California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

"Innovations" Case Studies: Community Cleanups

Examples of Product Reuse and Recycling

Municipal recycling coordinators do not fully understand some of the market dynamics of bulky goods because this has been a small portion of their responsibilities in the past. However, with increased attention being given to reuse, recycling, and composting in all aspects of the waste stream, municipal recyclers are trying to better understand and expand the markets for these products. These efforts are often in partnership with charities and the private sector that have been operating for a long time in this arena. Some of the products in which significant progress is taking place are highlighted below.

Appliance Recycling

Appliances include washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, ranges, air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, and water heaters. By weight, the typical appliance consists of about 75 percent steel. This steel is recyclable, and it is being recycled today. The 1998 appliance recycling rate was 72.1 percent.

As of 1998, 18 states enacted landfill bans for appliances, requiring them to be recycled. In California, all oil must be drained from appliances and chloroflourocarbons (CFC) need to be removed from refrigerators before they can be landfilled.

St. Vincent dePaul is probably the most active charity working with appliance recycling in California and the West Coast. Communities seeking to expand appliance recycling should contact St. Vincent de Paul, along with local metal recyclers, to explore opportunities to expand these efforts. Both are listed under “scrap metal” in local yellow pages.

The City of Alameda, Calif., has been recycling white goods since 1993. They have used Waste Management, ARCA, and now Freon Free for the pickups. In the past two years, Freon Free has added some small appliances and electronics (brown goods) along with scrap metal. For several years, the city also used Eagle Scout candidates to perform the public service of helping the elderly or handicapped persons get their large items out to the curb for collection.

Couches and Mattress Recycling

Couches and mattresses are among the more difficult bulky goods to reuse and recycle. If items are in good shape, some thrift stores and charities will accept these on a limited basis. However, due to the high volume of these products discarded annually, most thrifts and charities have more than they can handle.

Each year, 30 million new bedding units are sold in the United States and about 4 million used/refurbished units are sold (not counting garage sales). There are at least seven major firms in California producing about 300,000 bedding units a year from old bedding, mostly in the Los Angeles area. Delta Bedding in Sacramento also does this.

A new company was formed in the Alameda County area in the late 1990s to address this problem: Total Recycling Systems. Total Recycling has been picking up furniture items (mostly couches and bedding products) since 1996. They have worked continually with the cities of Berkeley and Alameda since 1996, and they also collected one year for the Castro Valley Sanitary District.

The collection program has varied depending on the processing facilities available. Some materials went to an Oakland facility and some went to a Dublin facility (a prison project, from 1996 to 1997). For the last two years (1998-1999), materials went to a temporary outdoors site at the Berkeley Transfer Station. Beginning in 2000, materials are being delivered to their new Richmond facility. This new facility is 4,500 square feet at the Amigo Bag and Lining Company located at 740 Market Avenue, Richmond, Calif.

Total Recycling diverts about 90 percent of the materials from the dismantled products. About 60 percent is recycled (into steel, urethane, some wood, cotton batting, and fiberfill stuffing). For example, cotton batting is recycled into body punching bags, and urethane foam is made into carpet underpadding.

Some of the material received (about 25 to 30 percent) is composted (for example, sisal pad, some of the wood, some of the cotton). Still going to the landfill is shoddy pad, some cover cloth materials (although they are exploring new markets for rags and drop cloth materials), and miscellaneous trash. Total Recycling has the world’s largest collection of used couch parts.

Total Recycling also sells quality interesting older furniture to upholsterers who sell to clients favoring this type of vintage product. They also build wooden foundations out of old box springs and some couch wood for sale to Estates Mattress. Estates Mattress recovers and uses these with their renovated mattresses.

Total Recycling Systems charges rates based on the number of units they collect curbside on a specific agreed-upon date. Their rate is about $20 per yard, or roughly $10 per mattress and $20 per couch. On a cubic yard basis, they are about the same as local landfill tipping fees. On a per-ton basis, they are about twice as expensive.

Total Recycling also has an on-call service during the rest of the year. The company charges $20 for a house call and then a small amount above that, depending on the items collected.

Furniture can be dismantled; it just takes time. The company is now considering using power tools (mostly cutting tools) to speed the process.

The City of Berkeley Transfer Station began diverting all bedding products to the Total Recycling facility in Richmond beginning in February 2000. Total Recycling plans to receive some of Estates Mattress Company’s “junkers” (non-rebuildable bedding units, as opposed to “keepers,” or used mattresses that can be rebuilt).

St. Vincent dePaul is also trying to raise money to build a mattress shredder and recycling facility in East Oakland.

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Textiles Recycling

Municipal recycling programs are just now adding textiles to these programs. Industry sources estimate that only 15 percent of textile materials are being diverted from the waste stream for recycling today. By contrast, more than 90 percent of the materials already collected by the textiles recycling industry is recycled.

