Two years ago, about this time, some serious waves crashed in our recycling circles leaving many frantic: China would no longer accept our reclaimed materials, plastics notably. In fact, they established what was labeled an all-out halt on incoming foreign waste. Reasons? Headlines circulated the point about the high rates of contaminated material that make it a challenge to fashion raw grade product and raises financial barriers. This certainly brought concerns to the U.S. where we didn’t have backup plans handy.
Flash forward to today, and you likely are still recycling (or have the option too). It hasn’t vanished but changes had to be worked out and big questions really thought over. Some of which being the viability of expanding domestic operations, new foreign partnerships, and what to do about the quality issue, which is a dilemma no matter where it’s processed.
Any of these mentioned could be a thesis topic alone as they are rife with complexities and schools of thought but key points can be mentioned on the quality aspect in our recycling streams. If we were to point fingers at any one problem, the spotlight would likely fall on our single-stream approach. Convenient as it may be, it brings challenges. Notably, contamination and the aptly labeled “wish-cycling”.
You see, one bin deemed for all recycling makes it easy to lose sight of just what is and isn’t recyclable, and that burden is left to the sorting facilities to most literally, sort out. Bear in mind, these operations are designed to handle certain recyclables and utilize systems of machines that go about the sorting process, with personnel overseeing the operation and quality control. Take note of the point “certain recyclables”. Given the specific nature of different recycled goods/materials and the machines themselves in return, facilities can only handle a limited variety of products. Of those that can even be repurposed in the first place.
What’s the point? The process is easily disrupted and wholly dependent on your proper recycling. Take for example the single greatest complaint come across: plastic bags. They are a nightmare for facilities where they aren’t meant to go. For one thing, the plastic film is not the same plastic as that of say a Dasani bottle. It requires a vastly different procedure to bring to a raw-grade and requires different handling in turn. However, when the bags are a part of the curbside mix, they enter machinery made for ridged containers. Clogging up the process and contaminating what could have been perfectly good material in the end. Not to mention, forcing workers to halt operations and busy themselves with cleaning up the mess. And we’ve only mentioned plastic bags, consider all the other things one might toss in on a whim that it will get refabricated into something else. It’s no different than having that one article of bright red clothing in your mix of pristine whites. What comes out are pink hues and not so happy words.
Alright, so what can you do? How can you be a remedy? Three points:
- Only put in what your hauler accepts. Nothing more.
- Keep out all plastic films and bags. Bring it to the grocery store collection bin.
- Clean things out. Food, grease, and so forth is contamination.
Education & Outreach Coordinator
Carlton Soil & Water Conservation District