We’ve all done it. There’s a thing we’re not sure of – a lightbulb, a plastic bag, maybe a Styrofoam tray– and we throw it in the recycling bin because we REALLY want it to be recyclable, even though deep in our hearts, we know it isn’t.
Contamination is the biggest problem in the recycling industry, and the number one reason why markets have dipped. Some recycling systems in the U.S. have even shut down, because they cannot find an economically viable way to deal with contamination and sell the materials for recycling. Contamination, in other words, renders recyclables valueless, particularly to foreign markets such as China.
Vermont recyclers have been sending materials mostly to domestic markets for a long time, so, although we feel the economic crunch, our materials ARE getting recycled, for now. While the U.S. catches up with the new recycling reality, more domestic recyclers are coming on line. But whether our materials go to a domestic or an international market, they still need to be sorted correctly, so we can supply a reliably clean, contamination-free, stream to manufacturers down the line.
You can contribute to a clean recycling stream by following these tips:
- Memorize Vermont’s “Statewide Six” mandated recyclables. If it’s not on this list, keep it out of your blue bin:
• Glass (all colors)
• Rigid plastics (these are hard plastics like yogurt cups or “blister pack” plastic packaging, as opposed to “film” plastics like plastic bags)
• Corrugated Cardboard (not waxed)
• Paper (including glossy, newspaper, magazines, office paper, envelopes, boxboard)
• Steel (food-grade cans like tuna or baked bean cans)
• Aluminum (cans, pie pans, even aluminum foil if clean and dry and balled up to the size of a tennis ball or larger).
- Know the process. If you understand where your recyclables go, it’s easier to understand how to manage materials and why certain “rules” exist. Vermont’s recyclables are mostly managed as “single sort” materials; everything goes in one bin. After you drop off your materials at a transfer station, or they get picked up by your hauler, they get transported to the nearest Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where humans and high-tech machines sort the materials into the six categories, bale them, and ship them to market.
- Follow the rules: Both human beings and complex machinery sort your materials once they reach the MRF. A few simple rules make the whole system work.
• Rinse food containers. No need to sterilize, but any container that has had food in it should be empty and rinsed. If you don’t want to pick it up and inspect it yourself, then imagine how the person at the recycling center feels.
• Know the 2 x 2 rule. Anything smaller than 2” x 2” or larger than 2’ x 2’ cannot go into your blue bin. Small items fall between the cracks at the MRF, and the larger items are too large for efficient sorting on the conveyor belt. (Exception: Caps can go on plastic bottles once they are empty and dry.)
• No Tanglers. Tanglers are things like plastic bags, textiles and hoses that tangle up machinery at the MRF. Tanglers can cause the MRF to shut down for an hour or more. Imagine the loss of time and money involved in shutting down a factory for a full hour every day!
• Symbol schmymbol. Just because it has the chasing arrow symbol does not mean it is recyclable in our region. Think of frozen food bags or Styrofoam – neither of which is recyclable in Vermont, but both of which feature a recycling symbol.
• Consider the economics. Recycling is an industry. Blue bin recyclables are the raw materials that eventually get remanufactured into new products. It works because the value of the raw materials exceeds the cost of hauling, sorting, baling and hauling again. If recycling didn’t work economically, we wouldn’t be able to do it (which explains why some U.S. municipalities have had to temporarily shut down residential recycling until markets improve). Contribute to making recycling work by buying recycled materials made from post-consumer recycled content.
- Opt out. Recycling is great. It’s better than dumping our (often toxic, whether we realize it or not) materials into the landfill. But it is not the best solution environmentally. The best solution is to buy less, use less, and reuse what you have. A full 30 percent of landfilled materials in Vermont are single-use disposables that cannot be recycled. As a first step, consider giving up anything disposable in favor of something reusable; or buy second hand and avoid packaging.
Finally, keep in mind that Vermont has sixteen solid waste management entities covering most of the state. The folks who work at these organizations are knowledgeable, and particularly well-versed in your local systems. Find your solid waste management entity at https://dec.vermont.gov/waste-management/solid/local-districts. For other states, please contact your local solid waste entities. If you are not sure who that is, start with calling City Hall or your Town Clerk’s office.
Cassandra Hemenway is the Outreach Manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.