The news oozed out slowly, like ketchup that won’t quite shake loose from the bottle. Like the condiment, when the news finally popped, it made quite a mess.
The region’s primary municipal recycling facility, van der Linde Recycling and Container Rentals, suddenly and permanently closed its household waste processing on Feb. 19, leaving thousands of customers no easy way to recycle mountains of waste, and forcing local leaders to make hard choices.
The Zion Crossroads facility, which has processed the commingled waste of nearly 30 private and municipal haulers in the region since 2009, announced the news on its website, with no early warning to customers.
“[…] The decision to close our household waste processing facility was not an easy one as much time, effort and expense have gone into it,” the announcement read. “However, with the severe drop in commodity prices over the past few years and the bleak forecast, we have made the economic decision to close our household processing facility. […] Sincerely, Peter van der Linde.”
It took eight days for the announcement to find its way to the airwaves, and longer still to work its way through Twitter.
By last weekend, homeowners’ associations, such as the Old Trail Community Association, were alerting their members that anything put in their curbside trash would now be landfill material.
Residents reported hearing about the van der Linde closure from a variety of sources, mostly from the media. In fact, that’s how Boyd McCauley, owner of Time Disposal, said he heard it.
City-contracted trash and recycling is unaffected by the change. But some city residents had opted to use private haulers, like Time, for the convenience of commingling trash and recycling. And Albemarle County does not offer curbside waste management at all, leaving it all in the hands of residents and private haulers.
Last weekend, a few new faces were popping into the public McIntire Road Recycling Facility — a joint effort of Albemarle County and Charlottesville — as county residents scouted their remaining recycling options. Employees at the facility, however, said they have not noticed a surge — they’re still getting about 300 to 350 recyclers each day, one said.
“This is breaking our hearts,” said Ellen Sherwood, a Scottsville resident who visited the facility with her husband, Frank, for the first time last weekend.
“We thought we were being green — we’re old hippies who moved here from Massachusetts, and we’ve been touting Virginia’s single-stream recycling to all our friends around the country. None of them could believe it,” Sherwood said. “So, we were just really excited about this ‘progressive’ thing in little old Central Virginia.”
When the Sherwoods heard the van der Linde news, they dug into the data, and said they were surprised to learn that van der Linde’s “dirty murf” has only been able to recycle a small percentage of the waste processed — 25 percent, according to its unaudited 2016 state reporting.
“Dirty murf” is industry lingo for a materials recovery facility, or MRF, that uses a mechanized sorting system to process commingled trash — including the dirty diapers, dog poop and leftover ketchup that make most materials from those facilities unsellable in the commodities market.
Even Whole Foods Market — which lists environmental stewardship as a core company value — sends its commingled trash to van der Linde, and also was caught off-guard by the news.
“We just got an email on [March 2] from our hauler saying they’re not going to be recycling anymore,” said Tim Martin, store manager of the Hydraulic Road location. “But we’ll figure something out.”
Albemarle County Supervisor Liz Palmer, however, said she was not surprised by the news.
“I was expecting a change, because the recycling business is so susceptible to market forces,” she said. “Dirty murfs are not a particularly efficient way to recycle — they produce the lowest-quality material — so they would be the first to go.”
Recycled materials are a commodity — just like oil, gas or steel — and they are bought and sold in the commodities market. Rigid plastics, drink bottles, white paper, newsprint, cans — each of them are commodities, and their value fluctuates based on the cost of the inputs, including petroleum and wood, and the supply available.
In the Thomas Jefferson Planning District — which includes the city and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Greene — 1,572 pounds of trash per person was generated in 2016, up from 1,250 pounds in 2015. Over the same period, the area’s recycling rate dropped from 35 percent to 27.8 percent.
Where does it go?
In any given year, approximately one-third of the scrap recycled in the United States is exported, and China has long been the largest buyer for the material, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Each year, the Asian manufacturing empire has purchased about 13.2 million tons of scrap paper and 1.42 million tons of scrap plastics.
All that changed on Jan. 1.
