Recycling headache: Separating materials a tough job
Peek into any curbside recycling bin and you’re bound to find items that can’t be recycled.
Although they were put there with the best of intentions, officials in the recycling industry say they things like plastic bags, foam meat trays, clothing and take-out containers not only can’t be recycled, but clog and foul up recycling operations.
“When you get into the pile and look at what people are recycling, you find that there’s a lot of contamination,” said Sherill Baldwin, who directs recycling efforts at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “People are confused about what should go in to the recycling bin — they assume that just because you put it into the bin, it will magically get pulled out transformed into usable goods.”
She said that even with the latest technology and armies of human sorters, too much undesirable material finds its way into the recycling stream, making the bales of paper, plastic and glass difficult to sell on the open market.
“There are even safety concerns,” Baldwin said. “The staff has to manually pull plastic bags out of the equipment — they get tangled in with other material and it makes a mess.”
Experts say that these materials hurt recycling operations:
Styrofoam-like foam plastic (cups, egg cartons, etc.)
Plastic or paper cups, plates and bowls
Spray pump nozzles
Plastic drink cup lids
Loose caps and lids
Ceramics, such as dinner plates
Pots & pans
Spiral-bound notebooks and 3-ring binders
Books (telephone books are OK)
Organic matter like grass clippings and food waste
These items can be placed in curbside bins:
Paper (newspapers, magazines, office paper, etc.)
Paperboard (like cereal boxes)
Milk and drink cartons
Steel and aluminum cans
Corrugated cardboard, including clean pizza boxes, even if they’re greasy
Plastics marked 2 through 7, including black plastic
Plastic bottles, like milk and soda bottles
Plastic plant containers
Every type of material presents its own set of problems. Paper is fine — except when it’s shredded. Those little plastic pill bottles? They belong in the trash. Ditto for plastic bottle caps. And don’t wad aluminum foil into a ball — they’ll assume there’s a tuna sandwich inside.
Broken beer bottles can’t be recycled, either. Even corrugated cardboard boxes — usually an easily recycled item — can present issues when they’re stuffed with packaging material.
Plastic bags can be recycled, but only at special collection bins located in most supermarkets.
The stuff that people call Styrofoam, a Dow Chemical trademark, can’t be recycled. Just about all of that foam plastic really isn’t Styrofoam at all but a related material called expanded polystyrene. In theory, it can be recycled, but since it’s mostly air and it’s often contaminated with food particles, it’s not economically feasible to do anything with it.
Two years ago, DEEP took a hard look at the material that was in the recycling stream and came up with a “universal list” of material that the recycling companies are looking for — and the stuff that causes headaches.
“People think of recycling as just putting it on the curb,” said Baldwin “But if you can’t market it, it just winds up in the waste stream. We have to stop ‘wishcycling’ — it doesn’t magically get recycled just because you put it in the blue bin.”
And the amount of waste in the recycling stream is significant. “It’s about 20 percent of the load,” said Mickey Ferro, CEO of City Carting, one of about seven recycling companies in Connecticut.
To that end, DEEP has been trying to get the word out through its website, www.recyclect.com, which has information on “What’s In, What’s Out.”
Most of the companies that handle recycling are also in the municipal solid waste (MSW) and constriction debris (CD) business. If a load is deemed too contaminated with plastic bags, foam plastic and the like, it can be rejected.
“A rejected load ultimately costs the taxpayer,” said Milford Mayor Ben Blake, “because we would normally get $20 for a ton of recycled materials.”
Jodi Barnell-Drescher, the sales manager for Winters Bros., said that plastic bags can bring the recycling machinery to a grinding halt.
“They get caught into the augers and they have to be manually removed,” she said. Winter Bros. takes in recycling from a number
The recycling industry has been beset by recent events. For example in November 2017, China announced that it was clamping down on the material it could accept, instituting what it called Operation Green Fence. For example, it has rejected bales of plastic if syringes are found in them, or if they’re contaminated with food waste.
And a fire at a major waste paper processor in Willimantic on Sunday, Jan. 29 — which took crews 20 hours to get under control — left some recycling operations in eastern Connecticut scrambling to find alternatives, state officials said.
“Glass is a problem,” Barnell-Drescher said. “The market is terrible. It’s heavy and its hard to get rid of.”
State officials say that that glass taken in through curbside collections gets contaminated with plastic — both plastic bags and plastic from bottle caps and small pill bottles — making it a hard sell on the open market. The glass cullet from supermarket redemption machines has greater purity and is easier to sell.
Another item people try to recycle are pots and pans. “We can’t accept pots and pans,” Barnell-Drescher said.
But the news isn’t all bad. Corrugated cardboard pizza boxes, even if a little greasy, are now acceptable, officials say — just so long as the tissue paper and the pizza are gone.