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Harrisonburg's New "Single Stream" Recycling

In August, Harrisonburg adopted a single stream collection program, which removes the need for residents to sort their own waste. WMRA’s Kara Lofton took a detailed look at the new program and reports.

[Sound of trash being dumped]

For those used to sorting recyclables from trash and dragging out separate bins to the curb, single stream waste collection seems too good to be true.

PETER VAN DER LINDE: When you think of recycling you think of people bent over, separating things into different – that’s just decades of conditioning!

That was Peter Van der Linde, owner of Van der Linde Recycling in Troy, the 23-acre, $25 million single stream collection facility Harrisonburg contracted with this summer. His facility processes 800 tons of trash a day through a combination of automated and hand sorting.  The sorting is done by some of Van der Linde's 120+ workers.

Here’s how that process works: once a week a city trash truck picks up waste at your curb. It is taken to a centralized location in Harrisonburg, dumped, consolidated, then loaded into containers that are trucked to Troy.

At “receiving,” the “recovery” process begins with the hand removal of large bulky metal material and rigid plastics. Then, waste is sent through a bag breaker, which shreds plastic garbage bags and allows “fine” materials to be removed. These small materials are waste. Plastic bags are then removed on a conveyer belt by hand. Then papers are removed by a combination of hand picking and through a machine that pushes paper to the top and directs it to a bailer. At the end, everything is sorted, bailed and either sold, repurposed into mulch or gravel, or sent to the landfill.

Van der Linde touts his facility as the waste disposal of the future and says their aim is to eventually be able to recycle 100% of what comes through their doors.

VAN DER LINDE: With us, approximately 80% of the recyclables (this is in household trash) that we receive get harvested. Because we have the chance at all of the material that comes to us – not just what was sorted out for curbside pickup – we believe in the end we get more. The material that is not recyclable goes to what we call residual.

A quick note – 80% of recyclables are 80% of your plastics, paper and metals – materials that are potentially recyclable, not 80% of all waste. Other parts of your waste, such as treated wood and clothes, are not recyclable and go straight to the landfill.

The city of Harrisonburg, like all municipalities in Virginia, has a state mandate to recycle 25% of all waste – a rate Harrisonburg has barely met in the past when participation in recycling was voluntary. That is in part because Harrisonburg didn’t recycle all potentially recyclable materials such as plastics # 4 and 5, because the city is too small to market those materials well for resale.

This is an important distinction: as much as politicians and advocates hold up recycling as this boon for the environment, recycling is an economic endeavor. What the city couldn’t sell, it didn’t recycle. In the end, one of the main reasons they went with Van der Linde, is that it was cheaper than going with a landfill.  Going to Van der Linde seems like a win-win. Harrisonburg’s overall recycling rates should increase and

HARSIT PATEL: The tipping rate at Van der Linde was actually cheaper than going to the county.

That was Harsit Patel, Business Services Manager for the City.

PATEL: The county was $50 a ton if we just took our trash there, tipped it and buried it. And Van der Linde was at $39 a ton so that felt like to us, well we could increase our recycling rate substantially because now we’re not just picking up recycling from those who want to recycle in the yellow bins that we have provided. Now everyone will inherently automatically recycle and more items can be recycled now because Van der Linde takes everything and they sort everything.

Van der Linde said it is difficult to put a number on exactly how much total trash is being recycled because every load they receive will contain varying amounts of potentially recyclable material. But what is recyclable they do everything in their power to sort, bail and sell.   

VAN DER LINDE: Our business model demands that we do everything that we can to make the residual as small as possible.  We get money for the material we bail and sell, but we have to pay to transport and dispose of material that is in the residual. We are highly motivated even we did not care about the environment. If the business is to stay solvent you have to be obsessed about recycling to avoid expense and hopefully gain income.

And for the city?

PATEL: We were able to be more green without adding a tax burden to our citizens.

Patel said the new program will have no personal impact on Harrisonburg residents. They can continue putting out their trash like they always have, but more of what they do put out has the potential to be recycled. Instead of a 35-40% voluntary participation rate in recycling, there is now a 100% participation rate, which should increase the overall amount of waste the city is recycling.

[Sounds of recycling at Van der Linde]

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.