On the first day of the new year, as part of “Operation Green Fence,” China banned the import of 24 categories of solid waste, including used plastics, unsorted waste paper and waste textile materials.
That was, essentially, the product van der Linde’s MRF produced. Van der Linde Recycling declined to participate in this story because they were not provided the opportunity to review and edit the final version.
As Jay Zook, the south region manager for County Waste put it: “In today’s market, when last night’s chicken dinner and dirty diapers and everything else gets thrown in the trash, suddenly a piece of cardboard that could have been recycled is contaminated” and can’t be sold.
Like most other haulers, County Waste had been sending its local garbage — not including city-contracted recycling — to van der Linde for processing since 2009.
But on Feb. 21, County Waste took over van der Linde’s MRF and shut down the sorter. The facility will now be used as a transfer station where local haulers can continue to dump waste; County Waste will then haul any dedicated recycling loads another 70 miles to its Chester facility for processing, Zook said.
At County Waste’s multimillion-dollar dedicated recycling facility — or “clean MRF” — in Chester, a crew of mostly Latin American immigrants work 10 to 12 hours a day on the Sisyphean task of feeding an ever-growing mountain of recyclables into the company’s Green Eye optical sorter.
A series of conveyor belts, cameras, magnets, drop chutes and human pickers separate one endless line of plastics, paper and cans. Men wearing dust masks battle vertigo to spot the two contaminants they are each assigned to pick off the belt as the recyclables race by.
At the end of the line, the Green Eye produces one 1,500-pound bale every three minutes.
County Waste claims it is able to successfully recycle at least 88 percent to 90 percent of material — if it is not commingled with trash.
Without forewarning, an inspector for a foreign market may appear at the Chester site, break open a bale of packaged material and assign it a grade, Zook said.
Even with the mechanized sorting of “clean” materials, there’s no guarantee the bale will pass muster, especially for Chinese markets.
“There’s still some work to be done to get material as clean as possible to meet the China standard,” Zook said. “We’ve been able to find other markets, but prices have been driven down because now there’s so much material available.”
Republic Waste, which recycles 1,700 tons of commercial recyclable waste from this area annually, also has a clean MRF, and has never relied on van der Linde’s commingled sorting system, a spokesperson said.
This hyper-clean standard is where the McIntire Recycling Center excels, according to recycling experts.
Rather than relying on the optical powers of a machine, residents are expected to clean and dry their recyclable materials and sort them by hand into about 10 different dump bins.
That’s called “source separation,” and it’s the most effective recycling method, according to Teri Kent, a former Rivanna Solid Waste Authority spokeswoman who also founded Better World Betty, an online resource for green-living in the Charlottesville area.
“No one is going to get a 100 percent recycle rate, but McIntire is at 98 or 99,” she said. Before the van der Linde facility opened, some haulers, including Time Disposal, hand-separated recyclables before depositing them in their trucks.
The Rivanna authority also contracts directly with nearby companies that use the McIntire materials to create new goods. Currently, plastic bags and packaging go to Trex in Winchester to make decking material; glass goes to North Carolina to make bottles; and most fiber products go to Sonoco’s mill in Richmond to make cardboard, according to Mark Brownlee, Rivanna Solid Waste Authority manager.
Plastics 1 through 7 are sold to the highest bidder, and there’s not much competition for them right now, Brownlee said.
But McIntire is inconvenient for many county residents, especially for the elderly or those who work or have children.
“That’s a 20-mile commute each way, and we drive two SUVs,” said Daniel Thornton, a resident of Old Trail in Crozet. “That doesn’t seem all that environmentally friendly, and we have a hard enough time shuffling three kids around. If they put a facility at Crozet Park, we’d be happy to participate.”
That’s exactly the sort of public option Albemarle is working on, Palmer said. She said she hopes to have a full recycling center open in Ivy by next year. The county also is considering adding two convenience centers in remote locations for trash and limited recycling.
“We hope that in the future we can expand services in other parts of the county,” Palmer said. “We really don’t have a place identified, though.”