Pennsylvania DEP conducts statewide waste, recycling study
Penn Waste

Pennsylvania DEP conducts statewide waste, recycling study

Agency aims to modify recycling programs, prioritize grant funding.

September 16, 2019

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is conducting a statewide waste and recycling composition study with a goal to create a targeted recycling program, optimize collections and provide guidance and assistance to local municipalities, haulers and material recovery facilities (MRFs).

Larry Holley, manager of the division of waste minimization and planning for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, says one of the biggest challenges the state is facing is contamination fees. He says facilities that have eliminated commodities, including paper and plastics, from recycling programs have been rejecting loads and charging municipalities and small and medium-sized businesses with penalties for contamination.

"For 30 years, we educated the public to recycle glass," Holley says. "Now the hauler is saying we don't take glass anymore and hitting local governments with penalties for glass appearing in the recycling stream. On our end, that's not acceptable because we acknowledge that's not a behavior you can change instantaneously."

Holley says data from the study will help the DEP “adjust our funding and prioritize grant programs” and “help local governments focus their programs on what material is in the stream.”

Pennsylvania DEP conducted a municipal solid waste (MSW) characterization study in 2003 in which incoming material was sampled and sorted through at 13 facilities, including landfills and transfer stations. The report concluded that 3.2 million tons of organics (12 percent of the waste stream) and 3.1 million tons of paper (9.3 percent of the waste stream) were being disposed of in landfills. In addition, old corrugated containers (OCC) made up 8.4 percent of the waste stream and was primarily being generated by the commercial sector.

“We think that our study will reaffirm that we need to look at OCC in the waste stream and have everybody collect that material,” Holley says.

The study also found that packaging materials—OCC (5.7 percent), mixed paper (2.3 percent) and plastic film (2.2. percent) made up 24 percent of the residential waste stream.

“We believe we need to make an adjustment to the multitude of packaging and plastics being generated,” Holley says. “It might not be feasible to create a collection program that accounts for all these different types of plastics. Maybe there’s an extended producer responsibility that comes as a result of the recycling audit study.”

Holley says local governments and waste and recycling facilities have been subject to the same challenges as the rest of the nation, including rising recycling costs and changes in the marketplace; however, MRFs in the state have been able to withstand programs because they were depending on domestic markets, he says.

While Crawford County ended its recycling program last year, many other Pennsylvania municipalities have made changes and adjustments to their recycling guidelines in terms of what materials are accepted to maintain programs.

Penn Waste Inc., York County, Pennsylvania, revised its recycling guidelines in 2017 to eliminate Nos. 3-7 plastics and paper, says Amanda Moley, director of marketing at Penn Waste.

Penn Waste built its first facility in 2008 and currently operates a 96,000-square-foot single-stream processing facility, which was built in 2015. The facility has undergone several upgrades in the last four years,including a retrofit and the addition of a robot on the PET sorting line.

"Contamination continues to be an ongoing issue,” Moley says. “We’ve responded to the changes by investing heavily in equipment, adding team members and slowing down our equipment. Our focus continues to be on lowering contamination in inbound material. We’ve invested significant dollars in educating the public on what not to put in their recycling bin.”

She adds, “Rates are increasing due to higher processing costs for recyclables and labor issues.

Holley says many municipalities have eliminated glass from programs to increase the quality of paper in the recycling stream. He says the DEP has observed an emergence of drop-off locations for glass in Pittsburgh. Lancaster has also implemented a “comprehensive” drop-off program to augment their curbside recycling program, which is “doing very well,” he says.

“We believe this study and data is the foundation to start a conversation on changes to how we collect material and implementing regulations or recommendations and other changes that will result in the reduction in the amount of waste we generate and targeted recycling programs.”

Holley says about 12 waste facilities and six to 12 recycling facilities will participate in the statewide audit. The study will look at six geographic regions of Pennsylvania and include more than 1,200 samples of waste and recycling.

The DEP is in the process of selecting a vendor to conduct the study. After a vendor is selected, the DEP will reach out to industry and local governments to “facilitate the support and cooperation” in the study, Holley says.

“The information that we all gain from this will help us modify our programs, whether you’re a MRF, a landfill operator or a recycler,” Holley says. “It lets you know what you’re collecting and how better to structure your programs, and in a big way your education programs.”

One goal of the study is to understand how much organics is being disposed of in the state. Holley says this is of interest to landfills that have energy recovery systems, but also to local governments interested in diverting organics from landfill and creating organics collection programs.

While there is a successful organics program in the State College, Pennsylvania, other cities have ruled that curbside organics collection is not an “economic or environmentally responsible way to handle organics.” Centre County developed a proposal for curbside organics collection and found the cost would be $8 a month for residents. The program would result in 10 percent reduction to the landfill and increase the counties carbon footprint by 585 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Holley says this study will allow the DEP to “focus our grants on those targeted materials and materials we need to increase in the recycling stream.”

He adds, “We need to develop a comprehensive education program to assist businesses, recyclers and consumers in creating a higher quality recycling stream.”

Pennsylvania has launched an education campaign around recycling in the past, which cost millions of dollars per year on educational efforts, including public service announcements and commercials. The DEP will work to launch an education campaign that appeals to the next generation of recyclers, Holley says.

“We expect this study will provide us the data, results and direction to direct those types of efforts to educate people in recycling,” he says. “It’s currently a priority for all involved in recycling in Pennsylvania and the agency is going to be proactive in making sure everybody reaps the benefits of the data we gather from this study.”