Options for Some Hard-to-Recycle Items

By George Stubbs

Occasionally, we receive inquiries through our web site from Melrose citizens who want to do the right thing when they recycle but are unsure of their options. A certain item looks like it ought to be recyclable but is non-standard in some way—or just raises questions. The item may be a composite of various substances, and certain plastic packaging can really present a quandary. The plastics industry is coming up with new resins in new combinations all the time, and the recycling industry struggles to keep up.

Given current economic difficulties and problems with “contamination” of the secondary materials (i.e., recyclables) stream—contamination meaning the presence of items that cannot be processed at the materials recycling facility (MRF) —companies that offer recycling services are advising, “When in doubt, throw it out.” The Melrose Recycling Committee is also offering this counsel. Too much contamination in any given load of recyclables will prompt the vendor to treat the whole load as trash. This raises costs to the city, as we pay for waste disposal services by the ton. And helping the city keep waste management costs down is a vital part of the committee’s mission.

So when the following inquiry came through MRC’s web site, we sympathized, but shared the “when in doubt, throw it out” mantra:

“I am wondering:
(1) Are water filters from our refrigerator recyclable?
(2) I have a cutter that removes the plastic bottom of Keurig pods from the top (so I can compost the coffee). Are the plastic bottoms of the Keurig pods recyclable?”

But wait. Just because there is initial doubt about whether a certain item may or may not be recyclable doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to remove that doubt. After sharing the inquiry with the MRC members (and after providing the inquirer with an initial response), one committee member responded back with the following:

In the case of Keurig pods, or “K cups,” “if the plastic is clean, completely separate from the foil and other components , and made from #1-7 [plastic] then it should be recyclable curbside.” This committee member then noted the existence of a company that does recycle K cups. To learn more about this company, follow this link: https://www.recycleacup.com/recycling/.

In also turns out, our committee member said, that somebody is doing something about refrigerator filters as well. Whirlpool has introduced the Refresh & Recycle Program (https://everydropwater.com/Recycle), under which you can receive, through the mail, a water filter recycling “kit.” Each kit consists of a 9”x12” poly plastic mailer to return your spent filter, as well as a Water Filter Recycling Process instruction card. Whirlpool says that the components of each returned filter are used to make a new product rather than sent to a landfill. Whirlpool is collaborating with the specialty recycling company g2 revolution on the project.

So, yes, when in doubt, your best bet with a particular item is to throw it in with the rest of your trash, as frustrating as that may feel. But don’t forget, doubt can be dispelled by information—which may be just a few clicks of the keyboard away.

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Looking for Clarity in Recycling Plastic Bags

By George Stubbs

Due to a new city ordinance, local retailers like Whole Foods and Shaw’s market can no longer distribute plastic bags to take home your groceries, but plastic bags still find their way into our lives, and they need to be recycled properly. These two merchants, at least, are still providing bins at their stores here in Melrose where you can return those bags.

But have you ever wondered exactly which kinds of bags to return? Is it just the plastic bags you receive at checkout? Or can you also return the bags that your bread comes in? How about Ziploc bags?

On the “Because You Asked” page at its web site, New York City-based waste management innovator RecycleBank recently attempted to offer some clarity on the subject. In addition, the American Chemistry Council—which of course wants us to keep buying plastic products—provides advice on recycling plastic bags through its PlasticFilmRecycling.org web site.

As RecycleBank notes, what the grocery stores are accepting for recycling is polyethylene film of various types, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or #2 plastic) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or #4 plastic). But there are other types of plastic film products that are acceptable as well. The bags your bread often comes in are a good example. You can recycle Ziploc bags as well.

Other examples include newspaper bags and dry-cleaning bags. Also, the “product overwrap”—the plastic film that wraps a multipack of, say, paper towels—is acceptable, according to the American Chemistry Council. Similarly, you can recycle the case wrap that your 24-pack of bottled water comes in—but do consider the alternative of a reusable water bottle). Produce bags can also be recycled, but again, there are alternatives. Several vendors, such Earthwise and EcoBags, offer washable cloth bags for your produce.