Demand for high-quality, low-cost used clothing, industrial wipers, fiber, and related materials have made this a profitable industry. Industrywide sales are estimated at $700 million. There are about 2,000 companies diverting 2.6 billion pounds of postconsumer textiles from the waste stream. More than 60 percent of these materials are exported. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, used clothing is this country’s eighth largest export item behind automotive parts and wheat.

Most textile recycling firms are small, family-owned businesses. The majority of these companies employ 35 to 100 people. These recycling firms are usually inner-city employers that hire people from the nearby communities who might otherwise be unemployable. Many of the workers are unskilled, semi-skilled, or physically challenged.

Textiles comprise about four to six percent of the residential waste stream. Materials include clothing, drapes, towels, sheets, blankets, tablecloths, belts, handbags, paired shoes, socks, and clean rags.

Charities collect the majority of used textiles in the U.S. Some organizations use a drop-off center, drop-off box, or telephone routing system where a truck will collect door-to-door on a regular schedule.

Some of the larger nonprofit collection agencies in the U.S. are Goodwill Industries International, Inc., the Salvation Army, and St. Jude’s. These three organizations are the major collection forces within North America and have established drop-off centers. Proceeds from these operations are used for their charitable and rehabilitation efforts to help the disadvantaged. Because they collect far more than they can sell in their stores, the excess materials are sold by weight to individual textile recyclers.

Some organizations set up telephone banks to call residents in specific neighborhoods and ask them to set their items on the front porch for pickup on a specific date. Porch pickups help discourage scavengers from stealing or damaging the materials.

Drop-off boxes are commonly used in supermarket and shopping center parking lots. People bring their items to the box at their convenience. These boxes are sponsored by a charity or can be placed there by a private business. Over the years, the biggest problems with collection boxes have been pilferage, people placing garbage in the boxes, and the failure of the sponsoring organization to make regular pickups. Increasingly, organizations are switching from drop-off boxes to staffed collection centers.

As cities and counties are forced to meet mandated recycling goals, textiles are becoming more attractive. One reason for this is that there is constant demand for used clothing. The revenue received for these goods helps offset the expenses for collecting other recyclables. In some communities textiles have helped offset collection costs of 10 to 20 percent.

Many communities are now adding textiles to curbside recycling programs to meet their recycling goals. Textiles are typically placed in a separate compartment on curbside recycling trucks or picked up with the paper. In some cases, the customer will be provided with a special plastic bag for textile collections (or asked to place textiles in their own plastic bag). Bags are either dropped off at each home or distributed through schools, grocery stores, or other methods. Ideally, textiles should be brought indoors for sorting, baling, and loading into trailers.

Unlike other recycled materials that are collected at curbside, textiles must be kept dry at all times during the collection process. Natural fiber textiles will decompose or become moldy if wet. Although rare, such decomposition can generate heat that could lead to spontaneous combustion and cause facility fires when stored in baled form. That is why clothing must be kept clean and dry during the collection process.

Textile recyclers pay from $80 to $150 per ton for the materials. Clothing that is unsuitable for wear because it is too worn, stained, or torn is cut into industrial wiping cloths. If materials are not suitable for wipers, they are sent to a fiber converter. Here the clothing is chopped, ripped, and torn to return it to a fibrous state.

From this blend of fibers comes high-quality carpet underlay for commercial and residential use, mattress filler, stuffing for pillows and cushions, insulation for housing, deck panels, and sound-deadening materials for the automotive industry. Every automobile contains nearly 80 pounds of this material. It can be found in the door panels, roof liner, under the hood, and in the trunk.

Carroll County, Iowa; St. Paul, Minn.; San Jose, Calif.; and Somerset County, N.J., are examples of municipalities that have curbside collection of textiles in place. Aberdeen, Md., and the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Fla. collect textiles at curbside once a year.

Calvert and Montgomery counties, Md., and Cobb County, Ga., have added textiles to a long list of materials accepted at drop-off sites. Some of these municipal programs have partnered with local charities and nonprofit organizations. The City of Los Angeles is working with the Salvation Army in select neighborhoods to collect textiles.

Communities of all sizes are now exploring new ways to collect these materials economically. Communities should work with local charities and thrift stores that collect textiles to determine the local needs and best ways to reuse and recycle those materials.

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Used Building Materials

Used building materials include lumber, bricks, doors, windows, and plumbing fixtures (for example, tubs, showers, and sinks). Many of these materials have a high value if properly recovered and distributed. Much of the material is increasingly coming from “deconstruction” or “soft” demolition projects.

