Dirty Dallas: We recycle less than most major cities, and that has to change

Green glass bottle, some broken. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

It’s cheaper to throw it in the landfill.
Chucking recyclable materials is easier, too.
It’s the status quo.

In the bigger picture, however, failure to recycle will cost the City of Dallas one of its biggest non-tax revenue sources, the McCommas Bluff Landfill. Municipalities all over Texas pay to send their trash to our landfill, which earns $22 million for the city every year. That offsets the $54 million the city spends on trash and bulk/brush disposal annually. At the rate the landfill is filling up, its life could end as soon as 2062. If that happened, the city would have to consider whether to build a new landfill or pay to have our garbage shipped at high cost to a landfill elsewhere.

There’s also the environmental concern: Plastic pollution alone kills as many as 1 million sea birds and 100,000 ocean mammals every year, for example. Take a walk out to any creek in Dallas to see our city’s own overwhelming plastic pollution firsthand.

Plastic is only one part of the picture. Dallas also lacks recycling efforts for food and yard waste, construction materials, glass and more.

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Dallas is far behind the curve, even by the standards the city set for itself in 2013. But a brand-new $20-million recycling center and new efforts from city leaders show promise for the future.

Tons of rushed plastics.Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Falling behind

Most homeowners recycle, but apartments and businesses typically do not. About 80 percent of single-family homes in Dallas have blue recycling bins.

And an ordinance went into effect last year that allows small apartment complexes to receive up to 10 blue bins for around $20 a month each, making it easier for tenants to recycle.

The city’s sanitation department also has reached out to small businesses to offer recycling plans.

Dallas zero-waste timeline chart
Dallas zero-waste timeline chart

But the recycling rate in Dallas has not improved since the city passed its “zero-waste plan” in 2013.

At that time, the city had a 20 percent “diversion rate.” That is the percentage of the city’s waste that doesn’t end up in the landfill. In 2013, City Council set a goal of increasing the diversion rate to 40 percent by 2020. This “zero-waste plan” included a voluntary recycling program for high-use clients like apartments and businesses.

As of March 2017, however, the city’s diversion rate remains stagnant at 20 percent.

“It’s pretty clear that there’s been little-to-no progress,” says Murray Myers of the city’s sanitation department.

Because the rate hasn’t increased, City Council may consider making recycling mandatory for apartment complexes later this year. About half of Dallas’ population lives in the city’s 2,300 apartment complexes. Only about 30 percent of those offer recycling.

“We’re going to be woefully short by 2019,” East Dallas City Councilman Philip Kingston says.

The Apartment Association of Greater Dallas hasn’t come up with a plan to increase participation, Kingston says.

In 2013, the message to apartment owners was, “Come up with something you guys can live with, or we’re going to hammer you,” Kingston says. But nothing apparently has changed.

There are some larger apartment owners, such as Lincoln Property Co., Camden and Gables Residential, that do a good job with recycling, says Kathy Carlton, director of government affairs for the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas.

Marcos Estrada, left, the city’s waste diversion coordinator, and Darrell Clemons, the FCC plant’s general manager. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Marcos Estrada, left, the city’s waste diversion coordinator, and Darrell Clemons, the FCC plant’s general manager. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Those operators offer recycling dumpsters to residents, and they recycle materials such as old carpeting and padding, Carlton says.

“We don’t believe anything is accomplished by mandating it,” Carlton says. “It needs to be something that people do willingly.”

Offering recycling dumpsters to apartment and office tenants could have zero cost to building owners if their tenants actually use them. It divides the same amount of waste between garbage and recycling pickups, which should keep costs flat. But requiring apartments to offer recycling without any education could result in empty recycling dumpsters that cost building owners while their trash dumpsters still fill up, Carlton says.

Education has to be a major component of any recycling plan, City Councilwoman Sandy Greyson says.

But the sanitation department’s marketing budget is only $200,000 a year, compared to its payroll budget, which is more like $45 million annually. They have radio spots and print ads, but they can’t afford TV commercials or other big media buys.

