How to do recycling right (so your hard work isn't sent to landfill)
Oh, recycling. Some people love it, some people hate it, most people just don't do it! Recycling isn't going to save the planet; but it is a good place to start, and I'll tell you why.
I often hear things like, 'Recycling doesn't matter', 'Recycling isn't going to fix the problem of plastics in our ocean', 'I don't have time to recycle', 'No one else recycles', etc., etc., etc. I hear you. And I'm not here to convince you that recycling is the end-all, be-all. Because it's not! Reducing, reusing, and refusing are all better options than recycling, but that doesn't mean that recycling is useless. It is still a much better option than sending useful materials to landfill. We live on a finite planet, and with a burgeoning human population, we will run out of land to fill with our trash if we continue business as usual. Recycling is only part of the solution, but right now it's one of the best ways currently in existence to conserve resources. So let's make sure we know how to do it right so our efforts don't go to waste (literally)!
First, to define what we're talking about: To re-cycle something is to take a discarded material and return it to the cycle of useful materials via secondary markets. Items that are readily recycled and have actual value include glass, aluminum, cardboard, paper, and plastic. Most curbside recycling programs, also called single stream recycling, accept these items, and sometimes they accept additional things like mixed plastic and paper cartons like Tetrapaks and milk cartons. (Find out if your curbside service or area recycling center accepts cartons by checking out https://www.recyclecartons.com/. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that mine does!) Single stream recycling means that you, the depositor, place all of your recyclable materials into one bin, without separating them by type: paper, plastic, metal, glass.
Recycling programs exist almost everywhere across the United States. There are many known problems with the way we recycle, and economics plays a huge part, but I won't get too in the weeds with that because it strays from the point of this article! However, there are a few important obstacles that often stand in the way of successful recycling that we can identify and work around.
1. Inconsistencies in recycling program rules, capabilities, and location of facilities. If you live in, say, Olathe, Kansas, then move 10 miles west to De Soto, Kansas, there are likely differences in what you can recycle, which facility your recyclables go to, and what your new facility is capable of recycling versus what your previous facility was capable of. It's fully understand something when the rules are always changing!
2. A lacking end market. In the case of plastic, it's cheaper and easier to extract raw materials (oil) and make virgin plastic than it is to recycle existing plastic. It is a lot harder to recycle existing plastic items because the numbering system (formally called the Resin Identification Code) doesn't always tell the whole story of what chemicals any given plastic item contains, and according to trade secret, manufacturers do not have to disclose that information. The result? It's really hard to know what's actually in that plastic container and know how to process it, especially plastic #3-7, which are often not able to be recycled at all. Plastic #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE - high density polyethylene, like milk jugs) are the most easily recycled plastics because they contain the fewest additives, taking the guesswork out of recycling.
3. People just don't do it. Probably due in part to the reasons listed above, people don't have much faith in the system... or they just don't care... or they think their efforts don't have an impact. Honestly, I don't think there is a clear cut reason or answer. It's a combination of things. And in a perfect world, the onus wouldn't be square on the shoulders of the consumer - it would be on the petrochemical industry, the manufacturers who make the packaging, and the corporations who sell their packaged products to us. But right now, none of those parties are held responsible for the products they create once they're in the hands of the consumer, so it's up to us. The current recycling system relies on us regular folks to do recycling right... and we just aren't. Nationally, about 30% of materials entering recycling facilities end up in landfills.
4. And finally, we have our throwaway culture to blame. We live in a society where it is commonplace to use something and then toss it in the trash. We've been so thoroughly conditioned in this lifestyle that most of us never put another thought toward the plastic bag, Styrofoam container, or plastic cutlery we use for a few minutes then throw out. But if we do take a moment to think about this habit, we realize that it's completely unsustainable, especially with almost eight million people living on one finite planet.
(Side note: Did you know that each plastic bag, on average has a use-life of less than 15 minutes, but can persist in the environment for hundreds of years?)
We live in a society where it is commonplace to use something and then toss it in the trash. We've been so thoroughly conditioned in this lifestyle that most of us never put another thought toward the plastic bag, Styrofoam container, or plastic cutlery we use for a few minutes then toss in the trash.
In today's world, most of the items that we purchase include some form of single-use packaging: food, clothing, electronics, appliances, medication, furniture, toiletries... the list goes on. This all amounts to a lot of material that serves a very brief purpose and then is promptly sent to the landfill where it will persist for hundreds of years, unless it is recycled. Unfortunately, in most places, only a very small percentage of recyclables actually end up getting recycled. For example, only 20-25% (estimates vary) of plastic water bottles are actually recycled in the United States. ₁
We all need to "understand our fundamental dependence on natural systems for the air we breathe, the water we drink... Today, far too many people are clueless about where their wastes go when they're put in the garbage, recycling bin, or toilet... Most individuals underestimate the magnitude of their own environmental impacts." - David R. Boyd, The Optimistic Environmentalist
Recycling isn't always cut and dry, but it's not rocket science. I know we can do better, so I went to the source and got a private tour at HAMM Material Recovery Facility (MRF) to learn more so I could share what I learned and help you feel confident about your recycling efforts. According to their website, the HAMM MRF is a "state-of-the-art system designed to process 10 tons of single stream recycling material per hour. (60-100 2,500 lb. bales per day)"₂ And that it is. My tour guide, HAMM Waste Services Vice President, Charlie Sedlock, filled me in on how this mega recycling facility came to be, how it operates, and how much it cost to design. Recycling ain't cheap, folks! For a snapshot of the value of the facility, the Swedish-made state of the art baler cost around $500,000. HAMM MRF is a re-purposed industrial-sized barn that functions as the recycling hub for Lawrence & Douglas County, West Johnson County (De Soto, Edgerton, etc.), Atchison & Atchison County, Emporia & Lyon County, and Chase County. This facility isn't messing around when it comes to quality recycling, and the reason it exists is because the people of Lawrence demanded a super-efficient recycling facility. I feel really lucky to live near a town that cares so much about the environment; Lawrence is a pretty rare gem that way, especially within Kansas.
