Sorting It Out

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After T-Rex and his buddies died off and settled on the seafloor, they were compressed into rock and transformed by heat and pressure into oil and gas for humans to mine and refine into all kinds of stuff – in other words, we recycled dinosaurs; it just took a few million years.

Since then, waste management and the process of recycling has been streamlined quite a bit, maybe even too much.  Efforts to increase recycling participation by removing sorting requirements (i.e., “single stream” – i.e., “just dump it all in the blue bin and they’ll deal with it” programs) led to an increase in contamination and destruction of reusable materials.  That, along with a steady decrease in commodity prices threatens to send recycling by the way of the dinosaurs.

Almost half of all American recyclable scrap material is sold to China.  But China’s “Operation Green Fence,” (I wonder what they call it there!), enacted in 2013, enforces regulations on single-stream recyclables allowing China to reject any materials that may be “contaminated.”   In recycling lingo, “contaminants” are foreign objects in a single bale of goods – so a piece of newspaper stuck inside a bale of cardboard can be considered a contaminant.  Think “one of these things is not like the other one” and you’ll get the point.

One clear (sometimes greenish) enemy is glass.  It’s the heaviest material and costly to recycle – but the main problem is it breaks – like glass.  More than a third of glass sent to recycling facilities is crushed – and the bits that don’t end up contaminating other materials end up being hauled away to landfills to use as cover to trap gases and smells.

Newspapers, thick plastic and heavy aluminum were the original, star recyclables – easy to process, bale, and transport.  But as you read this, you might notice you are not reading a newspaper; and manufacturers have raced to find ways to produce lighter packaging materials to save oil. It now takes 36 plastic bottles to make the amount of plastic that previously only made 22 bottles.  Another interesting tidbit is that these lighter containers are being “blown” upwards with the light paper products at the sorting machine – thereby becoming contaminants.

Economics 101 tells us that higher processing costs paired with lower market value makes for bad business.  Bottom line: recycling now costs about 3 times more than landfilling.  In order to increase the value, recyclers need to step up their game in terms of sorting and processing – all of which costs time, machinery, (wo)man-power, consumer education and engagement – all of which costs money.

About 2,o00 cities are estimated to be paying to get rid of their recyclables and many of them are moving toward charging for service, and/or removing glass from the mix.  This is good news for capitalists as it is creating a boom in private sector recycling companies.  This has led to competitive bidding for service (rather than a profit per tonnage system).

What can you do?

  • For one, stop putting your hoses, Christmas lights, band-aids and used Q-tips in the recycle bin!
  • Keep up the Amazon shopping (cardboard loads at recycling facilities have doubled since 10 years ago), but use the time you saved by not driving to the mall to remove the tape and staples from those boxes, and fold them down!
  • Food waste increased by 2 percent in 2013. It is the largest category (at 21 percent) that still ends up in landfills and the nation’s third-biggest source of methane gas contributing to global climate change.

So, stop eating.

  • Or, maybe just create a compost in your yard or encourage composting in your community (if your city won’t budge on this, maybe this is the small business opportunity you’ve been waiting for!).

If you’re one of those people who skims these things and just reads the last sentence – I want to ensure you have learned at least one thing: plastic bottles shouldn’t be crushed before recycling because it makes them hard to recognize on the production line. Who knew?




Thoughts, opinions, anecdotes? Please share!