The Do’s and Don’ts of viable Recycling Program

By Steve Hicks

By now, we are all used to recycling. What was once an activity for the green family down the street has long since become commonplace to every household and every business. We have also changed the method of recycling along the way, moving from individual bins for paper, glass and plastic, to single-stream recycling with one larger container. However, the move to modern single stream collection has come with a new set of problems, namely contaminated recyclables. When a single piece of contaminated material is introduced to a truck collecting on a route, the entire load can be ruined.

This is important because recycling properly creates commodities, and Waste Management (WM), North America’s leading provider of integrated environmental solutions, sells these recycled, valuable resources to maximize environmental performance. The company, headquartered in Houston, Texas, has a municipal recycling facility in Brevard County. WM focuses on disposal and recycling, but also personal counseling to help customers achieve their green goals, including zero waste.

“The buyers of paper, plastics and other recyclables have strict contamination guidelines that when not met relegate the material to garbage destined for the local landfill,” said Amy Boyson, WM’s community affairs manager. “To maintain the quality and thus saleability of the recyclables we collect, we’re constantly educating our client base, both residential and commercial.

The Good, the Bad and the Wishful

Boyson separates recyclers into three groups. “Let’s call them the Good, the Bad and the Wishful Recyclers,” she said. “The Good Recyclers give us the things we want: aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles and jugs, cardboard and paper. The Bad Recyclers just use their recycle container as another garbage can. Wishful Recyclers look for everything to be recycled because, in reality, most things can be recycled. For example, Wishful Recyclers may think they can take something to Goodwill, therefore it’s recyclable, and that’s not necessarily true.” 

The Good Recycler knows that only certain kinds of these items are accepted by his or her local recycling service, and keeps everything else out of the container. The Bad Recycler considers the container with the yellow lid to be just another container for garbage. The Wishful Recycler puts all paper, glass, plastic, clothing and electronics into the yellow-lid recycle container because they believe all those items are recyclable.

So, do collect and recycle plastics, paper and glass, but learn more about what is recyclable locally, and do not just put all of these items in your container.

Xavier Watson manages Waste Management’s Brevard Municipal Recycling Facility and knows what can be recycled and what causes problems. “I can tell you I do not take stuff to Goodwill at the end of each day,” he said. “People think if we recycle plastic, all plastic goes in the bin, or all cardboard and metals. But that causes issues with that entire container of recyclables.”

For example, he said, foam or cardboard egg trays are not recyclable, so put them in the trash. When it comes to plastics, plastic fruit trays are not recyclable, but people put them in their containers. That entire container now becomes garbage, defeating the purpose of the program and the effort made from pick-up to pick-up.

Cardboard is particularly difficult and a widespread issue with both residential and commercial collection. “Of course it’s recyclable, but the cardboard that has been contaminated, like pizza boxes, is a non-recyclable material,” said Mike Lewis, WM’s district manager. “Or if it’s wet, even if you dry it out, it’s still not recyclable. If a commercial customer has a cardboard container, and they leave the lid open and it rains, all that cardboard is no longer recyclable.”

The Good Recycler knows to only add clean and dry materials to the container, and the Bad Recycler just throws it all in there and lets someone else worry about it. The Wishful Recycler puts all paper and cardboard in the container because it is recyclable.

So, do collect and recycle paper and cardboard, but do not put soiled or wet materials in with otherwise clean and dry materials. Doing so renders all the material non-recyclable. Also, keep the cardboard recycling container lid closed or covered to keep the recyclables dry.

As for plastics, Watson explained, “We recycle plastic bottles with a neck smaller than the base, a jug like a laundry detergent bottle with a handle or a tub like a yogurt or butter container. But then the Wishfuls think a plastic cup that has the lid and the straw is acceptable, or plastic bags, or plastic clamshell-type containers. None of those are recyclable in a curbside program, and again they can contaminate the entire container of materials.

Boyson does not place blame on the customers; it is more a matter of varying rules around the country and a large number of new residents in Brevard. Lewis adds, “Some of our customers come from areas with more stringent recycling rules or laws. People moving here from the North don’t realize we don’t recycle the same way they could there. It’s not a national ‘one size fits all’ program when it comes to recycling. You have to look at your area, county or city recycling program to see what’s acceptable.”

The Good Recycler knows a garden hose is not the kind of plastic that is recyclable. The Bad Recycler sees some bit of plastic on an item and throws it in the container. The Wishful Recycler thinks if it’s plastic it must be recyclable, so it goes in the container.

So, do collect plastics, but check Waste Management’s website to learn how to identify the plastics that are locally recycled. Visit www.recycleoftenrecycleright.com.

How Big is the Problem?

Just from a residential standpoint, stressed Lewis, the average recycle route in a city of 1,200 to 1,500 homes would show a 75-80 percent contamination rate. That may be the worst case, but it is not uncommon. All those recyclables residents think they are collecting wind up getting landfilled as municipal solid waste because of contamination. Once a contaminated load comes in, it mixes with the clean stream of recyclables, so WM has to run all of it through processing. That slows its system down considerably, and it does not get a sellable result, consequently affecting program income.

“On the collection side, I’ll go back and determine which truck and route the contamination is coming from,” said Lewis. “If it’s plastic bags causing a specific contamination issue, we’ll run an education program to target plastic bags and remind people we can’t recycle them. But we have to identify the key contaminants on each specific route. It could be plastic bags on one route and wet cardboard on another. It is quite the ongoing challenge.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Wishful

Visit www.recycleoftenrecycleright.com for up-to-date details.

The company is starting to apply technology to making sure the loads are as clean as possible and the recycling program can survive. By doing this, issues can be pinpointed once a container is emptied. “We don’t find out until after we’ve emptied a bin, but the next time there is a red flag for our drivers,” explained Boyson. “The resident or business would also be notified of the issue once flagged.”

The Good Recycler would not have normally faced this issue, but occasionally might. Unfortunately, the Bad Recycler still will not care. But after a commercial Bad Recycler is charged extra for including contaminated recyclables in the bin, compliance often follows. The Wishful Recycler would then be informed and comply going forward.

With a commercial recycling contamination rate of 60-70 percent and a residential rate around 30 percent, it is easy to see that education and improvement can bring substantial improvement and resulting gains to the program and its sustainability. With drivers equipped with tablets to hold real-time routes and messages, and to record images of issues each day, Waste Management is applying a healthy dose of technology to identifying the sources of contamination along with ongoing public outreach to educate both residents and business owners on proper recycling in Brevard.

“The end result of this is we educate those who are new to the area because it’s different here … those who think they’re doing a good job, who overstep and try too hard, and the Bad Recyclers who we charge into compliance until they slowly turn into a Good Recycler,” concluded Lewis. ◆

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