The tricky thing is that the answer to those questions depends on where you live – different cities have different rules. And those differences don’t end when the recycling truck empties your curbside bin, either. The availability of sorting facilities, the proximity to processors, fluctuating value of materials – the sheer volume of a particular material collected, all play a role in what can be recycled and – just as importantly – how much of what you throw in the “recycling” bin actually ends up being reused in new products.
A recent report led by Ecology looked at ways we can make our recycling system work better and cost less by reducing the amount of non-recyclable contamination that ends up in our curbside commingled bins.
Working with local city and county recycling programs and private industry from around Northwest Washington, the report dived into both statistics and waste bins to come up with a list of recommendations aimed at cutting contamination, while helping residents recycle the right way.
There’s no silver bullet that will simplify recycling for residents, ensure as much as possible is actually recycled, and make the economics pencil out – if there were, we wouldn’t have needed a 122-page report. But, the authors found some simple steps that could push recycling systems in the right direction.
Some of the recommendations in the report include:
- Finding ways to collect glass separately from other recyclables. Glass breaks easily and the shards get mixed in with other materials, reducing their value.
- The machinery at a recyclables sorting facility works primarily by shape. So, people need to learn that the machines work better if cardboard boxes are flattened - but plastic bottles aren't.
- Encouraging people to put plastic lids back onto their containers before recycling. If the caps become separated, they end up as waste.
- Plastic bags and plastic wrap tangle machinery at the sorting facility. Those bags are recyclable - but they need to be taken to a bag dropoff at the supermarket or recycling center.
- Keeping shredded paper out of commingled bins. Shredded paper can’t be sorted out of other recyclables, meaning it ends up as waste.
The report gives Ecology and local recycling programs a framework to start making improvements. Some of that may be pretty simple – perhaps updating that fridge magnet showing what can be recycled in your area. Some of it will be tougher, like working with manufacturers to change how they make packaging for various products so that it can be recycled economically.
Why is this important?
Recycling is a good thing. It conserves natural resources, keeps material out of the landfill, saves energy and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases we generate.
Curbside commingled bins are the part of the recycling system that most of us are familiar with – even though they actually account for only a portion of all the recycled material generated in Washington.
If we can improve commingled recycling, we’ll save more resources and get more bang for our recycling buck.
Read the study
If you want all the details, check out the full report, “Optimizing the Commingled Recycling Systems in Northwest Washington.”
By Andrew Wineke, Waste 2 Resources