Recycling: are we doing the right thing right?

By Scott Logue

China, the largest consumer of recyclable material from the U.S., is now turning us away at the port, raising questions about the future of what, for most of us, has become as American as organic, low-carb, gluten-free, fair-trade apple pie. 

China processed 4,000 shipping containers of recycled materials per day, including half of the world’s discarded plastic. It’s estimated by the University of Georgia that by 2030, China’s ban will generate 111 million metric tons of trash in the U.S., with nowhere to go. That works out to the mass of 21 great pyramids, give or take. With China cutting its imports of recyclable plastic by 99 percent, we’re set to build some colossal plastic pyramids of our own.

Cities are killing curbside recycling pickup and recycling centers, while the decline in the price of oil has made the production of virgin plastic cheaper than recycling it. Newspapers, cans and bottles are being rerouted to incinerators or stockpiled in hope that a new consumption channel will become available.

To stash or trash? 
Like many other consumers and recyclers, I wanted to know what to do with the variety of products that are either clearly recyclable, contain recyclable components, or confound us as to their recyclability. We are aware of the recycling triangles stamped on many products, and that paper, glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans are givens. 

Of those that confound us, I spent two weeks taking photos of items that I wasn’t sure how to dispose of, including those green plastic bins that hold strawberries, the shrink wrapped drinkable yogurt containers for kids, cardboard Kleenex boxes with the plastic piece you pull the tissues through (can I toss as-is, or should I separate the plastic from the paper box?), or what about those one-piece squeezable bottles of kid’s mouthwash that you can’t open to rinse out?

To answer some of these questions and to find out what was happening to our recycled materials, I contacted Waste Management in Orange County and toured  one of our local recycling facilities. 

See how its done
An impressive and educational visit it was, with a new appreciation for what it takes to sort recyclables, the challenges in producing as uncontaminated a product as possible, and what we can do to help.

During my visit, I was shown how the various machines use mechanical filters, human sorters, gravity, and even magnetic fields to sort all of the recyclables that we toss into our bins. Items that don’t measure up are removed and disposed of in the landfill. 

I learned that a single diaper can exceed the acceptable contamination rate for an entire bale of recycled material, sending that half-ton of recyclables, representing hundreds of homeowners’ efforts to do the right thing, straight into a landfill. 

When I asked my gracious guides what one thing they wish would disappear from recycling bins everywhere, the answer was unanimous: tanglers. Garden hoses and plastic bags, are the worst offenders. The long flexible pieces of metal, rubber or plastic wrap around the machinery and shut it down, sometimes breaking something in the process. Every day, while the facility idles for lunch, time is spent cutting, tearing, pulling and yanking tanglers from the works of the machinery.

Looks can be deceiving
As we pressed along, earplugs in and hard hats on, we walked the catwalk above the spinning conveyor belts and the small army of sorters surrounding them. I was shown a very heavy silvery glob of misshapen metal that someone clearly thought was recyclable because, hey, it’s metal after all. Just because something is made from the same material as the items that we recycle, doesn’t mean it is.

The challenge in recycling education comes from learning what, of the endless consumables we purchase every day, can be recycled. Considering the dozen items that confounded me in a single week, it became obvious that any attempt to classify every individual piece of refuse is simply untenable. No FAQ page on any website could possibly manage that effectively.

With the margin for error so perilously low (a single diaper), the cost of error so high (a 1,000-pound bale of otherwise perfectly good recyclables sent to a landfill), and the unlimited number of potentially recyclable, but cryptically ambiguous consumables, the odds for success favor a back-to-basics solution.

Better one than a ton
It starts with the producers, but it ends with us. If the companies we buy from would minimize their packaging, and then simplify what’s left, the process would become a whole lot easier for everyone else downstream.

In the meantime, if you have any doubt -- toss it out. Better to add a few items a week into the trash for the landfill, than risk contaminating an entire bale of paper, plastic or aluminum, representing hundreds of hours of effort.

I’m going to change how I recycle, and keep it simple. Really simple and back to basics. Paper, cans, glass and plastic bottles. Empty. Clean. Dry. No plastic bags. If it’s more complicated than that, send it to the landfill and save a whole bale of good intentions from ending up there too.

A day’s worth of recycled material awaits processing.

June 2019

Waste Management employees sort materials by hand, pulling unrecyclable waste from the mix. Photos by Nooshen Logue