It’s Time to Rethink Recycling

Every day you make small decisions with impacts that will outlive you by hundreds, if not thousands of years. I’m talking about that yogurt-smeared plastic container you just threw into the recycle bin.

“What are you talking about?” you ask. “I recycled it. It’s right there in the bin.”

Yes, and congratulations for doing the responsible thing. However, it’s how you recycled it. When it comes to recycling, most of us are doing it wrong, and it has led to a number of unsavory consequences.

“I’m not convinced that people are really aware of what can and can’t go into the bins,” says Jamie Jacquart, assistant director of campus sustainability and residential initiatives at UMASS Dartmouth.

Jacquart consults with ABC Disposal, Inc., the New Bedford-based trash and recycling hauler for the Towns of Mattapoisett and Rochester. (Read on, Marion, because this pertains to you too, even if the Marion DPW is your hauler and We Care Environmental in Taunton sorts your recycling). Jacquart works closely with ABC to analyze the company’s overall refuse and recycling operations.

The recycling situation is pretty bad, actually. People are throwing non-recyclables into the recycle bin and still throwing recyclables into the trash. While 40 percent of what we trash actually should be recycled, only about 50 percent of materials sorted at the recycling center are recyclable, says Jacquart, wreaking havoc on the recycling industry.

Mattapoisett Health Agent Dale Barrows recently issued the Town’s Finance Committee a warning about an imminent rise in recycling costs, citing residents’ poor recycling habits as the problem.

All three towns use the “single-stream” method allowing residents to combine all recyclables into one bin, leaving it to the haulers to separate, sort, and bundle the different materials before sending them off to be sold. It acts like a food chain of sorts. The producer is at the bottom, then comes the resident consumer, then the hauler, and at the top is the one who buys and processes the waste, which then trickles down back to the producer.

For some time now, China has been at the very top of that food chain as the most significant buyer of American recyclable materials until recently when it began refusing our waste shipments because they are too contaminated. Recycling dirty materials is more expensive, so China no longer sees an incentive for buying our dirty plastic and paper waste.

“We got really lazy and we sent the garden hoses and the tricycles and anything else we could shove into those buns and sent them on a barge to China,” said Jacquart. “Eventually they said they couldn’t accept it any longer and told us, ‘You didn’t wash out your yogurt cups, so yuck…. No thanks.’” More than that, glass was leaving cargo ships broken and crushed and imbedded into the paper fibers, which requires an additional cleaning process.

“It was problematic so they shut their market off,” said Jacquart. Last fall China said it had had enough. “They said, ‘Forget you, we’re not gonna take your stuff anymore.’”

It was so cheap to get rid of it before, and now without our biggest buyer we are left to handle the waste situation locally. But somebody has to bundle it up and figure out what to do with it now.

The problem really lies in the single-stream recycling process, said Jacquart. Single-stream was initially designed to encourage more people to recycle instead of throwing it into the trash. Most municipal landfills had reached their max and had to start shipping trash off to outside sites at a higher cost.

“But by making it easier, we only delayed what we’re now going to have to go back to,” said Jacquart.

These days there seem to be four types of recyclers.

First, there’s ‘casual recycler.’ The casual recycler tosses all types of things like garden hoses, an old plastic tricycle, and picture frames into the bin along with containers caked with moldy old tomato sauce, dog food, and Chinese food leftovers. He thinks, ‘Hey, at least I’m recycling. Let them sort it out, I’ve done my part.’

Then there is the ‘good intentions’ recycler. She tosses every piece of plastic into the bin regardless of whether or not it’s a recyclable form of plastic. She throws pizza boxes into the bin, ‘because they should accept pizza boxes. Why don’t they?’ She knows plastic store bags aren’t accepted, but she throws them in anyway as a message to the recycle company to start recycling them. She knows Styrofoam isn’t accepted either, but again, ‘It should be,’ she thinks.

Over in this corner is your ‘stubborn recycler,’ the one who begrudgingly throws some stuff into the bin when it conveniences them, but wouldn’t go out of their way to rinse out a dirty plastic container. It’s just easier to throw it in the trash.

And then there’s responsible recycler, a rare creature indeed, checking plastic for the little number inside the triangle and giving containers a quick rinsing before chucking them in.

It’s the prior laissez-faire and overzealous versions of recycling that are essentially ruining the entire process, making recycling more difficult, more expensive, and less manageable.

Most of us are all guilty of recycling wrong. But who knew that that straw, that fresh pasta container, those Keurig coffee cups, that garden hose wasn’t recyclable? We didn’t know, which is why it’s time for a refresher course in Recycling 101.

Paper and cardboard, said Jacquart, “It’s of huge value and easy to work with.” But you’re ruining that when you throw that greasy pizza box or that oily paper plate into the bin.

“It’s made of cardboard, yes, but when it’s been compromised by grease,” Jacquart said, “and when it gets broken down with all the other paper products it degrades the paper. As paper and cardboard are stacked and bundled, the grease and oils contaminate the paper in the process. It’s time consuming and expensive and the grease gums up the machinery.”

