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Recycling: Who, What, Where and When?

Bales of plastic at Norcal’s Recycle Central at Pier 96 in San Francisco. Image: Flickr/Walter Parenteau.

Evan Lawrence

Despite the widely-publicized crash in the recycling markets, recycling is still possible and still worth doing. Depending on where you live, it may just be harder to do.

Markets continue to be good for aluminum. Recycling the metal saves a whopping 95% of the energy necessary to process virgin ore. Steel still has buyers, as does cardboard—all those Amazon shipping boxes have to come from somewhere. Paper, plastics, glass? There’s the rub. China, which was buying the bulk of U.S. waste paper and plastics, stopped accepting them in early 2019 causing prices to plunge to the point where municipalities and haulers sometimes have to pay for disposal. Glass has virtually no market. Most of it is simply crushed for road and building construction.

In the tri-state area (NH, NY, and VT), Vermont has the strongest recycling system. The state’s Universal Recycling Law bars paper, aluminum, cardboard, steel, glass, and hard plastics from the state’s landfills. Whether residents pay a private hauler, have municipal trash pick-up, or drive their waste to the transfer station, they must take those materials out of their garbage. A study commissioned by the state in 2018 showed that about 72 percent of recyclables were in fact staying out of the landfill. The state does its own recyclables marketing and finds a buyer or use for just about everything covered by the mandate.

Vermont is divided into solid waste districts, plus a few towns that run their own waste disposal programs. If you don’t know your district, find it at dec.vermont.gov/waste-management/solid/local-districts. All collect the Big Six. The Central Vermont Solid Waste District, including Montpelier, Barre, and 17 more towns, recently started accepting a wide variety of other products through its Additional Recyclables Collection Center in Barre. The list, which may change from time to time, includes personal care product tubes, refrigerated and frozen food boxes, toothbrushes, thermal cash register receipts, and jar lids. See the full list at www.cvswmd.org/arcc.html.

Neither New York nor New Hampshire mandates recycling, although New York requires local governments that collect residents’ trash to have a source separation program for recyclables with a viable market. With paper and plastic becoming a financial liability instead of a revenue source, some towns in both states have stopped collecting recyclables, and some transfer stations are imposing fees on the materials.

For New York and New Hampshire residents, check with your hauler or municipality about what materials they accept. The list may change depending on whether they have a market. New York will ban single-use plastic bags starting in March. Plastic bags and wrap, for example the wrapper on paper towels, can be recycled at many stores in marked bins, usually by the front door. Visit www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/50042.html for details.

No matter what state you live in, here are some recycling dos and don’ts.

“Wishful recycling” is the bane of the recycling business. Don’t put anything in the blue bin just because you hope it’s recyclable. If in doubt, throw it out.

Materials go to a facility where they’re sorted by people and machines. Careless disposal can endanger people and damage machinery. Plastic bags and film and old clothing can tangle in the machinery and shut it down—never put them in the blue bin. Food residues in containers stink, attract rodents and insects, reduce the value of a bale of material, and are really yucky for the people who have to pull them off the conveyor belt.

Don’t try to recycle anything smaller than 2 inches on two sides. Little debris falls off belts and out of bales and just makes litter.

Styrofoam, drink cartons, and black plastic (such as microwave trays) have no market. They’re trash.

Many products are recyclable but not through blue bins. Never put in scrap metal, batteries (the leading cause of fires in recycling facilities), electronics, or hazardous wastes such as pesticides, used motor oil, or old paint cans. Many localities have special hazardous waste collection days or collect these products separately. Hardware stores may take back larger batteries and compact fluorescent lights, which contain trace amounts of mercury.

The deposit on beverage cans and bottles still applies in Vermont and New York. When you return containers for deposit, the material is recycled or reused, and you get your nickel back.

Evan Lawrence is a free-lance writer in Cambridge, NY specializing in sustainability, environmental, and health topics.

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