In January of 2018, most of the western world was upended when China decided to no longer accept recycling materials into their country. The reason? Too much contamination. For almost 30 years, China had been accepting recycling from many countries around the world. They used these recovered materials to make new products as opposed to virgin materials.
Recycling to the traditional consumer means pitching items like plastic bottles, paper, glass, metal cans, tin and aluminum into a single bin. A local service provider picks up these bins and takes them to a materials and recovery facility where all of these items will be sorted, baled and then sold to a buyer. The buyer used to be China. Now, there are other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam that are accepting these materials but are already overwhelmed. They will shut their doors soon because they don’t have the infrastructure to take on vast amounts of waste.
It’s kind of like magic when you think about it. You can buy and consume products and expect the waste from those products to be turned into new materials. Garbage and recycling services in progressive countries give us the perception that when waste is picked up, it “goes away.” The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as away. And when it is out of sight, it is out of mind.
When recycling first began, all of those items that we now pitch into a single bin used to have to be sorted into individual sections. The recycling trucks even had sorted sections for each type of waste. This was a very good system for the recycling industry because it kept the materials relatively clean, dry and free from contamination.
Things over time changed from a sorted recycling system to a single stream system. Single stream simply means that all of these products like plastic, paper, glass, aluminum and tin can be placed into one commingled bin. The single stream method was introduced because the recycling industry saw that there was not enough participation in recycling as a whole and wanted to make it easier for consumers to recycle. There have been vast education campaigns over the years teaching people what they can recycle and how it is a matter of placing it into this one recycling container instead of your trash bin. The idea caught on and people have in fact placed more in their recycle bins, but at the cost of a lot of contamination.
Single stream recycling is easy for consumers, but it has placed a major burden back on the recycling industry at large. When your recycling bins are collected, they must now go to a plant to be sorted back out to the individual waste streams. This plant is called a Materials Recovery Facility, also known as a MRF.
If you haven’t been on a tour of a MRF facility, it is highly encouraged so you can see where “away” is located. It will give you a new perspective on waste and just how much there is. These plants are large, loud, dusty and potentially dangerous on many levels for its employees. I have been to several of these facilities and have a new appreciation for this kind of work.
Every few minutes, a recycling truck rolls into the facility and dumps its entire load on the floor. Then a small bulldozer type machine pushes all of the materials into one big pile. The piles are then picked up and placed on a series of conveyor belts and sorter machines. Machines can optically sort plastics by the type of plastic it is. If you look at the bottom of a plastic container, you will see a recycle symbol with a number on it. You will see numbers 1-7. The higher the number, the more complex the mix of plastic it contains.
There are employees that stand along these conveyer belts and pull out items that don’t belong and can’t be recycled. This is where things get tricky. The items that are put into your recycle bin at home should be pretty simple. What should be placed into your bin are things like aluminum cans, flattened corrugated and paper cardboard, plastic bottles (with or without lids) depending on your local recycler, paper, magazines, glass, newspaper, tin cans. Nothing else. Never place plastic bags or films into your home bin. You can take those to your local grocery store and they will go to a specific place to be handled properly.
Simplicity is the key. However, people place all kinds of items into those recycling bins “wishing” and hoping they can be recycled. We call this wishcycling. This is bad on many levels. First, it creates true waste that has to be removed from the recycling stream and put into the trash. And it can literally be dangerous. While I was visiting a facility, the plant manager showed us an item that came in the week before. It was a 7 inch metal saw blade. Fortunately, the blade didn’t make it onto any of the belts or get into a machine that could have thrown it onto the floor and injured someone.
Wishing or hoping an item can be recycled is lazy and causes problems for the machinery itself. Many hours are lost when the machines go down and employees have to remove items like plastic bags, cords and hoses. Some of the machines are sorters and look like a series of gears. When you place inappropriate items like plastic bags and cords into your bins, they get wound around those gears and stop the machines completely.
Wishcycling is the reason that China stopped taking recyclables almost completely. There was too much contamination in the bales they were receiving. They will only accept materials if they have .5% or less contamination rate which is almost impossible for recyclers to attain. This goes back to how the general population is recycling, and frankly it is pretty terrible. Here in the U.S. we are only recycling about 9%. What makes it even worse is that we can’t even do it properly.
What is the current situation happening right now in the recycling sector?
It’s been well over a year now since China has stopped accepting materials from about 40% of the world. This has created a shock to the recycling industry where they have had the luxury of sending what’s amounted to trash to another country. Some of our “recycling materials” are sitting and piling up in warehouses waiting for someone to buy them. There are cities around the world that are now sending recyclable materials to either waste to energy facilities to be burned, or to a landfill. Other places are simply stopping their recycling programs for good.
Is this the end of recycling?
Mainstream media may have you believing that, but this is still a business that makes money. We still need to continue recycling because it is one of many ways in how we deal with waste. Most importantly, recycling is important because we are using less natural resources to create something else.
Right now the industry is in the midst of trying to figure things out. China didn’t give much notice and now we are going to have to go back to some good old innovation. The recyclers that are smart understand that this is a commodity and will change how they do things. An example of this is a company in New Jersey called GDB International. Instead of shutting their doors, they invested money in its own equipment to process recycled plastic film and pelletize the resin for sale in the United States.
Now is the time that we focus on proper recycling methods so what is placed in the bin can actually be made into a new product. This is going to be key in making sure our recycling operations can continue.
Here are some important tips to become a better recycler and avoid contaminating the whole bin.
If you are in doubt, throw it out.
This is a great mantra to live by. Don’t “wish” or think that someone else is going to take care of it and it will magically become a new product. If you really want to know if it can be recycled, then stop and check with your local recycling people.
Keep it simple!
Items that are recyclable in most places are aluminum cans, tin cans, metal cans, plastic bottles, glass (clear, brown & green only), paper, newspaper, junk mail, magazines, corrugated cardboard, paper board. Make sure your items are clean and empty. Don’t leave liquids in bottles or food residue on containers. Give them a quick rinse before tossing items into your bin.
These are items that are NOT recyclable and do not belong in your bin.
Plastic bags (Remember these get tangled in the gears at the recycling plant)
Styrofoam of any sort
Pizza boxes that have food residue
Plastic film from food wrapping
Individual plastic caps from bottles (these are too small and will fall through the sorting machines.) Check with your local recycler as some will be accepted when you keep the caps on the bottles.
Shredded paper – Keep your paper whole as shredded bits are too small to be recycled
Remember, you are the key to success in recycling. Say no to Wishcycling!
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to our team at GreenMeLocally.com and we can help you or your company become efficient and excellent recyclers.