Yes, you may recycle some pizza boxes if you pay attention. If there is cheese stuck to the top of it, then no. Was there a cardboard disk that soaked up the grease and kept it from touching the pizza box? If yes, then go ahead and recycle it.

Plastic is another area that takes a little bit of thought before deciding where to toss it. There are seven specific types of plastic that can be identified, each one represented by a number 1 through 7. The number of the type of acceptable plastic is stamped onto the item and found inside a small triangular recycling symbol. These marks indicate the chemicals used to make the plastic, as well as how likely it will leach and how un-biodegradable it is.

The two most common household plastics — polyethylene terephthalate from soda, water, beer, and salad dressing-type bottles; and high density polyethylene from milk, juice, shampoo, yogurt, butter, and cleaner-type bottles, types 1 and 2 respectively. Both types are recycled into things like tote bags, furniture, carpets, polar fleece, pens, and other common objects.

Types 3 through 5 are similar — vinyl, low density polyethylene, and polypropylene — the food wraps, plumbing pipes, and medical equipment; some food, soap, and oil bottles, and windows, and can be recycled into paneling, flooring, gutters, trash cans, ice scrapers, and even brooms.

Type 6 is your polystyrene, e.g. Styrofoam. “Which is the devil,” said Jacquart, and not accepted in any of the three towns. With no easy way to break it down, and when an entire truckload of Styrofoam amounts to about 30 pounds of material, there is little monetary incentive for any company to invest in recycling Styrofoam.

Type 7 is your sunglasses, iPhone and computer cases, and 3 and 5-gallon water jugs.

With plastic, Jacquart said, it would be easier to send it back to the plastic manufacturing process if people could sort them by number, but our single-stream system is not designed for that. But that’s not the only problem with plastics. It’s the plastic items without that triangle symbol we keep throwing in the bin.

“It’s that plastic garden hose that’s a mixed material and not a plastic. It’s got a metal end and it isn’t stamped,” said Jacquart. “And the problem with the garden hose, for example, it’s long and unwieldy, so when it goes through any mechanical process it gets caught up in the machinery. It chokes up the line which must be shut off and needs to be manually removed.” The same is true for plastic wire hangers, he said. “It’s well-intentioned and people want to try to get things in, but they’re not allowed. Some hope that it is and think that it is…” he said, but it’s not, which is one thing that Jacquart’s and my family both have in common.

With Jacquart being the “recycling guru” in the house, as he put it, “I’m constantly taking things out of the recycling bins and yelling at them.”

In a perfect world, he said, the sorting mechanism would find all the things that don’t belong there, but the current system can’t do that. Right now it’s a series of conveyor belts, some with workers hand-picking out the ‘bad’ plastic while a magnet pulls over the metal and aluminum cans. A giant fan blows all the lightweight paper in one direction, which leads us to another one of the more serious offenders of the process – those lightweight store plastic bags.

Plastic bags as they proceed down the line become entangled in the mechanical works. Workers have to repeatedly stop the process to untangle the bags. They also blow out of the bins during transport and end up in trees and waterways. These bags are recyclable, but they must be returned to the store where they supply a bin to place used plastic bags.

We are stuck in first gear with single-stream, which has allowed us to be lazy. But before single-stream, the rate of recycling was only 16 percent at UMASS, said Jacquart; immediately it jumped to 43 percent and keeps climbing.

Having said all that, as an informed recycler it is really up to you what you do with that cardboard box, this copy of The Wanderer, that plastic container. If the fact that it takes so many resources – petroleum sourced from oil – to make a container that takes anywhere from 100 to 10,000 years to break down isn’t enough to make you recycle it, perhaps the ever-increasing cost to your Town (and ultimately your tax bill) to process it will.

You could even go a step further and reduce your waste (and save hundreds of dollars a year) altogether by using reusable containers for tap water instead of bottled water, said Jacquart. And if you need to buy that bottled water, use the bottle again, “because at least you’re getting two uses out of it.”

Hey, nobody’s perfect. But neither does that plastic yogurt-smeared cup have to be in order to recycle it. A quick rinse off can make all the difference in completing that use and re-use cycle. It’ll take you just five seconds to wipe off that cup – much better than the 450 years it would take that cup to wipe itself out.

Before you go, take a look at the list of other non-recyclables:

Broken glass, hardcover books, scrap metal, plastic 6-pack holders (Darn those!), syringes, plastic microwave trays, mirrors, ceramics, Pyrex, light bulbs, plates, vases, drinking glasses, window glass, medical and hazardous waste, tissues, paper towels, napkins, waxed paper, stickers or sheets of address labels (already affixed labels and stamps are ok), clothes hangers, and pots and pans.

By Jean Perry


One Response to “It’s Time to Rethink Recycling”

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  1. Kim L. says:

    At the top of your article very simple bulleted list of acceptable recyclables, followed by a clear and simple list of the non-recyclables would have been much more effective to reach those individuals disinterested in reading your excellent and detailed article. I am an avid recycler who learned several new facts about the single-stream recycling system. Very interesting and informative!

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