The Challenges of Recycling

By Matt Ellis

recycling_symbol_goodsEvery night, cleaners from AffinEco – as well as people around the U.S. – dump recyclable waste into bins for haulers to cart away. Since recycling began in earnest in the late 1990s, Americans have enthusiastically filled bins with paper, cardboard, plastic, and glass. At first, they had to sort materials, but then came single-stream recycling, which allowed everything to be combined in one container. People love the ease of it, but the process has had unintended consequences.

“Making it easier actually made it worse,” said Samantha DeMagistris, director of account services in AffinEco’s Boston office, who previously worked for a recycling company. “Now the material is all soiled. There needs to be a middle ground. If the material is a little dirty, you may be better off throwing it into the trash instead of the recycling bin.”

Dirt and other contaminants, like food and grease, can spoil an entire bin of recycled materials, causing material recovery facilities to reject the bin completely. According to National Geographic, only nine percent of the world’s plastic has been recycled. For a while, plastic and other recyclables from the U.S. were a commodity that China and India would buy and transform into usable products. But, over the past few years, the market has dried up. A March 2019 Popular Science article reported that India would no longer accept post-consumer plastic imports. The article further stated that contamination of recyclables increases costs.

“When we collect the material, it has as much as 25 percent contamination, but by the time we sell it, it needs to have less than one percent,” Susan Robinson, senior director of sustainability and policy for Waste Management, told Popular Science.

In commercial buildings, according to DeMagistris, people often make the mistake of throwing all their trash into the recycling bin, assuming the janitor will take care of sorting and cleaning the remnants. But, that’s not how it works.

“It’s a health rule for us, cleaners can’t clean out recyclables. They don’t touch trash; they just touch the bins or trash bags and put those into the proper containers so haulers can take them away.” DeMagistris said she encourages customers to talk to their employees and remind them it is their responsibility to be sure dirty recyclable materials are rinsed out with soap and water.

She said several AffinEco customers have begun placing recycling bins in a centralized location – like a kitchen or copy room – in order to encourage proper collection.

Robinson from Waste Management also reminds people to put plastic lids on their corresponding bottles and containers, because end-users want them intact. But, if a glass jar, for example, has a metal lid, those should be separated.

Her point underscores how complicated recycling has become. For example, recyclables should never be put in plastic bags. Ziploc bags, grocery bags and trash bags are the enemy of material recovery facilities, because they clog up the machinery. Robinson told Popular Science, “We spend about 140,000 hours a year just cleaning plastic films out of all the gears and equipment in our recycling facilities,” which is why recyclables in bags are often tossed aside and sent to landfills. Plastic bags can be recycled, but have to be brought to special collection centers that funnel them to the proper facilities.

Of all the materials that are accepted in the office recycling bin, paper is the most valuable, which DeMagistris says is one reason she’d like to see a return to dual-stream recycling.

“White paper and cardboard have the most value,” she said. “Law firms and financial firms generate a lot of paper, and if that’s the only thing put into a bin, it won’t get contaminated.”

Cardboard can be another story altogether, especially cardboard from pizza boxes. Grease from cheese and pepperoni is a no-no for recyclers. Experts say those boxes should be composted instead of going to a recovery facility or landfill.

Over the years, people have gladly separated their trash, placing recyclables in one place and trash in another. But, until governments and private businesses develop a better model for the growing recycling market, individuals can try to reduce their use of single-use plastic containers – opting for reusable food and beverage containers for example.

“We are seeing there is awareness around re-use, which is want you want,” said DeMagistris. “Whatever our customers can do to improve their recycling habits will save our cleaners time, which, ultimately, can save customers money.”

Image courtesy of OpenAccessGovernment