The recycling industry wants us to be better at recycling

The Southeast is grappling with "trashy" recyclables more than a year after China's stopped taking them

The Southeast has a thriving group of manufacturers that rely on recycled "feedstocks," but contamination remains a problem
March 8, 2018 

Americans are bad at recycling

When China stopped taking low-quality recyclables from the U.S., it revealed how truly terrible Americans are at recycling.

You've probably had that moment in your kitchen: the brief pause before tossing your yogurt container into the bin, hoping for the best. 

Before January of 2018, Americans were able to get away with “wish-cycling” by sending most of it to China. In 2016, China received more than 50 percent of the world’s recycled paper and plastic, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association, a trade group.

But China doesn’t want it anymore, and some cities in the U.S. have resorted to burning or trashing their low-quality recycling. 

“We’ve really done it to ourselves,” said Tori Carle, waste reduction supervisor for the city of Greensboro. “We were sending them lots of garbage, and they rightfully closed their doors.”

A quick primer on how recycling works in many cities: residents toss recyclables in a bin. The city delivers it to a materials recovery facility (MRF). The MRF (pronounced "murf") removes the trash in an assembly line, often by hand, and sorts the items by category (plastics, paper, aluminum, glass etc.,). Then, they smoosh the items and sell them to a manufacturer to be made into new products. 

Contamination makes this process difficult. Consider the plastic bag. If recyclables are stuffed in a plastic bag, then someone at the MRF has to take them out, which slows the line down. Or worse, the plastic bag clogs a machine. Then, the line stops completely as the worker climbs into the machine to remove the bag (or garden hose, or metal bed frame, etc.,).

Carle said 22 percent of the recycling sent to Republic Services, the MRF that works with Greensboro, is actually trash. Items like Styrofoam, bubble wrap, hoses and shoes contaminate a load, so the MRF has to separate those items, which means more hands touching it and ultimately more expense.  

“The amount of garbage being sent to recycling is astounding,” said Carle. “We see a lot of dirty diapers. Yes, people actually do that.”

Price fluctuation means hard choices

China’s policy not only laid bare our contamination woes, it also caused a glut of low-quality recyclables. This led to lower prices, especially for items like cardboard, mixed paper and glass. Low prices make it harder for MRFs to get a return on their products. 

“MRF’s are caught in the middle of all of this,” said Will Sager, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SRDC), a regional recycling trade group. “They end up having to charge more for their services.”

Lower prices have led to difficult decisions in some communities across North Carolina. Some cities have stopped picking up glass  (because it’s heavy and damages machines) or started charging more for recycling services. 

BUT! There’s a brighter side in the Southeast 

Despite a rough year, the Southeast has advantages in the recycling market.

“We’re lucky because we have a lot of manufactures that rely on recycled items,” said Sandy Skolochenko, a recycling analyst with the NC Department of Environmental Quality. “We weren’t relying on exporting it as much as the West was.”

According to the SRDC, the southeast has 350 manufactures that rely on recycled “feedstocks." 60 of those businesses are in North Carolina, like Envirovision Technologies in Charlotte, a company that buys bulky or dirty plastics and processes them so they’ll meet higher standards. Businesses that rely on recycling are moving to the region, including Polywood, a manufacturer that uses recycled plastics to make outdoor furniture.

Sagar also said Chinese companies are opening large recycling facilities in the region, which will create even more demand for recyclables.  

Education, Education Education

In the meantime, the recycling industry wants the public to get better at recycling. “We have a lot of confused participants,” said Sager. “And it’s not surprising, because each municipality has different rules about what can be recycled.” Skolochenko from DEQ agrees that it’s on the resident to check their local recycling facility if they have doubts on what to recycle.

“As a society we’ve gotten excited about recycling,” said Skolochenko. “But we have to be more thoughtful about it.”

The city of Greensboro is intervening on the street level. They’ve installed cameras on their recycling trucks to help drivers identify contamination. If the driver sees something in the hopper that can’t be recycled, they’ll leave an “oops” sticker. After the fourth notice, the resident loses their recycling bin for non-compliance.  

“We’re really trying to get back to the basics,” said Carle, the waste reduction supervisor in Greensboro. “Aluminum cans, metal cans, plastic bottles and paper. And if it’s not empty, clean and dry, it’s not good enough.”

Here's what you can do to be a better recycler:

• FIRST, check your local recycler to see what they’ll accept. When in doubt, throw it out. 
• Avoid putting recyclables in plastic bags. 
• Clean the food off—it doesn’t have to be spotless, but food scraps can contaminate mixed paper. 
• Break cardboard down, remove tape, and take plastic bags out of cereal containers.
• For weird items (electronics, oyster shells, storm debris) check the NC DEQ website which lists the facilities that accept them. 

—Rossie Izlar

Rossie Izlar is a digital producer on the UNC-TV Science team.