A breakthrough has occurred in the recycling of household wastes, such
that incineration projects will now be very much on the defensive. New
evidence shows recycling is far cheaper than incineration, is cleaner,
and can handle a larger percentage of household wastes.
A recent pilot test of recycling in the town of East Hampton, New York,
reveals that 73% of the town's regular garbage can be recycled. Regular
garbage excludes bulky waste (like old refrigerators), yard waste, and
household toxics. Actually, the pilot test shows 84% of each
household's regular garbage can be recycled, but only 90% of the
households in the town would be expected to participate in a recycling
program, and 90% of 84% is 73%.
Still, 73% recycling demonstrates dramatically that recycling can solve
the town's garbage problem much more cheaply than incineration or
landfilling, and with much less environmental damage. The East Hampton
pilot project demonstrated a technique called the Intensive Recycling
System. A 285-page report on the pilot test, released last week,
provides strong evidence that cost-conscious decision makers will now
need to evaluate recycling seriously before adopting expensive and
dirty technologies such as incineration.
East Hampton is a town of 15,000 people on eastern Long Island, where
tourists flock in the summertime, swelling the town like a stuffed
potato. One hundred volunteer households of year-round residents
participated in the pilot study for 10 weeks during 1988. They
separated their trash into four categories: (1) food waste and soiled
paper; (2) paper/cardboard; (3) metal cans and glass bottles; (4) non-
recyclables. In the case of the East Hampton pilot test, residents
brought their separated trash to a recycling center, because they had
always taken their own wastes to the town dump, but curbside pickup
would have been a feasible alternative.
Category 1 wastes were composted and the compost sold; category 2 and 3
wastes were processed by a materials recovery facility (MRF) into
marketable products: several grades of paper and cardboard; aluminum
cans; tin cans; scrap metal; and color-sorted crushed glass, which is
called cullet. Category 4 wastes, and misclassified wastes rejected
during processing, were landfilled. (Plastics were included in category
4, the nonrecyclables. However, it is well known that certain plastics
can be recycled, so refinement of the Intensive Recycling system should
be able to achieve recycling of over 84% of household wastes.)
The food waste, together with yard waste and sludge from residential
cesspools, produced marketable compost. The compost was tested for
toxic metals; metals were "far below" recommended state and federal
levels, according Tom Webster, a researcher on the pilot project.
Bottles and cans, and two thirds of the paper and cardboard, were
shipped to a materials recovery facility (MRF) operated by Peter Carter
(Resource Recovery Systems, Inc.), in Groton, CT. The composting
operation and the MRF rejected only 2.4% of the trash sent to them,
thus converting 97.6% into marketable goods.
The remaining 1/3 of the papercardboard wastes were landfilled because
there was inadequate dumpster space available to the pilot project to
allow shipment to the MRF, according to Jim Quigley, another project
researcher. In a full-scale program, this 1/3 would also be recycled,
further boosting the total fraction of materials recycled.
"In sum," says Dr. Barry Commoner, who led the study team, "the test
showed that the participants efficiently classified the trash and that
the composting operation and the materials recovery facility could
effectively convert nearly all the separated trash into marketable
As part of the pilot study, Dr. Commoner's team looked at the
feasibility and costs of a full-scale recycling program for the town,
and for other towns. They concluded that the Intensive Recycling System
would work in all communities (towns and sections of large cities)
where the housing is largely one-to four-family buildings and where
residents are accustomed to either a drop-off system (such as in East
Hampton), or where curbside collection is practiced. About 65% of New
York state's population lives in such communities. Even in New York
City, the Intensive Recycling System would be suitable for large
sections of Brooklyn and Queens, and all of Staten Island.
Where large multi-family residences (apartment houses and projects) are
the dominant types of buildings, the Intensive Recycling System would
work as soon as procedures are developed for collecting trash separated
into the four categories. The study team believes this is feasible but
has not studied in detail how to do it.
The Intensive Recycling System will work best when there are 100,000
people or so participating, which means that smaller communities should
be organized into regional systems of at least that total size.
One key to success is high participation rates. In many locales, where
voluntary recycling programs have been set up, only 10% of the
population participates. Dr. Commoner's team strongly suggests that
individuals, and trash haulers, be required to participate by local
ordinance. They believe that, with an ordinance, participation of 90%
could be routinely achieved.
A full-scale, year-round Intensive Recycling System for East Hampton is
estimated to cost $127 per ton. Incineration costs for the same town
would be $195 to $209 per ton, depending on the type of landfill
required for the resulting ash. If the ash has to go to a hazardous
waste landfill, the higher incineration costs would apply. Shipping the
waste off Long Island for burial elsewhere would cost $179 per ton.
Thus it is apparent that the Intensive Recycling System is about 35%
cheaper than incineration and 30% cheaper than carrying the stuff off
Long Island for burial elsewhere.
Environmental emissions from the composting operations and from the
materials recovery facility were monitored. From these limited
emissions data, and from other studies reported in the literature, the
team made a preliminary comparison of environmental impacts incurred by
the Intensive Recycling System vs. the environmental impacts avoided by
substituting recycled materials for virgin raw materials. The net
effect of recycling is a reduced environmental impact, the team
concludes, though they add, "However, in many instances, especially
with respect to toxic chemicals, the available data do not permit such
comparisons, so the analysis is thus far incomplete."
Tom Webster told us he believes the recycling system has a clear
advantage over incineration with regard to emissions of metals and
particles. He said organic chemical emissions need to be studied
properly for comparison purposes.
The report, DEVELOPMENT AND PILOT TEST OF AN INTENSIVE MUNICIPAL SOLID
WASTE RECYCLING SYSTEM FOR THE TOWN OF EAST HAMPTON was written by
Barry Commoner, Michael Frisch, Hanns-Andre Pitot, James Quigley, Alex
Stege, Deborah Wallace and Thomas Webster. It is available for $20.00
to non-profits; $30 to commercial organizations and government
agencies; order from the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems
(CBNS), Queens College, Flushing, NY 11367; phone (718) 670-4180.
Descriptor terms: barry commoner; intensive recycling; east hampton,
ny; ny; studies; cbns;