Shavati Karki-Pearl: Be on the Recycle Right team
Throwing the empty and dry plastic bottle in your recycling cart probably feels good. You are helping reduce waste and giving new life to a material that otherwise could take a thousand or more years to decompose.
Unfortunately, the recycling cart isn’t a magic elixir that can save the world from waste. Not every item you place in your cart can be recycled. Some materials could prevent otherwise recyclable items from being given a second life.
It is important to remember that recycling doesn’t just happen when you place an item in a curbside bin, or even when those items are sorted and processed by Waste Management. The cycle of recycling is only completed when a material is converted into a new product. This keeps the product from going into the landfill and makes it a part of the circular economy, which is an alternative to the traditional linear economy model of make, use and dispose.
For this process to remain circular, every step matters. The goal is to retain, recover and regenerate resources and products for as long as possible, thus extending their usability until the natural end of the life cycle.
Not only must you, the user, recycle goods properly, there must be markets for recycled materials that allow them to re-enter the value chain. If the material sent to a processor is contaminated with food waste or another substance, it cannot be used to make a “new” post-consumer waste container. Placing more than 5% of unusable or contaminated materials in the recycle bin will result in it being discarded as trash destined to the landfill.
An example of contamination is liquid left in a container that can ruin paper products, such as cardboard, from being useful again. The liquid breaks down the fibers in the cardboard, making it unusable for a paper mill trying to turn it into a new product.
Certain products like juice boxes or flexible soy milk or broth packaging do not have a market and are hard to recycle properly because they are comprised of multiple materials glued together. These belong in the trash.
The way in which recyclables are collected compounds the issue. If one customer on a route places a half-full water bottle in the cart, that water will leak and can ruin, the recyclable paper of ALL the customers on the route. In short, if you contaminate your recycling cart, you are likely ruining the recyclables of everyone in your neighborhood.
Other forms of contamination can also harm recycling, slowing down the processing of materials or, even worse, causing serious safety issues for workers. “Stringy” items like a hose or a string of lights, plastics bags, propane tanks and batteries are all common items customers place in their recycling cart that can cause shutdowns, injuries and potentially fires.
On average, the recycling sorting facilities at Waste Management are shut down six times a day to cut plastic bags and other “tanglers” out of the machinery. These shutdowns cause significant lost time every day, making it harder and more expensive to recycle materials. Making sure you avoid contamination and only place truly recyclable material that can be reprocessed into new ones in your cart is what Waste Management calls Recycling Right. And the importance of having everyone Recycle Right cannot be overstated. Learn how at https://www.wm.com/recycle-right.
As you have already likely learned, a few years ago China’s crackdown on recycling contamination caused a ripple effect through the entire global supply chain, resulting in a larger supply of recycled materials than demand for them. As a result, the manufacturers who use recyclable materials to make new products are continually demanding high quality materials.
To keep materials out of the landfill and into reprocessing facilities to make new items, we must ensure that the commodity products offered are high in quality — clean (devoid of food and other materials) and dry (won’t mildew). By refusing, reusing and repurposing your throwaways before thinking of recycling, you are making a big impact in keeping items out of the landfill.
No plastics collected on Waste Management’s residential routes and processed in their single stream material recovery facilities are sent outside of North America. Waste Management has worked hard to ensure the recyclable materials we collect are part of the circular economy. But it takes a team effort and the customer is the most important part of the team.
If you recycle right, we can continue to benefit from the life cycle of recycling and build a sustainable tomorrow.
Shavati Karki-Pearl is the public sector manager for Waste Management in Nevada County. More information visit https://sustainability.wm.com/solving-waste-together/recycling. Join the local conversation at http://www.facebook.com/groups/wastenotnc
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Is that how I wanted to spend my birthday? Yes and no. The original plan was to take a weekend trip to the coast for a few days of relaxation.