Their marketing dollars also go toward the Art for Dumpsters competition in Deep Ellum, now in its second year, in which local artists paint recycling dumpsters as a way to raise awareness. The department has demonstration gardens and other educational opportunities at its headquarters, Eco Park, in southeast Oak Cliff, where schools are invited for field trips.

The city’s new recycling facility, owned and operated by FCC Environmental Services, has an onsite classroom and recycling plant observation deck that schools will soon be able to visit.

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“Kids are the ones who really need to get the message,” says Darrell Clemons, general manager of the Dallas FCC plant.Diversion rate comparison of major Texas Cities

An earthmover shuffles a mound of materials that trucks have dumped on the floor of the FCC plant. Recycling materials make their way up a conveyor belt. Workers in one of the plant’s cabins perform the initial sort. Photos by Danny Fulgencio
How recycling works
The Spanish company FCC built a $20-million recycling facility adjacent to McCommas Bluff, in partnership with the City of Dallas.

The new recycling plant, which opened Jan. 2, comprises 60,000 square feet and has the capacity to process 500 tons a day. It is FCC’s first American plant and its biggest.

Currently, the plant receives about 190 tons of recycling every day from the City of Dallas, and it also has agreements with Garland, Mesquite and University Park. Altogether, the plant currently receives about 225 tons of recycling per day. Here’s how it works:

Trucks arrive at the plant’s bays carrying 12-13 tons of recycling, which are dumped onto the concrete floor.

An earthmover shovels the materials into a drum feeder equipped with 10-inch metal teeth.

As the drum turns, it “fluffs” the material up onto a conveyor belt, where it’s fed up into the first of the facility’s climate-controlled sorting cabins, which are about 30 feet above the floor.
Inside the first cabin, with the conveyor belt moving about 200 feet per minute, four workers perform an initial sort, pulling out trash, scrap metal and large pieces of colored plastic, such as cat-litter buckets, and send them down the appropriate chutes.

The material then moves to two other cabins, where workers pull cardboard and paper.

As it moves down the line, the material is further sorted. Plastic film and glass are pulled.
Plastics are sorted by their value. The least valuable, plastics 3-7, are kept together. Cartons also are separated.

An optical sorter can recognize the molecular structure of plastic water bottles and then shoot puffs of air to separate them out.

“Natural” plastics such as milk jugs are the most valuable. Those and dyed plastics, such as laundry-detergent bottles, each are separated.

An eddy current can pick off aluminum cans, and a magnet can pull steel cans.

There is still a dizzying amount of hand sorting, with workers separating aluminum, steel and plastic coming down the line all day.

The plant is capable of sorting up to 33 tons of materials in one hour.

Recyclable materials are baled and stacked until trucks haul them off to buyers in the United States. Even though China is one of the biggest buyers of recyclables in the world, FCC is committed to selling to American companies.

The Cadillac of bulk-and-brush pickup

Most municipalities would not pick up, say, a refrigerator, a car engine or part of a boat in regularly scheduled bulk trash pick-up.

But Dallas does. There are some who figure that Dallas has the most permissive bulk trash pick-up of any major city in the United States. Even things that bulk trash technically is not supposed to take — parts of fences and construction materials, for example — are collected in the interest of neighborhood cleanliness.

Our bulk trash practices also contribute to our recycling woes. That’s because bulk and brush are picked up together.

“We think we have clean brush, but then there’s a TV mixed in,” Myers says.

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Last year, the department picked up about 170,000 tons of bulk and brush, about half of that is brush, and virtually none of it is recycled because of contamination.

If more had been recycled, the city could either sell the resulting mulch and compost or offer it free to Dallas residents, Myers says.

City Council could consider changing the bulk and brush pick-up later this year, and there are a couple of suggestions.

They could keep it virtually the same but push for residents to separate bulk and brush. Or they could pick up bulk and brush on alternative months.

