by Julie Diegel, Nebraska Recycling Council
Are you a wistful recycler? Have you ever wondered if a certain material was recyclable, and not knowing for sure, put it in the recycling bin anyway? Lesser of two evils, right?
Actually, no. Your hopeful gesture is creating a big contamination problem for recycling processors. And it’s sending volumes of materials to the landfill that otherwise would have been recycled.
This year at local Earth Day events, the Nebraska Recycling Council offered a Recycling Challenge. A bag of 13 materials was given to intrepid recyclers to test their knowledge. Two disposal options were presented: one for landfill and one for recycling. (Organics were not included in the interest of simplicity.) Admittedly, there were some “trick” items, such as the Pepsi bottle containing a little bit of soda, and the pizza box with grease spots. Most people placed a high percentage of their materials in the correct bin; however, our little Challenge confirmed what we already know: virtually all of us are confused about what can be recycled and/or how materials should be handled (i.e. rinsed, flattened, emptied, etc.) before recycling.
Recycling is not as simple as it once was. For one thing, product packaging has changed. Plastics and mixed materials dominate. Many of these materials are not recyclable, and if they can be, the recycling company that services your home or business may not accept them. There is no universal guarantee of recyclability just because there is a recycling symbol on the packaging.
The automation of recycling processing centers has also complicated matters. Materials moved quickly through a system of conveyors and sensors. Flattened cans can be “read” as paper. Plastic bags jam equipment. Glass shards contaminate paper fibers, making them useless as feedstock for new items. Having said that, these high-tech processing centers and their companions, “single stream” collection bins, have allowed far more materials to be recycled by orders of magnitude, and it is a business model that won’t go away anytime soon.
So, let’s all step up our game on recycling.
From a grassroots perspective, there is a lot we can do. We can re-learn recycling practices and conform to the new reality. We can reject goods packaged in materials that have no place to go except the landfill. We can inform political leaders of the need for packaging standards, and demand new rules that divert more materials from our taxpayer-funded landfills.
These actions don’t all rest on the shoulders of product users, however; and they shouldn’t. New standards are needed up and down the value chain. Manufacturers need to keep the end in mind when they design packaging. Retailers should be compelled to “take-back” products and packaging for reuse and recycling. Haulers and processors need to take more responsibility for educating customers by providing ongoing, consistent messaging on what and how to recycle. Haulers should be licensed under strict standards to ensure resources meant for the recycling center are being taken there instead of the landfill.
Uniformity in signage and bin configuration is needed in public spaces and businesses so that recycling can become second nature to all of us. There is no excuse for a stand-alone trash bin without a recycling companion by its side. Color standards are important. Use blue for recycling, black for landfill and green for organics. Container labels should be consistent, with photographic imagery showing exactly what materials belong in each bin. These simple design changes are proven to increase recycling and reduce contamination.
Now, let’s move ahead and get on with it. Let me reiterate: let us remember to activate our voices for change, and rededicate ourselves to reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle, and re-soil (compost) repeatedly!
No more being wistful, no more being stuck, no more excuses.
Julie Diegel is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Recycling Council. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.