Services & Maintenance: Waste Management And Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does this 19th century writer have to do with recycling?
What does this 19th century writer have to do with recycling?

Services & Maintenance: Waste Management And Ralph Waldo Emerson

Services & Maintenance: Waste Management And Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Mark Lennon and Katrina Rideout
Published in the September 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Institution Recycling Network
Waste regulations are not consistent across the board. Some states have adopted specific rules; others rely on federal precedents. (Photo: Institution Recycling Network.)

While many people know Ralph Waldo Emerson (RWE) as an American essayist, poet, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement, few recognize the connection to current recycling efforts. Indeed, RWE was one of the country’s very first environmental pioneers.

But more to the point of operational purposes, the author’s initials, RWE, can be used as an effective mnemonic for any manager looking to set up or expand a recycling program. For facility professionals looking to establish a recycling program or expand a program that’s already active, RWE stands for Regulation Weight Economics—three fundamentals for successful recycling.

R For Regulation

Regulatory compliance is critical for all facility managers. From a recycling perspective, this means removing from the waste stream all materials that are restricted from disposal.

The most critical regulated materials are hazardous, radioactive, and biohazardous wastes. Every facility manager needs to understand these wastes and ensure they are managed in full regulatory compliance. In terms of legal exposure, liability, public relations, and job retention, they are the most important wastes in any facility.

One step below these toxic items are universal wastes—materials that could be classified as hazardous but are so common that strict regulation is impractical. Furthermore, universal wastes can be handled safely with common sense precautions.

Some materials classified as universal waste are televisions and computer monitors with cathode ray tubes (CRTs), fluorescent lamps and other mercury containing lighting [for more on this subject, see the TFMAugust 2007 article, “Why Recycle Used Bulbs?” by Jennifer Dolin.], fluorescent ballasts that have PCBs, and rechargeable batteries.

Universal waste regulations vary from state to state. Regardless of the geographic location, universal waste practices typically spell out requirements for storage and handling, packaging, transportation, disposition, spill control, recordkeeping, and reporting.

A number of states, mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, also regulate some recyclable solid wastes. For example, Massachusetts bans disposal of paper and cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic containers, appliances, tires, lead-acid batteries, and leaf/yard waste. This is a fairly typical set of materials for the states that regulate recyclable wastes.

In 11 states (ME, VT, NY, MA, CT, DE, MI, IA, OR, CA, and HI), facility managers need to comply with container deposit or “Bottle Bills.” The explosion in popularity of non-carbonated bottled water, juices, and teas—not covered by most Bottle Bills—has caused significant upheaval in some areas. The result has left some facility managers in a difficult (and expensive) position, since it requires them to manage a dual stream of redeemable and non-redeemable containers.

Finally, but hardly least important, are local recycling requirements enacted by many municipalities (some of them located in states with no statewide recycling mandates). From a facility manager’s perspective, these are often the most sensitive, because waste is a quite visible part of a facility’s local impact. Needless to say, maintaining good community relations is an important part of the manager’s job.

Local regulations vary widely in how they are applied and enforced. For example, some communities enforce recycling aggressively while others treat recycling as window dressing. Some communities regulate wastes transferred or disposed of locally but don’t address anything direct hauled out of town. For a facility manager, these differences can make a significant difference in how recycling is implemented.

W For Weight

After regulatory compliance, the primary goal of recycling efforts is to get weight out of the waste stream. No matter where a facility is located, the major financial benefit of recycling is not the revenue from selling recyclable materials; it’s the money saved by not throwing them away.

In the Northeast, Florida, and much of the West Coast, this savings (“avoided disposal cost”) can amount to over $100/ton. Across much of the rest of the country, landfill disposal costs range anywhere from $35 to $55/ton, which translates into an expense that’s avoided for every ton recycled.

What contributes most to the weight of trash? The simple answer is fiber, fiber, and fiber.

With few exceptions, paper is the heaviest material in the waste stream. It is also the easiest to recycle. It packs quickly, it’s easy to transport, and there are good markets (including markets for mixed paper) almost everywhere in the country.

Cardboard can be more problematic. Cardboard is mostly air, and it doesn’t pay to haul air for recycling purposes.

At facilities that generate a lot of cardboard, the air can be squeezed out in a compactor or baler, and cardboard can be recycled cost effectively, thus diverting significant tonnage from disposal. But if cardboard is a small part of the waste stream, it may not be a prime recycling target; it won’t take much weight from the dumpster, and it can be expensive to recycle as loose material.

After paper, the heaviest materials in the waste stream vary widely. For facilities with a campus setting, leaf and yard wastes will often be the most logical recycling targets. There are different management options. For example, grass that’s cut with mulching mowers can be left where it falls, returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil. [For more on landscaping options, see the TFM June 2007 article, “Site Maintenance” by Alan Aukeman, Tom Ryan, and Kimberly Turner.]

Where autumn leaf fall is significant, it is worth the effort to recycle. Composting is the best option.

If space is available, composting can be done on-site. It’s not difficult but does demand knowledge, time, and attention.

If on-site composting isn’t practical, municipal or commercial facilities exist in many parts of the country. About a dozen states have restricted or banned disposal of leaf and yard waste, and even more offer guidance on how to manage these wastes.

Other heavy contributors to solid waste vary by industry and site, and facility managers seeking to increase recycling and reduce disposal must become thoroughly familiar with their waste stream.

In a commercial or industrial facility, a particular process or packaging waste may be the heaviest material; it could be excess or spoiled production; cutoffs or another byproduct; or plastic or other packaging for inbound materials or outbound product.

For example, at marinas located in parts of the country where winters get cold, shrink wrap used to cover boats in the off season is the heaviest, most troublesome waste. But in places where boats stay in the water year-round, shrink wrap is a non-issue.

E For Economics

After dealing with regulations and weight, a facility manager should look for remaining economic targets in the waste stream. These are materials with significant dollar value, so the cost of recovering them will be more than compensated by revenue from their sale.

The materials that currently best exemplify this category are metals. Fueled by international demand, metal prices are at all time highs. Prices for even the most common light iron grades have doubled or tripled in the past two years; prices for nonferrous metals like copper and aluminum have jumped even higher. Almost any effort to capture metals for recycling will be more than compensated.

Plastics are a surprising recent addition to this high return category. The value of recycled plastic is linked to the price of oil.

With the runup in oil prices starting in 2006, plastic prices have jumped by 50% or more for several of the most common types that are recycled.

A Novel Approach

RWE outlines a path to a sensible and sustainable goal: minimize a facility’s impact on the environment and optimize economic benefits. These concepts inspire the design of an efficient, cost-effective recycling program tailored to the needs of the organization and the specific regulatory and financial environment in which it operates.

Lennon ([email protected]) and Rideout ([email protected]) work for Concord, NH-based The Institution Recycling Network. For more information on the organization, visit

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