Have You Been Recycling Wrong?

Recycling as a family affair at the Arcata Community Recycling Center (ACRC), circa 1980s. Photo from the ACRC Facebook page.
Recycling as a family affair at the Arcata Community Recycling Center (ACRC), circa 1980s. Photo from the ACRC Facebook page.

In the early 1970s, the environmental movement began to surge. Inspired by concerned citizens, grassroots recycling centers started popping up, including here in Arcata (read more here).

In the early days, cleaning and sorting each item was required, because they were going straight to mills and smelters and different materials went to different processors. Glass bottles and metal cans had to be washed, with labels and rings removed to avoid contamination during processing. There was no market for plastic in the early years of recycling (and plastic bottles were not common yet anyway). Mixed material items like bimetal cans, with steel bottoms and sides and aluminum pop-top lid (now seldom seen), weren’t accepted because they couldn’t be processed.

The rise in single-stream processing eliminated the need to pre-sort recyclables. Most materials are collected mixed together to be sorted en masse in large facilities via a variety of methods and machinery (with human helpers). The single-stream process was developed to increase convenience and efficiency for both the consumer and the facilities, but as a result, the quality of the end product (clean, marketable bales of source material) has suffered greatly.

Having “done their part,” by putting items in the bin, most people haven’t thought much about where their recycling was going or what happened to it. We just assumed it was all (or mostly) being recycled.

Recycling is a commodity market that requires clean, ready-to-process materials. If there’s a buyer willing to take and use the material, then it’s “recyclable.” If there isn’t a market for a specific material type, or the market is too far away or too expensive to ship to, or there isn’t enough of a certain material to make a viable market, then it isn’t actually recyclable.

Over the years, the U.S. became reliant on overseas markets, particularly China, to buy our recycling for processing. However, because single-stream facilities have failed to prevent contamination, and because the quantity of materials increasingly exceeds demand, large amounts of otherwise good recycling were increasingly being rejected, and therefore rendered trash.

As the world’s rejected recycling (garbage) began to accumulate in China, with increasing air pollution problems from toxic processing industries, their government decided to make a drastic change. In January 2018, China reduced the percentage of allowed contamination and tightened restrictions on what materials they would accept, effectively slamming the breaks on the market.

“Hopeful” or “magic” recycling—putting items in the recycling bin under the assumption or hope that it’s recyclable when it’s really not—has been a primary contributor to this massive problem. Presumably well-intentioned people drop styrofoam, food waste, miscellaneous plastics, dirty diapers, and all sorts of other random items into recycling bins, thinking “oh, they’ll figure out what to do with it.” Unfortunately, this can overwhelm sorting facilities, resulting in unacceptably high contamination rates.

Plastics are notorious offenders. With so many different types of plastic, and even with the variety of recycling arrows imprinted on them, the reality is that only some specific types of plastics are readily recyclable. Too much of the wrong kind can contaminate bales.

Contamination also occurs by contact with foods, liquids, grease, dirt, and oils. Glass, for example, is easily cleaned (and should be) before being put in the bin, but cardboard and other paper products are rendered unuseable by contact with beverages or greasy foods because it soaks into and degrades the fibers.

The change in China’s policies has resulted in a recycling crisis in the U.S. and other countries, with materials piling up with nowhere for it to go. Unfortunately, in many places, most of it has been ending up going to landfills for lack of a better option. Some localities have stopped or drastically cut back their recycling programs, leaving residents with no alternative but to throw the items away, after decades of trying to convince people that recycling was important.

While some materials are being diverted to other markets, and development of new recycling facilities might be on the eventual horizon, the situation has thrown some sharp light on the underlying problem: we’re producing and using far too much stuff, particularly single-use items made from long-lasting materials.

Even at it’s best, recycling has never been an end-all solution. It’s an industrial process, consuming energy and water, and creating waste which can pollute water and air.  Long-distance (often international) shipping of the materials  also uses resources. In addition, most materials degrade with repeated processing.

We’ve come a long way since the ’70s, but the basics remain true: recyclable materials need to be clean and separated to go to separate processors with different needs. If no one can process it, it’s trash. What can we do? Learn how to recycle properly, and find out what your recycling hauler actually wants (more information on this is provided in the continuation of this article, on page 22). Recycling is good, but not producing or purchasing items needing to be recycled is better. Read more from Zero Waste Humboldt
on page 17.


Is this Recyclable?

Maureen Hart, an Arcata based sustainability consultant who previously ran a large recycling center and processing company in San Francisco, shared her insights with EcoNews about how to be a good recycler:

Aluminum foil: Make sure it’s clean of food, and ball it up so the material is more substantial.

Styrofoam: Not recyclable here. Avoid it in every shape and size. Why hasn’t it been banned yet?

Plastic bags and wrap: Not recyclable locally.  Sometimes grocery stores take plastic bags back and send them as a back haul to their warehouse to be sold out of the regional area. Plastic wrap is also not recyclable and should be avoided (reuseable alternatives are easily available).

Paper: Mills need clean, uncontaminated paper, and many can only handle some types of paper. As a rule of thumb, think water soluable—if it breaks down in water, that is okay to recycle; if the glue does not easily break down, then it’s not recyclable. Freezer boxes or waterproofed paper (like disposable coffee or soup cups) are usually lined with plastic and are not recyclable.

Aseptic cartons (plant-based milks, soups, etc): Not recyclable. This is a layered material that has paper, foil, and plastic. Special extractors are needed to separate the different components, and are not widely available.

Milk cartons are lined and not accepted.

Pizza boxes:  Usually contaminated with greasy food and therefore not recyclable. One option is to separate clean pieces to recycle and dispose of the rest.

Coffee cups:  Coffee cups are lined with plastic and not recyclable. Bring your own cup instead.

Brown box take-out containers: Also lined with plastic. I composted a few as a test, and it leaves a big clump of plastic. The pressed containers that are made from a plant fiber and not sprayed with plastic are compostable. Bring your own container instead!

Paper plates: Not accepted as recycling and are usually contaminated with food. If they are not coated with plastic, they can be composted.

Banana peels and apple cores: Compost does not belong in recycling!

Food in containers: No! Empty and clean your containers.

Leave the tops off bottles as a general rule. Recyclable materials are compressed into bales, so closed bottles require extra energy to pop.

To find out what’s currently accepted in your area, check with your local waste hauler. Recology serves most of Humboldt County (Eureka location: 707-442-5711; Fortuna: 707-725-5156). Their recycling list can be found at www.recology.com/recology-eel-river/what-goes-where/. Recycling is accepted at their transfer stations at 965 Riverwalk, Fortuna, and on Conservation Camp Road in Redway. Recology also runs the Samoa recovery center where curbside recycling is sorted.

Humboldt Sanitation (707-839-3285) serves McKinleyville north to Big Lagoon. Their recycling list is available at www.humboldtsanitation.com/humboldtrecycling/index.html. They accept recycling at their transfer station at 2585 Central Ave, McKinleyville, where you can sort it yourself, bypassing the curbside single-stream system.

Humboldt Waste Management Authority (HWMA) operates the Eureka Recycling Center at their Hawthorne Street Transfer Station at 1059 W Hawthorne St in Eureka. This location is also a self-sort facility, and accepts most recyclable plastics, glass, paper, batteries, electronic waste, flourescent light bulbs, and used oil.