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If the bulk/brush problem is solved, the city could increase its diversion rate by up to 10 percent, Myers says.

Electronics: A landfill’s deadliest enemy?

Electronics take up the least amount of space in the 996-acre McCommas Bluff Landfill, yet they are the most detrimental to the environment.

These devices contain hazardous materials such as lead and mercury. When used technology is tossed in the landfill, the toxic chemicals can leak into the soil and seep into the water supply, Myers says.

The city manages four drop-off e-cycling locations to deter residents from dumping electronics in the trash or on the curb. Neighbors can leave items ranging from batteries to flat screen TVs at Bachman, Fair Oaks and Oak Cliff transfer stations, as well as McCommas Bluff’s Customer Convenience Recycling Center.

In 2016, the city collected 527,118 pounds of used devices.

Some residents aren’t aware of Dallas’ e-cycling program, Myers says, so the city plans to launch a media campaign this summer. It also is installing secure storage pods at each location to quell residents’ fears about dropping off cellphones and laptops with personal information.

But unpredictable changes in cost may be detrimental to Dallas’ efforts.

Electronic recycling companies struggle to earn a profit because the value of the materials they collect have decreased.

“When a recycler can’t sell materials, then they start to charge whoever is dropping it off money,” Myers says.

It’s a conundrum for many municipalities, including Dallas, which could pay anywhere between $31,000 to $148,000 a year for e-cycling companies to collect and recycle items. Four months ago, the city contracted with the company URT Solutions after ECS Recycling estimated its services would exceed $100,000.

“It is utilized, but if the cost of the program goes up, we may have to look at transitioning to another program,” Myers says.

There are other options, but they’re not as convenient as a drop-off location. The State of Texas now requires manufacturers to take back TVs and computers, and many businesses like Best Buy also have their own trade-in programs. —Elissa Chudwin

A wasteful problem

In a world where one out of every nine people is starving, according to The Hunger Project, it’s distressing to think that here in America 40 percent of our food ends up in the garbage. The City of Dallas estimates that 30 percent of all materials in its landfill are compostable material, and it’s working to do something about that.

“Last month, we attended a U.S. Composting Council conference and have returned with a few new ideas that we’ll be working on,” Myers says.

He would love to offer citywide compositing, but it is cost prohibitive and, unlike recycling, doesn’t have much potential to make money, allowing the program to cover its own expenses.

“We’ve evaluated organics recycling at Dallas ISD, sending food waste to the water department’s anaerobic digester and other programs, but we haven’t found a path forward,” Myers says.

The department does encourage residents to compost on their own. The Sanitation Services’ website offers step-by-step instructions for how to build a smell-free compost bucket at home, and the department has planned a series of free daylong workshops to teach residents everything they need to know to start composting (get upcoming workshop dates at dallascityhall.com/departments/sanitation).

For those who don’t want to get their hands dirty but want to help reduce waste, the North Texas company Recycle Revolution offers composting bins and coordinates pick-ups every week or month, depending on the need. They specifically target apartment complexes and restaurants, where large quantities of organic material end up in the landfill.  —Emily Charrier

Graph of recyclables
*Glass is not biodegradable and should be kept out of the landfill, if possible. FCC does sell the glass it collects, but its market value is so low, and glass weighs so much, that the cost to transport it are about equal to its price, resulting in no profit.
**Plastic film, such as grocery sacks and bread bags, comes through the facility by the ton and is baled. But it has a market value of zero. FCC has not yet found a viable buyer for plastic bags, but the ones that make it into bales are being kept out of the landfill.

Pile of old batteries. Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

 

Cool to compost:

Kitchen waste (e.g. egg shells,
vegetable and fruit scraps)

Leaves

Straw

Wood chips or sawdust
(untreated wood only)

Yard trimmings

Shredded paper, cardboard
or newspaper

Coffee grounds

Never compost:

Meat, including fish and poultry

Dairy products

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Grease or oils

Pet feces

Treated wood

Ashes

Glossy paper


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