract part of the services to the loser, but from the City's point of view, explains Steve Haney, assistant solid waste manager, "why they sub it out is up to them."

The City's recycling contract is up for renewal, and its requirements are pushing companies to devise a single-stream method of recycling in order to win the contract. Single-stream combines all recyclable materials into one truck, which means that the Ziegenbock bottle would travel with an old issue of the Current to the same processing plant. Single-stream will be financially advantageous to the City, explains Dave Lopez, fiscal manager of the Environmental Services department. "It will allow the collectors to move down the route a little faster, so hopefully as the city grows, we won't have to add additional routes." At the processing plant, single-stream recycling would mean greater efficiency, which increases the amount of materials that can be processed, and lowers the cost.

Recycling technology has changed drastically in recent years. Now, there are end markets for the raw materials produced by recycling, a financial incentive for cities. Landfill space is diminishing rapidly, and diversion from the waste stream is a key component of many city programs. While it costs $18 per ton to landfill trash, it costs $15 per ton to recycle, a savings that quickly adds up. Furthermore, new equipment makes it possible to recycle all sorts of goods - even broken glass bottles.

The City's Solid Waste Manager Rose Ryan has returned to her hometown to implement the strategies she used successfully in California, a state that has mandated recycling. In Long Beach, California, she proudly relates, 100 percent of the city's trash is recycled. Much of the waste is captured curbside through the City's recycling program, and the rest of the trash is converted to electricity using a program called Waste to Energy. Faced with stiff penalties

A baler churns out a cube of paper to be shipped to one of Abitibi's paper mills for recycling (Photo by Laura McKenzie)
for noncompliance, California cities sought the help of equipment companies in order to process their trash more efficiently, Ryan explains.

Technology is such a vital part of the equation that Abitibi is planning a $3.5 million move to upgrade its facilities - even if they don't win the City contract. Vista is planning to bid on the contract, but won't be making any changes just yet: "You don't put this equipment in unless you have a contract," explains general manager John Raybon. Industry giants, like Waste Management and BFI, are also expected to bid.

Meanwhile, San Antonio is leaving the bidding open to allow for innovative ideas. "They don't want to pass up on an opportunity," comments Raybon, especially "if someone comes up with something they haven't heard of." •

` By Laura Fries `

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