Are Your Recyclables Really Being Recycled?


Recycling potential varies by community and commodity, and those conditions change constantly in a global marketplace.

During the tail end of Chicago’s much-criticized blue bag recycling program, I toured a waste facility with the city’s then-Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation (who ultimately was indicted on charges of hiring fraud, but that’s another Windy City-style story).

After smearing a good dollop of Bengay under my nose to overpower the competing scent of decaying organic trash, I watched as trucks unloaded a mix of regular and bright blue garbage bags, many torn from the compactor with contents spilling out, co-mingling the two waste streams. All material travelled along a conveyer belt where it was sorted for recyclables – first automatically by weight, then picked over by hand.

SEE: How a Recycling Facility Works

In theory, the city sold off the resulting commodities such as glass, plastic and paper to be recycled into another generation of products, but investigators reported differently. While some material found its way to a new life – plastic into composite lumber, for example –much of it was irretrievably contaminated with broken glass and food residue (organics), rendering the stuff useless, i.e. valueless, in the recyclables marketplace. Next stop? The landfill.

Today Chicago uses a blue cart program with separate trucks and pick up days (though it only reaches a third of eligible residents, yet another story), a strategy similar to many found across the country due, observers say, to its ease-of-use on the consumer end intended to promote high participation rates.

Still, contamination in single-stream recycling remains a problem and prompts a bigger issue that’s relevant nationwide to all manners of recycling: collection versus actual recovery. That is, what materials and how much of them in fact complete the circle, cradle to cradle?

“If I knew the answer to that, I would run recycling in Chicago,” jokes Mike Nowak, president of the Chicago Recycling Association, which helped abolish the blue bag program

“Frankly, we don’t have the staff to start trailing recycling trucks to make sure that recyclables aren’t ending up in landfills or are hopelessly contaminated.”

Nor does the EPA require privately-held recycling facilities to report the information. Plus, what public recycling rates exist tend to track material picked up at the curb, not material actually diverted from the landfill.

The topic is especially tricky, experts say, because what consumers expect and what’s possible in the marketplace are very different.

“There will always be some material that can’t get recycled,” says Kelley Dennings, director of recycling programs and services for Keep America Beautiful. “Zero waste is ultimately everyone’s goal, but it’s so hard to get there.”

READ: What Is a Producer’s Responsibility?

Recycling potential varies by community and commodity, and those conditions change constantly in a global marketplace, she explains.

Recyclables travel from the curb to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they’re separated by category and shipped off to a specific processor. If, for example, a MRF has a buyer for #1 plastic bottles, but not the #5 lid or # 4 label, those items end up landfilled, even though it’s in the company’s financial interest to avoid that end.

If the same MRF finds a market for the lids, now consumers must be re-educated to include the lids with their recycling so the MRF collects an adequate quantity for the processor.

“But is that market going to be there forever?” Dennings asks. “There are times when the market has a place for it and sometimes not.”

Meanwhile, each community has its own constellation of processing plants within reasonable trucking distance from its MRF that limits what can be recycled and how – upcycled, downcycled, repurposed or reused, which further complicates the question.

“PET grocery bags are reusable, but they’re trash at the end – does it get counted as recycled?” asks Holly Elmore, CEO of Elemental Impact, a nonprofit promoting sustainable business practices in the foodservice industry.

“There’s a point at which finding a higher end use is more expensive, more energy-intensive depending on what equipment is in place and what manufacturers are there.”

Glass, for example, could be recycled into new glass, or downcycled into asphalt for construction.

“If you don’t have a glass recycling plant for 1,000 miles around you, end uses might be perfect for you,” Elmore adds. “Each market is different…what’s your infrastructure, what’s available to you?”

SEE: 5 Ways to Be a Better Recycler

The average American isn’t aware of such hurdles, or that “recycling” needs to be so carefully defined in the first place, notes KAB’s Dennings.

“I would love more consumers to understand recycling markets and if they did they would have an appreciation for why can’t I recycle ‘blank,’” she says. “It doesn’t stop at the bin.”

In the near term, Elmore’s goal is to encourage consumer recycling period, and let the other pieces catch up.

“Keep it positive, keep it inspirational,” she says. “It’s important to phase things in baby steps.”

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