Recycling is a well-developed habit for many in the Lima area. The Lima News’ recent Earth Day recycling event proved that. More than 500 cars drove through the newspaper’s parking lot April 30, delivering plastic bottles, metal cans, paper, old latex paint, electronic equipment and other recyclable waste during the course of the four-hour event.
The robust response contradicts Lima’s and Allen County’s actual recycling results. The North Central Ohio Solid Waste Management District, which consists of Allen, Hardin, Champaign, Madison, Shelby and Union counties, reported a 23.7 percent recycling rate in 2014, the most recent year data was available. That lags behind other Lima area waste districts. It also falls short of the state’s goal of a 25 percent rate for residential and commercial recycling.
District officials said the numbers were not an accurate reflection of the amount of recycling that’s occurring. And some industry officials question whether new metrics need to be used to assess a community’s recycling efforts.
Low recycling rate
Recycling rates are calculated as a percentage of the weight of the total waste stream. In 2014, the most recent year for data, residents and businesses of the North Central Ohio Solid Waste Management District generated 291,685 tons of garbage, according to the Ohio Department of Environmental Protection. Out of that, some 69,000 tons were kept out of landfills through recycling. That gave NCO a recycling rate of 23.6 percent.
That’s the lowest rate in Limaland. Putnam County, by comparison, had an astounding 85.6 percent residential and commercial recycling rate in 2014. Auglaize’s rate was 49.5, Hancock, 39.2 and Mercer, 34.5.
Jim Skora, senior manager with GT Environmental Inc., a consulting firm that works with NCO and other solid waste management districts, including Auglaize County and Van Wert County, said the numbers for NCO are not an accurate reflection of how much recycling is actually occurring. For one thing, he said, they’re based on data collected by a voluntary survey of recycling vendors.
“We get 10, 20, at most 30 percent returns of the survey,” Skora said. “It’s a numbers game.”
However, it’s a game that every other district is playing, too.
“The quick and dirty answer is, every district is doing more because they’re not getting 100 percent information back,” he said of the surveys. “It is what it is.”
He said it’s hard to compare NCO’s figures with districts such as Putnam, Auglaize and Mercer because they’re smaller, single-county districts with their own recycling centers. Auglaize alone has 10 recycling drop-off sites and its own materials recovery facility, or MRF, where recyclables are sorted and baled. NCO, by comparison, is made up of six counties that are served by just four drop-off centers in Kenton, Lima, Sidney and Marysville and two MRFs.
Rural districts such as Auglaize, Putnam and Mercer are “more intimate, more integrated,” and are able to put up better recycling numbers, Skora said.
Questioning the numbers
Skora also questions whether Putnam’s 85.6 percent rate is accurate.
Of the 51,079 tons Putnam reported collecting from residents and retailers in 2014, 90 percent of it — 41,914 tons — came from ferrous metals: Steel, carbon steel, stainless steel, cast iron and wrought iron, the kind of material that is more typical in industrial recycling, which is tracked separately.
“To have that high a level, it’s probably scrapyard data,” Skora said.
The number does appear to be an anomaly, skewing Putnam’s 2014 results. From 2010 to 2012, Putnam’s residential and commercial ferrous metal recycling tonnages averaged around 3,200 tons. In 2013, it reported no ferrous metal residential and commercial recycling at all. Its recycling rates for those earlier years were lower, too, averaging around 54 percent.
Putnam’s former recycling coordinator, Ashley Siefkert, couldn’t say why ferrous metal collection soared in 2014.
“Nothing sticks out in my mind,” she said.
Siefkert said state Environmental Protection Agency officials questioned it, too, but ultimately accepted the district’s figures. Its 85.6 recycling rate is the highest in the state. Logan County came in second at 53 percent. Pike County’s solid waste district is dead last, with a recycling rate of just 4.8 percent.
The debate over numbers is not just at the local level. Nationally, sanitation and recycling professionals are questioning whether landfill diversion rates based on tonnages are the right way to evaluate the success of a recycling program.
“The plastic water bottle contains less plastic now than it did 25 years ago,” said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, an industry group. “What we’re seeing is an increase in the number of units being recycled, but the recycling rate overall, on a weight basis, is relatively stable,” hovering around 34 percent since 2011.
Biderman said his members will discuss using other recycling metrics during their annual meeting in August.
Ohio EPA has long recognized that some districts would have trouble hitting target diversion rates.
“Several areas were having difficulty meeting a numerical recycling goal because the infrastructure was not in place,” wrote Ohio EPA spokeswoman Lindey Amer in an e-mail. That includes NCO.
Since 1995, the state has allowed districts such as NCO to measure their recycling success based on whether at least 90 percent of its residents had access to recycling activities and opportunities. North Central Ohio Solid Waste District has met that criteria.
District officials also point out that the average amount of recyclables generated per person has been on the rise, from 115 pounds in 2010 to 163 pounds in 2014.
Keys to success
Even when 2014’s boom in ferrous metal recycling is set aside, Putnam County has consistently high recycling numbers. It’s been more than 50 percent since 2011. It must be doing something right.
“We have a lot of buy-in from the community,” Siefkert said.
While other districts, including NCO, charges people to recycle old paint and electronic waste such as old TVs and microwaves, she pointed out that Putnam’s drop-off recycling program is free, funded by the sale of recyclable material, by grants, and by county funds. Siefkert said the district also actively reaches out to area businesses, such as sending workers and collection bins to a local TruValue Hardware store to collect cardboard boxes after its recent move to a new location.
“We love the relationships that we make with businesses and residents,” wrote Alaina Siefker, Putnam’s new recycling coordinator (no relation to Ashley Siefker), in an email. “If it wasn’t for all of them doing such a great job with doing their recycling, our program wouldn’t be where it is today.”
In Auglaize County, where the residential and commercial recycling rate of 49.5 percent is the third highest in Ohio, district Director Scott Cisco said community groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts volunteer at its nine drop-off sites. Community organizations also help sort recyclables by material and color, making them more valuable on the resale market.
“We give them a percentage of what we get,” Cisco said. “Last year, all the groups combined got $69,785.35.”
Recycling coordinators are quick to point out that, while they get money for the sale of their recyclables, that income doesn’t begin to cover their programs’ costs.
Cisco pointed to a bale of plastic shopping bags that was about as high and wide as a golf cart.
“The market will give me $15 for that,” he said. “It cost about $30 or $40 to process, to sort it and bale it. The [baling] wire alone is about $16.”
This unsustainable economic model is at the root of what ails recycling.
The industry giant, Waste Management, goes so far as to call it a “crisis” in its 2015 Sustainability Report Update.
“We must have honest conversations about cost,” wrote president and CEO David Steiner, “if recycling is going to be sustainable over the long term.”
For NCO, efforts to improve its recycling rate will begin with increased efforts to educate people on what should and shouldn’t go into their recycling bins. Skora said NCO’s next five-year solid waste management plan aims to put “boots on the ground”: inspectors who will look at what has been set out on the curb.
“We want to educate folks on what’s recyclable and what’s not recyclable so we can decrease the contamination,” he said, “but we can also hopefully increase the good material. They may be throwing away stuff that is recyclable and they didn’t know it.”
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter @lima_eddings.