Beyond The Curb: How Recycling Works Best

Oct 22, 2013

Recycling works because it's economically feasible. Someone makes money re-using your papers and packaging. To ensure recycling is also environmentally sound, consumers need to put the right things, in the right way, in the bin. Some of the no-no's may be surprising. To avoid mistakes, it helps to know what happens after you bring your recycling to the curb.

Many people fill their oversized recycling containers to the top. To keep that hefty volume of stuff out of the landfill feels virtuous. But without a bit of knowledge, good intentions may backfire.
Lane County began co-mingled recycling, that is, collecting everything but glass in one bin, in 2004. Sarah Grimm is Lane County's Waste Reduction Specialist:
Grimm: “The move to go with curbside co-mingling recycling was a really great move in terms of making it easier for the public and reducing truck idle time on the streets, which is pollution, and injury on the part of the drivers.”
With those advantages came an increased risk of the wrong materials being placed in the stream. Sarah Grimm:
Grimm: "Because it's a container with a top, people have a lot more opportunity to do wishful recycling, which I promise you does not work."

Sanipac's Eugene co-mingle drop off center
Credit Karen Richards

At Sanipac's recycling center, the loads dumped from residential pickup mostly contain allowable material, but there are problems. Aaron Donley is a sales manager:
Donley: "There’s still a variety of contamination issues, a big one is these plastic clamshells which a lot of fruit or sandwiches, stuff like that comes in. This is not allowed in the co-mingled stream."
The chasing arrows symbol with numbers inside was introduced 25 years ago to identify different types of plastic. Since then, there are new ways to reshape and reform plastics and change their chemistry. So now, a clamshell with a "2" on it cannot be re-processed in the same way as a milk jug, which is also stamped with a "2." Jugs, tubs, and bottles are the only plastics accepted by most curbside recyclers. Sarah Grimm:
Grimm: "You know the citizen, hopefully, can just understand that each little different type of plastic, even each different shape of plastic with the same number on it, probably needs to go to a different facility."
Most of Sanipac's recycling is trucked north to the Columbia Recycling Center in Vancouver, Washington. There, miles and miles of mechanical separators bounce and roll, sorting the recycling by shape and size. Chris Thomas is the District Manager:
Thomas: "Pop cans, aluminum cans, beverage containers, the system is designed to take them out because of their original shape. So any change in shape causes problems. Even wadding a piece of paper up and throwing it in your recycling bin by your desk causes problems, 'cause now that paper acts more like a container than paper."
Thomas says machines will treat anything flat as paper. So flattened milk cartons could be baled with paper and cause issues at the paper mill. Also, anything nested inside a different material may be sent to the wrong re-use facility. Bottom line: Leave things separated and in their original shape.
Non-recyclable items like bubble wrap and pizza boxes with grease embedded not only wind up as garbage, but also add hours of work for manual pickers. Aaron Donley highlights one special nuisance on the sorting line:
Donley: "A lot of people think plastic film or plastic bags are part of the commingled stream."
Chris Thomas in Vancouver says, even though Portland, Corvallis and Eugene have banned plastic bags, he has not noticed a decrease in bags gumming up their machinery:
Thomas: "We still have to stop our machine. It's getting easier to clean, but we still have to stop it 4-6 times a day to cut the plastic bags that have wrapped around our screens."
For the past few years, scrap has been the United State’s biggest export to China. Since February, China has stiffened its standards on receiving U.S. recyclables. Because there are few domestic markets for rigid plastics numbered 3 to 7, most of those are currently being dumped in the landfill. That includes garden store pots and coffee cup lids. Still, there are local repurposers of steel and paper and, says Chris Thomas, some plastic:
Thomas: "There's a new PET processing plant that takes most of the water bottles and plastic beer and soda bottles from around Oregon. It's up in St. Helens OR. We send the majority of our PET plastic over there."
Thomas says the St. Helens facility breaks up, washes and sorts the P-E-T. It’s then sold in chip or pellet form to be made into usable products. Grimm wants consumers to know it will take time to establish more U.S. plastics processors.
The number of items not allowed in the recycling bin may be discouraging, but there are plenty of ways to make a difference. Choose to buy things with less packaging. Look for other ways to recycle. And follow your local recycler’s rules—it will help, even if your bin isn’t quite as full.

Lane County's recycling pages

Sanipac's recycling guidelines