Rethinking Recycling

A problematic recycling cart: open lids can lead to contamination from moisture; plastic bags are a major contaminant and hazard; returnable cans are best redeemed or donated. [Photo: Heidi Armster]

Do you ever stop to think about your garbage? On average, each person produces 4.5 pounds of solid waste per day, which adds up to more than 1,600 pounds per person, per year. In order to manage all that trash, Connecticut has a waste management hierarchy that emphasizes “source reduction, recycling, composting, and energy recovery from solid waste, with relying on landfill disposal and incineration as last resorts.” (CT Department of Energy & Environmental Protection website)

As individuals and families, we can make choices about the first three layers of the hierarchy—source reduction (buying less stuff, making less garbage to begin with), recycling, and composting. Perhaps the easiest choice we can make is to recycle—after all, a truck comes to our driveways every week. BUT recent data and trends suggest that we all have to think and act differently if we want recycling to work.

One Problem with Today’s Recycling: We’re Not Recycling Enough

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75% of what Americans throw in the trash could actually be recycled. Beyond the single-stream items that go in our green carts, there are many other items, from mattresses to electronics, that can be recycled. (Look for more information and links in the “Resources” and “Events” sections below.)

In Connecticut, the economic and environmental implications of not recycling enough are enormous. Our garbage, when picked up by our private haulers, typically goes to a “Waste-to-Energy” plant; the plant near Easton is in Bridgeport.

There are six such plants in Connecticut, all operating at capacity. How long the state can sustain them is in question; the Hartford plant, which handles about a third of the state’s waste, is aging and desperately needs renovations to continue operating. When garbage exceeds the capacity of these plants, our garbage is trucked to landfills out of state (which, according to Peter Brunelli in the Office of Materials Management at DEEP, added up to more than 300,000 tons in 2018). The trash-to-energy plants also generate approximately 500,000 tons of ash each year that must be landfilled.

Another Big Problem with Today’s Recycling: Contamination

Recycling, if done well, should divert a large portion of garbage away from the waste-to-energy plants. Many of us are conscientious about using our carts and putting them out every week. But, the National Waste and Recycling Association estimates that about 25 percent of what we try to recycle in the U.S. is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill. They report that just a decade ago, the contamination rate was closer to 7%. As you may have read, China stopped importing most recyclable material from the U.S. in 2018, primarily because of high rates of contamination. So now, if we recycle improperly, the contaminated waste is our problem to deal with … and that means it gets burned or shipped to landfills in other states.

Plastic bags and plastic film jam operations at the Danbury Materials Recovery Facility. [Photo: Sherrill Baldwin, DEEP.]

So, what are the sources of contamination in the recycling stream? First, plastic bags. These are recyclable, but only at participating retail stores, instead of the single-stream carts. (ShopRite, Kohls, Stop & Shop, Caraluzzi’s all have boxes for plastic bag recycling near their entrances.) It’s important to note that bags are a major problem at recycling facilities – jamming machinery and endangering workers.

Second, other non-recyclable items. Many residents “wishcycle,” or put questionable materials in their recycling bins with the hope that the items are recyclable. But these items actually become contaminants in the recovery process, reducing the value of the recyclables or even turning an entire load of recycling into trash.

Most of these items are also dangerous to the workers at the plants because they can jam machinery and cause projectile injuries. According to Joe Sardone, general manager at Oak Ridge Waste, our regional MRF (Materials Recovery Facility), some other major contaminants are:

– Diapers

– Rubber hoses

– Needles

– Wires

– Plastic film (such as shrink wrap and food packaging)

– Organic matter (food, liquid and yard waste)

– Propane tanks

– Bricks and concrete

– Shredded paper

– Bagged waste

On the last item, a state study found that some residents continue to bag their recyclables when they put them into the single-stream recycling. These bags become landfill because opening them can be a safety concern for the workers. According to the study, “bagged waste” contained both trash and recyclables.  Some bags contained all trash, others all recyclables and the rest a combination of both trash and recyclables. The study found that bagged waste comprised 2.9% of the items found in the recycle stream making it one of the 10 most prevalent individual material categories in single-stream recyclables.

A third major contaminant is moisture. When containers placed in the recycle stream have food or liquid in them, they can saturate otherwise good paper and cardboard. Overstuffed recycle carts with open lids also risk moisture contamination when it rains. Wet paper and cardboard can no longer enter the commodity market, so they become trash. Emptying, cleaning, and air drying all jars and containers can make a difference. Making sure your cart’s lid can close also helps keep moisture out.

Resources for Better Recycling

To confirm whether items are recyclable and learn how to dispose of them, there are many helpful websites and resources:

Recyclect.com is a quick-and-easy online resource to identify what should go in your recycling bin, and what should be thrown away.

recyclect.com – quickly find out “what’s in and what’s out” in your recycling bin.

– Plastic bags and plastic film. As mentioned above, all of these plastics can be returned to participating retail stores. Check out the WRAP (Wrap Recycling Action Program) site for more information and locations.

– Returnable soda, water, and other bottled and canned drinks can be redeemed at stores or donated to the Easton EMS. There’s a strong recycling market for these items, and returns and donations keep them out of the garbage stream.

Paint can be recycled at various dropoff locations. Check out paintcare.org for more info.

Mattresses – the Bye Bye Mattress Program site has information on options.

Trumbull Transfer Station – Easton residents can go year-round to recycle scrap metal, electronics, and so much more.

– Still not sure? Check out DEEP’s What Do I Do With…? web page for helpful information on what to do with many types of household items, everything from aerosol cans to yoga mats!

And Finally… Some Helpful Events

Mark your calendars for these upcoming events in Easton:

– Paper Shredding: Saturday, Sept. 19, Jesse Lee Church, 25 Flat Rock Road, 9 a.m to noon

– 3-in-1 Recycling Event: Saturday, Oct. 24, Samuel Staples Elementary School, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Electronics Recycling / EMS Can & Bottle Return / Police Prescription Drug Take-Back)

– Household Hazardous Waste Disposal: Saturday, Oct. 24, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., 307 Indian Ledge Park Drive next to BMX Facility, Trumbull (Easton residents may participate).

Recycle electronics in Easton (contactless dropoff) on October 24. [Photo: Cathy Alfandre]

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