WSU, Pullman needs to reform recycling system

Commingled recycling is less cost efficient than a single-stream, switching saves money for all of those involved



The inefficient way material is recycled in Pullman affects every resident, costing them more for a method that produces more waste. By transitioning to a system that better divides recyclables, the price of recycling could be made into a financial return.

ADAM CARLSON, Evergreen columnist

The commingled method of recycling in use by both Pullman and WSU increases costs to all parties, so the city needs to prioritize a single-stream system needed for more effective, cheaper recycling.

Though a commingled system once saved money, China’s recycling ban has since turned it into a deficit. WSU switched from separate recycling bins to commingled in 2008 and Pullman Disposal Service in 2013.

Before, recyclable waste was separated into material categories like plastic, paper and cardboard. Now, most of WSU recycling goes into commingled bales, and everything recyclable sits in one large lump.

The decision to switch is one regretted by Devon Felsted, operations manager and president of Pullman Disposal Service.

“The value of commingled recycling has collapsed to where it costs far more to recycle it than it does to just throw it away as trash,” Felsted said. “If we had known the value would collapse like that, we would not have switched to commingled.”

Even in good condition, with little to no contaminants, commingled materials are treated as little better than trash. Rather than being paid for the recyclable material, commingled recycling has a negative value of about $110 per ton, according to Pullman Disposal Service.

But in separate bales, these materials offer lucrative returns. Cardboard and office paper are easily recyclable and as such is one of the most valuable and cost-effective for the university. These materials are sold to municipal and private recycling plants for anywhere from $50 to $75 per ton, according to an article by MoneyPantry.

Expanding this kind of single-stream system to include other materials, like aluminum cans and glass, might even turn a profit. Glass is one of the most readily recyclable materials, but it is not meant to be included with WSU or Pullman recycling bins.

Glass gets shattered and crushed in the baling process, which damages and contaminates other materials. It can be dropped off in person at Pullman Waste Disposal, but many find this inconvenient and not worth the effort.

This stands as the greatest issue to encouraging singles-stream, as the commingled system is simpler and easier to handle for most people. Rick Finch, WSU waste services manager, understands how most people don’t invest much thought when disposing of their waste.

“The easier you make it, the more likely people are to participate,” Finch said.

Having one bin for general recycling on campus does make it easier for people to recycle without a second thought, but that lack of a second thought is what makes the commingled system flawed.

Only having one bin and being able to throw everything in without thinking encourages the user to be complacent, even careless of where their trash goes.

“On the mall, you couldn’t even tell by looking in the bin which one was garbage and which one was recycling,” Finch said. “Signage doesn’t make much of a difference that often.”

What both WSU and Pullman need is a simplified form of single-stream to compete with the ease of commingled. A new form of recycling container designed to address the difficulty of separation could address this, such as a bin with individual compartments for each material on similar in appearance to that of a cupboard.

Compensation for these separated materials could also be made, the amount individuals would receive could be based on weight and recorded when they’re picked up for delivery to the processing plant.

Regardless of what specifically is done to address this issue, commingled processing is financially inefficient and needs to be replaced with single-streaming, saving money for local residents, WSU and Pullman Disposal Services.