Materials to Help You Recycle Right

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.



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.

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:

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 (, 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.

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 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.


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.

Plastics under attack–but so is recycling

by George Stubbs

A couple of items from the news of June 5, 2018–one offering encouragement, another a cause for concern.

The BBC reports that, according to a recent report by the United Nations, some 50 nations around the world are taking aim at plastic products, with measures designed to reduce their use, require their proper disposal, and, ultimately, keep plastic waste off beaches and out of waterways and marine environments. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that measures by these various nations are not always being adequately enforced.

There are many factors compelling countries to encourage reductions in the use of plastic products. Sometimes, it’s simply bad press, as in the United Kingdom, where media coverage is highlighting the negative impacts of improperly disposed of plastic wastes.

In other countries, the harm caused plastic waste is more directly or immediately felt, the BBC says. In some jurisdictions, plastic waste is causing flooding by clogging storm drains. In others, cattle are eating the waste, causing–to say the least–health problems.

Countries that need to get their regulatory regimes right include Botswana, where a charge to retailers that offer plastic bags has not been enforced, and the program has been deemed a failure. In Vietnam, a tax on plastic bags has not reduced their use, so the government is considering raising the tax by a factor of five.

There have been successes. A ban on plastic bags in Eritrea has helped to clear storm drains. In Ireland, a tax has led to a 90% reduction in consumption. Morocco has banned plastic bags and conducted seizures–up to 421 tons in one year–and consumers now use fabric-based bags.

The authors of the UN report suggest that more needs to be done to engage businesses in helping to make the switch from plastic bags and other plastic products to more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Separately, a front-page story in the June 5 edition of the Boston Globe offers some brim news for proponents of recycling. The Globe reports that several Massachusetts municipalities are taking a hit on their recycling budgets in the wake of China’s ban on imports of recyclable materials that don’t meet purity standards. The materials are piling up at recycling facilities for lack of options on where to send them, leading to rising costs for the waste management companies, which are passing those costs onto their municipal customers.

China’s new policy was announced last summer and took effect on January 1 of this year. As part of the policy, according to the Globe, China is banning outright 24 categories of material, including mixed paper and certain classes of plastics. As a result of the pressures that some waste management companies exerting, including dramatic increases in the prices of recycling services, some municipalities are taking drastic measures. Plymouth has suspended its curbside recycling program. New Bedford has filed a lawsuit against its vendor, ABC Disposal Service, which has threatened to cease the collection of recyclables in that city and surrounding communities.

Obviously, the terms of existing contracts will be a factor in how municipalities and their vendors deal with the respective situations. But without question, the issue is a serious one, and not just confined to Massachusetts, as is evident in this recent article in Williamette Week in Oregon. Recycling proponents everywhere with be tasked with working closely with the city officials to ensure that the circular economy model keeps working.

One pressing need is for added capacity in the United States to turn secondary materials into new products. A look at the literature suggests that there is no shortage of ideas out there, but more capital investment will be necessary.

Just as importantly, we need to do a better job in sorting the materials, and that begins on our own curbsides. Melrose residents have done a good job in heeding the advice of the DPW and the Melrose Recycling Committee–by getting plastic bags out of the recycling bins, for example–but a lot more work needs to be done.

Another Successful Cleanup Day

In a contrast with recent years, the weather smiled upon volunteers who showed up for the Community Cleanup on Saturday, May 5. People young and old gathered near the dog park at the Knoll and dispersed to several locations around the city to clean up trash that has accumulated over the past year.

As in previous springs, the Community Cleanup, sponsored by the Melrose Recycling Committee, was held in conjunction with the Ell Pond cleanup, an annual initiative of the Ell Pond Improvement Council. 20180505_104036As MRC volunteers proceeded to the middle school and high school grounds, the skate park, and other locations, the Ell Pond group removed trash and brush from the pond’s shoreline and deployed an “armada” of two kayaks to remove garbage from the water itself.

Volunteers from both groups paid particular attention to the pond’s outlet near Main Street, where trash washed or thrown into the pond tends to gather. The cleanup of the outlet area was reported to be particularly challenging. As one of the pictures here shows, low res-Mute Swan on bottle nest2 - close-up 0U1A0219trash has also made its way to the nest of two swans who have taken up residence in Ell Pond.

Indeed, there was much to do, even though a Facebook-organized group had done some cleanup around the city the weekend before.

In addition to cleaning up the school grounds and some of the public spaces around the immediate vicinity of Ell Pond, a group of volunteers drove over to the Swain’s Pond and Penney Road area and picked up several bags of trash there.

Many thanks to the volunteers who showed up on May 5–and to the groups of residents who were active the weekend before. And as always, many thanks to the Melrose Department of Public Works for its support for these cleanup efforts. Here’s hoping that many more people in Melrose can step up to help the city remain clean.