Recycling Right: Massachusetts Steps Up

by George Stubbs

The Melrose Recycling Committee was delighted to see a lot of traffic at its booth at the Victorian Fair on Sunday, September 9, in Melrose’s downtown area. Visitors to the booth had many questions–some about the future of recycling in the city, the state, and the country, but mostly about what they can or can’t recycle, whether in their curbside bins or through other options.

The committee members were able to answer many of these questions and in every case, referred people to the MRC website–especially the Recyclopedia page (see the “what to recycle” link above).

It’s hard for people to keep up with the instructions on what does and does not go into the curbside bin. Most visitors to the MRC booth at the fair appeared to be aware that plastic bags should not go into the bins, and they understood why (the bags jam up the machinery at the recycling facility of our city’s contractor, JRM). But questions about other items abound.

And that’s the challenge–for the Melrose Recycling Committee, the city’s Department of Public Works, and municipalities everywhere. Contamination of the recyclables stream–the inclusion of items that do not belong in the curbside bins–is a big headache for the recycling industry, and as a result, for the municipalities they serve. If the waste contractor sees too much contamination in any given truckload, it will treat the whole truckload as waste and dispose of it as such. This raises waste disposal costs for cities like Melrose, which pays for such services by the ton of waste generated.

China is often cited as part of the problem. To be sure, China once was the destination of a very large volume of the recyclables–or “secondary materials,” as the industry refers to them–that were generated in this country. Recently, however, China has imposed stringent contamination limits on imports of secondary materials, and these limits are strict enough to prompt U.S. waste companies to discontinue their exports; it costs too much to meet those standards. So the stuff is piling up within our borders, and the economics around recycling have become very challenging.

The China part of the story has some nuances. In establishing the new contamination standards, the Chinese government may have been acting less out of environmental virtue and more out of market protection. The Chinese accepted secondary materials from the United States because China had established the necessary production infrastructure to turn secondary materials into new products and then sell those products back to the United States and other countries. China’s growing affluence, however, means that the Chinese people are generating more recyclables on their own. China no longer needs or wants our recyclables.

Whatever role China may be playing in the U.S. recycling crisis, there is a sad factor of our own making. America, which boasts that its capitalist system is the best engine of innovation in the world, has failed to innovate adequately in the area of secondary materials processing. We simply do not have enough processing capacity to turn all our recyclables into new products. There are U.S. innovators out there, but not enough of them.

Cleaning up the recyclables stream will not be a sufficient condition, then, for solving the U.S. recycling crisis. But it is a necessary condition: we have to keep contamination levels low in order to make recycling economically viable.

Recognizing these problems, the state of Massachusetts has recently launched the Recycle Smart initiative, which will use $2.56 million from the state’s Sustainable Materials Recovery Program to help our cities and towns promote good recycling practices. A recent article in Commonwealth Magazine describes the initiative, under which 194 Massachusetts cities and towns will receive funding ranging from $2,800 to $97,500 “to pay for new recycling bins or carts, public education and outreach, the collection of difficult-to-recycle items, and recycling in municipal buildings, schools, and public spaces.” Another 53 municipalities will receive funds ranging from $500 to $2,000 to help those communities make “modest but critical investments” in existing recycling programs or new, low-cost initiatives, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP). Supporting materials, including a frequently asked questions (FAQs) page, are available at a new Recycle Smart website established by MassDEP.

In the meantime, here’s JRM’s guide to what should and should not go into our curbside recycling bins. Remember, the Melrose Recycling Committee and our DPW would like you to recycle right–but recycle.