Montgomery County, Md., has a program called “Don’t Dump, Donate.” The county works with a building materials recycling nonprofit called The Loading Dock. Items are accepted at the county’s solid waste transfer station on Wednesday afternoons and on Saturdays. The Loading Dock then comes with its own trucks and takes the donations back to its warehouse. The Loading Dock sometimes will do pickups for large donations (for example, a set of kitchen cabinets).

King County, Wash., has held special recycling events twice a year since 1993. In 1998 and 1999 the county tried collecting used building materials. They had some success, but the quality of the materials was low. The Seattle area also has three building recycling businesses. Those businesses couldn’t spare staff to come to the county’s collection point on their busiest day (Saturday) for the volume and quantity of materials collected. So the county decided to stop collecting these materials at the special recycling events.

Furniture Recycling. Furniture recycling includes both wood and metal furniture (for example, chairs, tables, and bookcases) as well as upholstered furniture (couches, mattresses, and bed springs). Wood and metal furniture has often been reused through salvage and thrift stores. Upholstered furniture is much more difficult to recycle, as described in the couches and mattresses section above.

The City of Alameda, Calif., has used Total Recycling Systems for several years to salvage or recycle couches, mattresses, box springs, and other upholstered furniture (see description above). Some years, the city had customers pay Total Recycling directly for the service, but most of the time Total Recycling sent the city an invoice for services after the event was over. The City of Alameda has also worked with the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. East Bay Depot has collected other furniture and bulky items with “artistic potential” for refurbishing and resale.

In Montgomery County, Md., the county’s Housing Opportunities Commission makes home pickups of reusable furniture. The donated items are used to furnish homes for people getting back on their feet after having been on public assistance.

Electronics Recycling

More than 12 million computers are scrapped every year in the United States and more than 75 of all computers ever bought are in storage, because no one knows what to do with them. With HDTV being implemented universally in 2006, and computer technology becoming obsolete every 18 months, the problems are accelerating. Some communities are trying different approaches to address this growing problem.

In Southern California, the City of Thousand Oaks and Ventura County Solid Waste Management Department conducted its first electronics collection event on January 8, 2000. More than 300 people came to the drop-off site at the city’s municipal yard. More than 13 tons of computers, televisions, and other electronics equipment were collected, including:

  • 6,955 pounds of computer drives.
  • 6,518 pounds of televisions.
  • 5,876 pounds of monitors.
  • 3,300 pounds of miscellaneous scrap (for example, modems, and stereo equipment).
  • 2,005 pounds of printers.
  • 1,560 pounds of microwave ovens.
  • 400 pounds of cables, mice, keyboards, and other small parts.

All materials from Thousand Oaks were stacked and palletized, plastic-wrapped, and transported by HMR USA to their facility in Gardena. Working computers (Pentium and above) were provided to the prison system for repair and donations to schools. Everything else was dismantled and recycled. CRTs were shipped to HMR’s monitor-crushing machine in South San Francisco. HMR claimed that nothing was landfilled.

Meanwhile, in 1998-99, San Francisco and Alameda County worked with the Materials for the Future Foundation (MFF) to develop four electronic collection and recycling pilot programs. The purpose of the pilot programs was to document the quantity of consumer electronic products that flow into the residential waste stream and to determine if the recovered electronic products can be recycled cost-effectively.

The materials collected in the pilot programs included all consumer electronics (or “brown goods”) that plug in or operate on batteries. “White goods,” such as electric stoves and refrigerators, were not included.

The pilot programs collected materials from residential curbside collection programs, residential drop-off programs, and a public disposal area. A summary of those programs is included in the companion CalRecycle model study in this series, “Business Recycling Plans and Policies: A Model for Local Government Recycling and Waste Reduction.”

Unfortunately, the MFF pilot program was overwhelmed by old TVs and CRT monitors. The pilot paid $500 per ton for CRT recycling. Overall, these pilot programs demonstrated a cost to communities of $750 to $2,000 per ton to collect and recycle electronic waste materials through these approaches.

MFF concluded that residential collection programs should target products that have a higher recycling value (for example, computer components), or products with similar materials to achieve greater economies of scale.

Alameda County Waste Management Authority staff noted that some type of manufacturer responsibility for the public cost of this type of program might be necessary to reduce costs to a more reasonable range of traditional recyclables ($100-200 per ton). Another idea is to attract a cathode ray tube recycling facility to the county to process the most ubiquitous and costly components of the electronics stream. Such a local facility might improve the program costs for recycling.

For now, programs at nonprofits and drop-off centers and participation of retail stores may be more appropriate ways to reuse and recycle these products. Communities need to explore what services are available locally, particularly working with computer recycling specialists.

Based in part on the MFF and Alameda County Waste Management Authority staff analysis, some local governments are beginning to work with retailers and manufacturers to take back their products. Takeback programs are also highlighted in the business recycling model study.

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Last updated: October 21, 2002
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