Contamination of our recyclables is a growing problem. That is, many of us place materials in our curbside bins that we all think should be recycled. In reality, however, these materials–plastic bags, hoses, other “tanglers,” for example–don’t belong in our curbside bins.
It’s not that they can’t be recycled. It’s just that JRM, Melrose’s waste management and recycling contractor, is not equipped to do so. Indeed, single-use plastic bags get tangled at the collection and sorting facility, forcing shutdowns while works conduct the dangerous operation of removing the offending items.
Fortunately, you can recycle single-use bags at retailers like Shaw’s and Whole Foods. Other items that shouldn’t go into our curbside bins may be recycled if some innovator comes forward with a process to break down the product and reassemble it into something new.
Such innovators exist. New Jersey-based Terracycle, for example, works with institutions like our own Roosevelt Elementary School to take hard-to-recycle items like juice packs and the plastic centers of spent Scotch tape dispensers and direct them to new-product processes.
We could use more innovators like Terracycle. In the meantime, however, we all have to be very careful about what we put in our curbside recycling bins. The problem isn’t simply that certain items can harm the processes at recycling centers. If the collector decides that a given truckload of recyclables is too contaminated with improperly recycled items, it can designate the whole load as trash and send it off to a landfill or an incinerator (the latter in our case). Since Melrose pays for disposal by the ton, that means higher waste disposal costs for our city. None of us wants that.
To help with the vexing problem of understanding what can and what can’t go into our recycling bins, JRM has published a couple of handy flyers that you can print out and put in a convenient place, like on your refrigerator. One is the JRM Single Stream Recycling Guide poster; the other is the company’s “Do’s and Don’ts of Recycling!” poster. Both can be very helpful.
As we reported on this blog last month, the state of Massachusetts is getting into the act with a Recycle Smart program that is designed to help Massachusetts cities and towns, well, recycle smarter. The program, dubbed RecycleSmartMA, has generated its own helpful Recycle-Smart-Infographic, which you can also print out.
Recycling is a tough business right now. Commodity prices are down, and China, which used to take a very high amount of our recyclables, has established new purity standards for those materials, and U.S.-based vendors are facing severe challenges in meeting those standards. Much less of our “secondary materials” are going to China (apparently, our waste management companies are sending a lot of recyclables to other Southeast Asia countries, which are also starting to say, “hey, wait minute,” as this article at the Naked Capitalism blog points out).
So removing the contamination from our recycling may not solve all the problems that the U.S. recycling industries faces, but it is something we have to do if we are to keep recycling alive. Fortunately, we’re getting help in making it easier.