Making the most out of our mixed waste

Departments - Critical Thinking

August 12, 2015

Over the past few months, headlines about mixed-waste processing, dirty MRFs (material recovery facilities) and the true cost of recycling have been cropping up in industry as well as mainstream media. On one side, we have developers and waste companies that want to consolidate and simplify collection services and extract the most revenue out of the waste they receive, and on the other side are avid recyclers and end users of recovered materials who are concerned about the quality and contamination in the recyclables they buy. Both groups have relevant concerns and ideas about how best to meet our recycling needs.

It is important to recognize that the systems do not exist in a vacuum. The type and configuration of technologies has not been the only thing to change over the past few decades—the composition of our waste has also changed dramatically, and so has consumer behavior. While a rise in paper and plastic waste through the 1990s supported a growth in single-stream recycling collection, we have since experienced a dip in paper generation and lightweighing of packaging. At our best, American consumers are only recycling approximately 65 percent of paper generated and 9 percent of plastic generated. Even easy-to-recycle ferrous metals have a 33 percent recycling rate.* This signals a need for something more—better education or better processing—both costly and difficult to implement when the alternative is abundant and relatively cheap landfill disposal.

These solutions may be difficult to implement on their own, but when part of an integrated system, where mixed-waste processing is connected with product use, education and technology can help improve the quality and composition of the waste stream, producing a waste stream that is better suited for recovery.

Infinitus in Montgomery, Alabama, has taken this coordinated approach, designing an integrated system that uses mixed-waste processing as a tool to improve diversion of recyclables, produce locally useful products and reduce landfill disposal. The city of Indianapolis is working with Covanta to build a mixed-waste processing facility to recover recyclables from waste before it is sent to Covanta’s existing waste-to-energy (WTE) facility. By separating recyclables and organics, and using all materials to the most economic end, these systems are recovering additional value from the waste stream that previously went into the WTE facility or landfill.

Mixed-waste processing is one solution to this problem, but it is not the only solution. Communities need to look at their own needs when making decisions about how to sustain existing recycling programs or increase diversion, not the needs of other communities or interest groups.

With the variety of curbside collection strategies—one bin, wet/dry, single stream and dual stream—that exist throughout the U.S., the “whole” system needs to be considered when determining the best-fit approach, not general market trends or third-party desires.

By understanding the context where mixed-waste processing has been applied, we can turn the debate into a productive conversation about how technologies can best be used to increase recycling, recovery and diversion from landfill.


Harvey Gershman is president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., solid waste management consultants,

Research assistance provided by Elizabeth Rice, senior consultant.

*U.S. EPA Office of Resource and Recovery, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States,” February 2014.