This facility isn't messing around when it comes to quality recycling, and the reason it exists is because the people of Lawrence demanded a super-efficient recycling facility. I feel really lucky to live near a town that cares so much about the environment.
Many people aren't sure exactly what can and can't go in the recycling bin, and as much as I value recycling, I've been making some mistakes, too, that may have jeopardized my efforts. I learned a lot from Charlie about what can be recycled, what can't, and some small details that really matter for effective recycling. The HAMM MRF is a bit unique, as it accepts a wider array of materials than most facilities. For the sake of providing information that can be widely applied regardless of where you live, I've generalized some of my information. No one wants to waste time, money or effort, so read on for some key information to make sure you get it right!
1. Any kind of plastic bag or plastic film. No plastic bags, plastic wrap, Ziploc baggies. None, nada, zilch. This material will get stuck in the recycling facility's very expensive machinery and costs time and money to repair if they do accidentally make their way onto the conveyor belt. Also, you risk contaminating an entire truckload of recyclables, potentially sending it all to landfill, when you put plastic film in your curbside bin. *See additional resources section at the bottom for more information.
2. Styrofoam. Styrofoam is the brand name for foamed polystyrene (PS, or Plastic #6), also called EPS (expanded polystyrene). It's easy to get confused when you see that #6 inside the chasing arrows symbol, but Styrofoam can never go in your curbside bin. Un-foamed polystyrene, like plastic cutlery, can sometimes be recycled, but check with your local recycling facility by navigating from your city or county website. As mentioned before, many facilities don't accept plastics #3-7. *See additional resources section at the bottom for more information.
3. Any kind of organic material, items that are compostable, and items like 'bio-plastic' made from corn or other non-petroleum based material. Please don't deposit food or other items that clearly don't belong in a recycling bin. (But DO consider composting your food waste!) By doing so, you risk contaminating and sending to landfill not only your recycling, but the entire truckload of your neighborhood's recyclable materials. Also, 'compostable' and 'recyclable' are not the same thing, and plastic items made from corn or other bio-based materials do not currently have a secondary market in the recycling world, so they won't be processed. Leave those out of your bin. (And avoid purchasing them like you do other plastic items... just because they are 'natural' doesn't mean they're not wasteful.)
- Do remove the caps from your bottles. Most recycling facilities don't accept caps, and no facility can recycle them into new material.
- Do clean out any food containers to the best of your ability, but don't abort the mission if there's a little food residue left. It will be OK.
- Do remove tape from boxes and other items, but again, don't fret too much. Most buyers of recycled material will accept a small percentage of imperfections; for example, in a bale of cardboard, up to 10% non-cardboard material is acceptable.
- Don't place glass in your bin if your curbside service doesn't accept it! It should be clearly stated on your bin if your recycling provider accepts glass. It's important to include ONLY those items that are accepted by your recycling provider; including unaccepted items could send all of your recycling to landfill or damage your facility's expensive processing equipment.
- Don't include anything smaller than a Rubik's cube - it's too difficult to process. (NO STRAWS can be recycled. This makes the argument for banning single-use plastic straws even stronger.) I've been known to toss really small pieces of plastic in my recycling bin, hoping it will be processed. I've stopped doing that since my tour with Charlie because I'd rather it go to landfill contained in a garbage bag than risking it ending up in the environment where it doesn't belong. The bales of recycled material are held together with ties that are several inches apart; plastic smaller than a Rubik's cube would likely fall out of the bale while in transit.
- Don't place items inside of each other. Charlie said that often people will place smaller items inside of larger ones, thinking they are being helpful or saving space (I've done this myself). He told me not to do that because your efforts may end up in landfill; if the sorters can't determine what an item is made of (e.g. if there are papers crammed inside a plastic 2 liter), they'll toss it in the trash. The conveyor belt moves too quickly to take the time to extract items from one another.
It's important to include ONLY those items that are accepted by your recycling provider; including unaccepted items could send all of your recycling to landfill or damage your facility's expensive processing equipment.
So where do our recyclables go after they are collected, sorted and baled? China used to be the primary recipient of our recycling, but after years of purchasing the world's trash, they are putting their foot down. China is plagued by many serious man-made environmental issues that are taking a toll on the health of its people, wildlife, and landscapes. They didn't just wake up one day and decide - nope, I don't feel like doing this anymore! - the change was a long time coming. A lot of the 'recycling' that countries like the US send to China (until 2018, 70 percent of the world's plastic waste went to China – about 7 million tons a year₃) is contaminated, or in other words, it's not 'pure' material. One example of this is paper envelopes with a transparent plastic window. The Chinese paper factory that buys this mixed material has to separate the paper from the plastic. Oftentimes, their only option is to openly burn the plastic or use it as fuel - both options pollute air, land and water.
HAMM MRF in Lawrence is one of the few facilities from which Chinese buyers are still accepting recyclable material. The reason is because of the care taken to ensure clean, uncontaminated paper, plastic, and metal bales. Many recycling facilities don't take the time or don't have the equipment needed (or both) to effectively process recyclable materials, usually driven by the fact that the municipalities they serve have a low understanding or regard for environmental issues. The reason that HAMM MRF exists and is so efficient is because the people it serves care about their environmental impact.