The right way to recycle
How many Americans think, I mean really churn the noodle, about recycling? (Yes, I totally just made up that phrase, “churn the noodle.” It’s catchy, no?) Probably very few, because why would we? We finish the carton/can/bottle and throw it in the bin. Every week or every other week, we plop the bin at the curb, a truck comes and our recyclables go “away.” We get to feel virtuous, having done our part to lessen our environmental impact by reducing the manufacturing of new materials, and the city makes money (or at least doesn’t lose it) because, after all, we’re paying for the recycling service with our tax dollars. It’s a win-win, right? Except it ain’t exactly so. (Whaaat?! I know: Heresy, right?)
We here at The Organic Adventurer had been getting muchas questions about recycling, which wasn’t surprising considering that, up until recently, our municipality hadn’t exactly been a geyser of info on the topic, and once they started communicating a bit more about it, we’d seen some information that was just vague enough to be confusing. So when the opportunity came up some time ago to tour our local recycling plant, Republic Services Recycling Center, we grabbed it. Nothing like hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth! You know those times when you hope it’s not as messed up as you thought, but then realize it’s worse?
First, let me just say right off the bat that the folks at Republic are wonderful, the tour is uber-interesting, and they offer these tours to the public. If you get the chance, you should definitely go-so-you-know.
The tour begins in the observation room, where there are informational placards about recycling, the sustainability of the LEED Silver facility itself and about the policy measures the company uses to up its sustainability game, everything from using natural light over electricity when possible to offering preferential parking to employees who carpool or drive fuel-efficient cars.
From this room, you can also look out over the facility floor at the conveyor belts carrying material to be sorted past quality control employees as well as at the finished product in the form of 7,000 tons of baled, recyclable material per month!
After some introductory remarks by the operations manager, everyone donned bright yellow safety vests and safety glasses, and we began our tour. I have to stop and say that if you know anyone who works on the floor of a recycling facility, make sure to shake his or her hand and tell them you appreciate the work they do. Sure, it’s their job, and not everybody gets as many pats on the back for doing their job as they probably should, but if nothing else, visiting a recycling facility will give you an appreciation for the difficulty of the working conditions. Here’s a little video clip to help you get an idea of what it’s like: noisy, hot and super-dusty.
So I’m not going to get into how the whole process works; that’s what you should take the tour for! But about halfway through our tour, our guide said something that caught my ear. He said that during the pre-sorting, anything that will mess up the machinery, like plastic bags, is removed and thrown in the trash. As in the trash destined for the landfill. Now, I remembered having gotten a handy little cardstock visual in the mail (from the city, not from Republic) showing what can be recycled, including plastic bags, not too long before this, so I made a mental note to follow up.
Then, a few minutes later, he dropped the bomb that they don’t recycle Styrofoam—that goes to the landfill too! And I definitely remembered when the city announced that residents could start putting Styrofoam in their bins.
So I asked the operations manager for confirmation that they recycle neither plastic bags nor Styrofoam. He was very clear that they recycle none of either. Plastic bags, he told me, get caught in the machinery. Stopping the whole system to clean them out costs time and money and is just not worth the trouble. Styrofoam, he said, requires a super-high volume (a lot of it) before they can find someone willing to buy it. And I already knew that polystyrene (what Styrofoam is made of) is difficult and expensive to remanufacture from reclaimed material, so there likely aren’t many businesses clamoring to buy it in the first place.
After the tour, I called the solid waste/recycling division at the city to see what they had to say about it. The person I talked to gave an answer that started out vague and then seemed to settle on the recycling number as the difference-maker. In other words, she said you can recycle plastic bags and Styrofoam as long as the items have a number on them (e.g. the difference between a takeout clamshell container with #6 on it and Styrofoam packing peanuts that don’t carry a number).