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Bags for frozen vegetables are not acceptable. The plastic films used to make these bags contain additives that are designed to protect the food but render them inappropriate for reprocessing. You can cut down on the purchase of frozen vegetables by purchasing fresh produce and storing it in Ziplocs or similar food storage bags.

Remember, whatever type of plastic bag or wrapping you’re trying to recycle, make sure it’s clean, dry, and free of food residue. And please: never put plastic bags in your curbside recycling bin. They gum up the works at most materials recycling facilities, including the one that serves Melros

Some Hope in the Fight to Clean Up Ocean-Dumped Plastics

By George Stubbs

Sometime later this year, the first significant volume of plastic waste dumped in the ocean may be recovered for reprocessing, thanks to the ingenuity of a 23-year-old entrepreneur. A recent article in Fast Company recalls the journey of Boyan Slat, who at a TEDx talk six years ago presented the concept of a barrier that uses the ocean’s movement to collect plastic pieces swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other ocean “gyres” containing billions and billions of pieces of plastic waste.

Today, the article reports, Slat and his team are in the process of building a 2,000-foot floating tube, made of HDPE, that will “be flexible enough to bend with the waves, but rigid enough to form a U-shaped barrier to stop the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface.” Within a few weeks, the developers plan to test a section of the tube in the waters off of San Francisco. If that test proves successful, they’ll bring the section back for full assembly and then conduct a “tow test” of the entire system about 200 miles offshore.

Slat is starting big because, he believes, the problem of ocean plastic is big, and smaller-scale solutions won’t be up to the task of dealing with it within any reasonable time frame. We continue to dispose of our plastic waste improperly at a rapid rate, and of course much of that waste ends up in the ocean.

“I think very often problems are so big, people approach problems from the bottom up: ‘If only I do this little bit, then hopefully there will be some sort of snowball effect that will be bigger and bigger,’” he told Fast Company. “I’m much more in favor of the top-down approach to problem-solving. Really ask, if the problem is this big, how do you get to 100%? Then knowing what it takes to get to 100%, work your way back. Well, what do I have to do now?” Of course, Slat believes we have to find solutions and the front end—not only to prevent improper dumping, but generating less plastic waste to begin with.

Learn more about Boyan’s effort, which he calls “The Ocean Cleanup,” at the organization’s web site. According to The Ocean Cleanup, which has a staff of more than 70 engineers, researchers, scientists, and computational modelers working on the ocean waste problem, there are currently over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only the largest of them. As this blog has reported in the past, these plastics are becoming a hazard to marine life and may pose health problems to the food chain, all the way up to our own tables.

The Ocean Cleanup, which is based in Rotterdam, has lofty ambitions. Slat and his team would like to develop technologies that could clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. Best of luck to you, Boyan.

The scope of the ocean plastics problem was recently outlined in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Week (Vol. 18, Issue 883). Here are the key take-aways in bullet form (thanks to MRC member Tom Middleton for putting this summary together):

  • Human beings have put 14 million tons of plastic into the oceans.
  • In 2015, researchers analyzed trash in the ocean and found that 99.9% of it was plastic.
  • According to the World Economic Forum, by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish.
  • Most of the plastic ends up in five piles of plastic called gyres, which are created by ocean currents.
  • The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas.
  • Five gyres cover 40% of the earth’s ocean surfaces.
  • It would take 1,000 boats cleaning water 24/7 79 years to clean it up.
  • Marine life research is incomplete, but fish raised in waters with lots of plastic have been found to be “smaller, slower, and more stupid” than regular fish.
  • A dead whale was found with 17 pounds of plastic in its stomach, including 80 shopping bags.
  • Two studies show that 83% of world’s drinking water contains plastic, and that 93% of bottled water contains some plastic.
  • Lots of seafood now contain plastic.
  • Scientists feel that global cooperation is needed to defeat the problem. People are trying, by not using plastic, banning certain types (single-use), making all plastic packaging recyclable, and (as illustrated above) developing innovative technologies to clean up the oceans.

As I said, best of luck, Boyan.