by Anne Rollins
Recycling is in the news lately. Two recent articles in the Washington Post highlight the problems local governments face: “A Greener Nation Puts Recyclers, Cities in the Red” and “Cities, Counties Come to Grips With Recycling Cost.”
Over the past few decades recycling has become almost routine, and our local governments and institutions have regularly made it simpler for us. In Washington, residential recycling went from open green bins to today’s large, covered blue cans and single-stream collection.
But a constantly-changing market for recycled materials is seriously complicating an act that once seemed pretty straightforward, making it far more costly for local governments to dispose of now-unwanted waste. And it would seem that, in our enthusiasm for recycling, we are filling our bins not wisely and too well, with too much that shouldn’t be there.
The Department of Public Works sends illustrated flyers to inform residents of what they can and cannot recycle, but most of us take for granted that we can toss in anything glass, metal, plastics, paper and cardboard.
A closer look at one of those flyers or the poster on the DPW’s website reveals that it’s not that simple.
I noticed, for example, that DPW does not want the lightweight, clear plastic clamshells that so many fruits and vegetables such as berries, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes come in, though they are clearly marked with the #1 recycling triangle.
So I sent an email to DPW asking about that and received an informative reply from “LR” at the Customer Service Clearinghouse. The problem with those plastic containers – and, it turns out, other materials – is both technological and economic.
Single-stream recycling is convenient for residents, but that stream has to be sorted at the recycling center. The sorting process is largely mechanized but also done partly by hand, and any undesirable material that has to be picked out or slips through to pollute other materials is costly to the city.
The desirability of any material is based on the market for it, and at the moment there is little or no demand for the plastic in the clear clamshells, and it cannot be mixed with other plastics.
But what about that #1 recycling triangle? According to LR:
“Contrary to public perception, the numbered triangle does not indicate recyclability nor recycled content. It is a system that was started in the late 80s to assist the recycling industry and has been appropriated in public perception for ‘green’ attributes or other recycling information. Items manufactured via different chemistries may both bear the same number, but they cannot necessarily be recycled together, thus the numbering system is not useful as a primary means to identify recyclability…. Your recycling collector (in this case the DC government) can tell you what can be recycled at your property. Residents using the… blue cart can recycle plastic bottles (regardless of numbers), and any rigid plastics…. You should not attempt to recycle ‘soft’ plastic items like cups, clamshells, produce containers… electronics packaging, polystyrene… these are all unacceptable, regardless of number.”
In a follow-up phone call, William Easley, recycling program officer at the DPW, further clarified that even plastics within the same number category such as #1 can have different compositions and consistencies. Each of these may melt or break down at different temperatures, which can mess up the recycling process if they are mixed together.
And as the articles in the Post make clear, what started out as a modestly profitable service for the city has turned into an increasing expense. Part of this, of course, is the result of shifting markets for recycled materials. The demand for newsprint has fallen, for example, as readers move online.
But we recyclers must also pay more attention to what we toss in the blue cans. According to Mr. Easley, the contamination rate of the recycling stream since we received the new, larger blue cans has gone from 5% to 10%, and that is costing the District a lot of money and more than a few headaches.
Checking the DPW’s flyers or poster can answer a lot of questions about what to recycle, though the sheer variety and number of plastic items seem to defy simple description. What about take-out containers from the deli counters at supermarkets?
No simple answer, according to Mr. Easley, who encourages us to call 202-645-7191 or email email@example.com with questions about whether to recycle an item or not. If you are in doubt, however, and don’t want to wait for a reply from DPW, toss it in the trash. That may well be a “greener” act than adding something to the recycling stream that may only pollute it.
Here are a few simple things we can do to improve our recycling:
Know before you throw. Check items against the DPW’s list of what is acceptable; email or call DPW with questions; and put anything you are unsure about in the trash.
Keep it loose. Don’t put bottles, cans, newspapers, etc. in plastic bags to recycle. If you want to recycle plastic bags, bundle them in one plastic bag and tie it shut before dropping it in the can. Loose plastic bags cause many problems at recycling centers, where they often get tangled in machinery. Or, take the bags to a collection point at a supermarket, where they will be recycled at a facility designed for them.
Break it down. Flatten cardboard boxes and throw away any non-cardboard packaging materials from inside. Don’t recycle pizza boxes.
Ignore the numbers. Do not rely on the numbers in the recycling triangles to determine recyclability. Contrary to widespread popular belief, they are not intended as guides for consumers.