Although I suppose that jives with the somewhat vague printed info the city had mailed, it didn’t make a lot of sense given what the manager at Republic had said. So I emailed Republic and got a very prompt and surprisingly transparent response from one of their operations supervisors. He said basically the same thing the operations manager had told me on the day of the tour: “…although [plastic bags] can be recycled, at the [recycling facility] it slows down production because the bags wrap around the shafts of the screen and we will have to go into the screens and cut them away from the shafts. That’s why they are taken out of the process.” And regarding polystyrene: “Styrofoam is also recyclable, we do except [sic] it in single stream such as cups in small amounts. When dealing with Styrofoam it will take so much quantity to make 1 bale we will [sic] to fill almost the whole warehouse just to get 1 Load [sic] and we don’t have the space or the market to justify collecting Styrofoam or plastic bags.”
So, while the fact that they accept small amounts of Styrofoam, like cups, kind of muddies the waters a bit, points go to Republic for consistency in its answers and for being the actual facility that does the recycling versus some city office. The TOA verdict then is “no” on plastic bag or Styrofoam recycling.
Add to that the fact that recycling is getting less and less profitable and, in fact, many municipalities are losing money on the deal, partly because of our recycling practices (read more about the issue here), and it surely seems that we can do better. So yours truly has come up with a list of six recycling guidelines, based on all the information gathered on the tour plus our extensive research. Follow these and you’ll know that that virtuous feeling you get when you recycle is justified!
- Don’t use polystyrene (Styrofoam) products or try to recycle them. The production of polystyrene is very environmentally damaging; the chemicals that leech out of this petroleum-based product are not good for you, animals or the planet; and it’s nearly impossible to recycle. Click here for more on polystyrene.
- Don’t use plastic bags or try to recycle them. Given that most people treat petroleum-based plastic bags as a one-use item, that they can take 20–1,000 years to decompose, and that they never truly decompose, they only get smaller and smaller, it’s just not worth it. There are way too many good options out there now for toting your stuff and packing your sandwiches that don’t involve plastic.
- If you use products packaged in Tetra Pak, or aseptic, packaging, DO put those in your bin even though not all of them bear a recycling number. (But keep in mind that aseptic packaging does involve some plastic. Tetra Pak/aseptic packaging, is the carton-like packaging that keeps food shelf stable for long periods of time. It looks like a regular paperboard carton, but it’s really layers of polyethylene plastic, aluminium and paperboard.) Our municipalities’ instructions don’t specify that you can recycle Tetra Pak, but the Carbon Council has paid to have sorting capability for it available at many recycling facilities, including our Republic facility, in an effort to demonstrate demand and, therefore, increase the availability of the specialized technology needed to process the material so that it can be reused. To confirm that you can recycle Tetra Pak (or anything else) in your area, contact your municipality, or better yet, the facility that handles your residential recycling.
- Don’t put things like batteries or tires out with your recycling. Most of the time, these items won’t get picked up anyway if they’re outside the bin, but any that do manage to make it to the recycling facility are just removed and thrown away anyway. These items require special processing to be recycled. That’s why you have to schedule a special pick-up or take them to a central location when your municipality has Hazardous Household Waste days. So do that.
- Don’t put items in black plastic bags in your recycling bin. The folks at Republic (and probably other places) just pull black bags out and throw them away. They’ve found one too many times that people will try to hide dangerous or unrecyclable items, like needles or chemicals, in these bags. Don’t be that guy.
- Take the caps off of your bottles, cartons, jars, etc. and rinse them out; flatten your cardboard; and put your shredded paper in a brown paper bag, just like the instructions tell you to. All of this increases efficiency at the plant, and increased efficiency means less money wasted. So what? Think of it as helping to ensure that your tax money is used more efficiently/less of it is wasted. Read more here.
Do you have any recycling tips or tricks to pass along to your fellow Adventurers? Leave a comment below to let everyone know you’re a recycling wizard!
If you need help with strategies for avoiding polystyrene or plastic bottles, recycling hard-to-place items, or anything else on your green journey, contact us to schedule your consultation today!