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Is Recycling Making a Difference in Pittsburgh?

Mar 01, 2017 08:25AM ● Published by Hilary Daninhirsch

Gallery: Recycling in Pittsburgh [6 Images] Click any image to expand.

Short of reducing and reusing, one of the most constructive ways to help the environment is to recycle what is recyclable—from aluminum cans to plastics to paper—and every little bit helps. To find out how it works, North Hills Monthly spoke with Kyle Winkler, the recycling supervisor in the Recycling Division of the Bureau of Environmental Services, a bureau of the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): In basic terms, what is the mission of your division?

Kyle Winkler (Winkler): Our goal is to provide recycling and refuse removal in a timely, efficient manner and provide a clean environment for the residents we service. In the City of Pittsburgh, there are around 115,000 service points, which include residential units of five units and below.

NHM: Do residents have to separate all of the different recyclables?

Winkler: Contrary to previous systems where residents were required to keep things separately, we switched over to a single-stream system in 2007. Now everything is mixed into one truck and gets sorted at the material recovery facility (MRF).

NHM: Why did the city change from the dual stream system?

Winkler: There was a general movement in the U.S. to solve what was considered a convenience issue. Multiple trucks had to collect the recyclables, and when the city was running one truck to collect dual streams, one side would inevitably fill up faster than the other side. That was a little bit of a hurdle. The private sector was moving in this direction of single stream, and everyone else pushing for this, so we adopted that method. 

NHM: Is it more efficient this way?

Winkler: From a collection standpoint, it is obviously a lot easier. From a residents’ perspective, it’s seemingly easier because they put everything in one container. But as soon as it hits the MRF, the unwinding of this scrambled egg problem begins. It is a challenge; there’s a lot of equipment, people and processes that go into place to get it all separated.

NHM: Why is recycling important or necessary from an environmental standpoint?

Winkler: From a high-level environmental perspective, there are finite resources, and the recycling of those resources is preferable to throwing them into a hole in the ground at a landfill.

NHM: How does recycling reduce waste?

Winkler: This is the point where I remind folks about the previous two Rs: reducing and reusing. Often folks get hung up on recycling as solving the consumption process, but we forget about reducing and reusing whenever possible. Recycling is supposed to be the last step in a broader management strategy. Recycling itself can be seen as a waste when opportunities for reduction and reuse are not taken into consideration. Reduction and reuse is better—people think recycling is what is solving the waste problem but it is just a less wasteful way of dealing with waste.

NHM: What is or is not recyclable?

Winkler: The top 10 items in commodity value and ease of sorting are cardboard; paper, such as office paper, magazines and newspapers, though not food-related paper products—not Starbucks’ cups, not paper plates or napkins, not paper towels.  that is where things go off the rails; food boxes (consumer packaging); mail, which folks often treat as separate from paper; beverage cans; food cans/steel/bi-metal cans; glass bottles of all colors; jars, glass and plastic; jugs (milk)—these are highly valued in marketplace; all plastic bottles and caps attached.

NHM: What are some difficult-to-recycle items, and are there alternative means for recycling these goods?

Winkler: There are a whole range of things that you can get recycled but aren’t acceptable in a bin, because if they get into a landfill they have a high environmental impact. These include tires, appliances, “white goods” (refrigerators, stoves, washing machines), and electronics such as TVs and computers.

NHM: So what do people do to get rid of these things?

Winkler: In McCandless, you have a unique service opportunity with your hauler. You can just call them and arrange for pick-up at your door. The Allegheny County recycling coordinator keeps a list of communities that have this service, but people can check with their municipalities to make sure. In the city, we don’t offer any curbside service for these items but there are drop-off options at a number of DPW sites throughout the city. For appliances, we refer people to an appliance warehouse—if you can deliver it to them, they’ll take it at no cost. Goodwill will take computers and peripherals at no cost (though not TVs), and Best Buy will take some peripherals.

NHM: What happens to curbside recyclable materials after they are picked up?

Winkler: Currently, our processor is located in Hazelwood, where we’re delivering 40 to 60 tons a day, Monday through Friday. They’re able to sort 12 to 18 tons an hour, and they’re trying to create marketable bales of commodities that domestic and international markets are looking to purchase. We want to make sure that whatever the bale is (aluminum, cardboard, etc.) it is not exceeding contamination rates. Once the bales are created, they get loaded onto semi-trucks or trains and go off to producers of new aluminum, plastic or paper products. The majority of stuff is consumed domestically, with some paper/fiber still going out to China.

NHM: How successful has recycling been since it’s been implemented?

Winkler: The goal has been to meet state mandates, and we succeeded not too long after we were required to meet them. We’ve reduced the amount of waste going into landfills. I think the next level of measured success is asking if we are continuously improving, and how we are measuring up to what other cities are doing to reduce waste. We do not have a waste reduction strategy, so that is where we can potentially see more success.

When we reduce waste, we won’t need to dispatch trucks, sort, or create emissions associated with that whole process. There are still recyclable materials that we can divert from landfills. There’s more on both ends that we can do, both on capturing recyclables going into landfills and reducing waste. Constant improvement needs to be our new success story.

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