Tuesday, November 1, 2016

6 Things You Might Not Know About Recycling

CGEE Student Voice
by Jenni Abere
After a summer internship with Eureka Recycling, a zero-waste nonprofit that collects and processes recycling and organics composting in the Twin Cities, I have learned a lot about how the recycling process works. This process sheds some light on why some things can be recycled while others can’t.
Some of the points on this list may be specific to the Twin Cities, but these are generally universal rules.

1. Small objects may not get recycled.

Small objects like bottle caps and straws get lost in the sorting process, or get sorted incorrectly. To remedy this, put plastic bottle caps back on plastic bottles, and avoid unnecessary items like straws. To recycle metal bottle caps from glass containers, you can put them inside a steel can and then crush the top so they’re trapped inside.
Eureka Recycling uses a “tornado” to separate small paper scraps, so that this valuable material doesn’t go to waste. However, if you don’t have to shred paper, don’t, and recycle it in whole sheets.

2. You have to collect a lot of the same material in order to recycle it.

The "pile" at Eureka Recycling demonstrates how much material this industry deals with every day.
This might seem obvious, but it’s very important to remember this fact. It partially explains why polystyrene (#6 plastic) is so difficult to recycle. It takes a lot of forms, is very lightweight, and ends up all over the place (with most of it in trash bins). Collecting large and consistent amounts of flimsy, cheap, disposal polystyrene in a centralized way is unlikely. Recyclers have their plates full with more valuable and abundant materials.

3. Much of what goes to a conventional recycling company is thrown away.

This is called the “residual.” It’s allowed to be as high at 10-15% of what is collected, and it usually is that high. Large recycling companies often own their own landfills, so a high residual rate costs them nothing. Eureka Recycling, on the other hand, doesn’t own a landfill. Their residual rate is only 2%. How do they do it? For one, community outreach and education. They also analyze their residual line to see how they can improve their sorting process— sometimes they run the residual through again to catch what they missed.
I’ve spent some time watching the residual line flow by. It’s not a lot of stuff, but there are a few plastic water bottles and other easily recyclable materials. Much of it is small things, like straws and bottle caps. There are also a lot of weird things— Like flip flops and potatoes.

4. Black-colored plastic doesn’t get recycled.

An optical scanning system (lasers, basically) is used to sort plastics based on resin types. Lasers can’t reflect off of a black surface, so black-colored plastics leave the recycling plant as residual. While recyclers work on a solution, we should push companies to stop using black plastic. Most are unaware that it can’t be recycled, and only use black because it looks nice. This is a perfect example of how a simple design change can reduce waste.

5. Frozen and refrigerated food boxes can’t be recycled*.

The frozen food aisle suddenly appears very sad and wasteful.
*Except for pop and beer boxes. Cartons (such as orange juice cartons) can also be recycled once they are stripped of the plastic coating.
Freezer and fridge boxes are different, though. This paper is chemically treated so that it won’t break down when it gets wet. This is helpful when it’s sitting in your fridge or freezer. But to recycle paper, you have to — you guessed it — get it wet and break it down. You see the dilemma.
This is a tricky one, because frozen food is so ubiquitous, and it’s a shame to send all that valuable paper to landfills. While the recycling industry is working on a solution, be aware of this problem and try to buy fewer frozen foods in boxes.

6. The recycling symbol means nothing when you see it on packaging.

The usage of the recycling symbol is not regulated in any way. I’ve seen the recycling symbol and producer claims on nearly anything you can think of. Shower loofahs, napkins, chip bags, etc. These things are not recyclable!
The recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic containers is only there to identify the resin type and it does not mean the plastic is recyclable. Generally speaking, #3 and #6 are not recyclable.
The moral of the story is: Don’t trust producer claims. This rule also applies to composting. The word “biodegradable” means absolutely nothing anymore.
Recycling at first seems like a very straightforward and simple thing. Even environmentalists can ignore it in favor of new, more exciting ways of having an impact. However, there are still so many things for everyone to learn about how recycling works!

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