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The Green Guy: Recycling hits a snag, but residents can help


January 31, 2020

Two years ago, some serious waves crashed in on recycling circles: China would no longer accept our reclaimed materials, especially plastics. It established what was labeled an all-out halt on incoming foreign waste, leaving many frantic.

News stories echoed the point about high rates of contaminated recycled material that make it a challenge to fashion raw-grade material from it and raises financial barriers.

Today, you likely are still recycling or have the option to. It hasn’t vanished, but changes had to be worked out and big questions deliberated, including the viability of expanding domestic operations, new foreign partnerships, and what to do about the quality issue — which is a dilemma no matter where recycled material is processed.

If we were to point fingers at any one problem, the spotlight could fall on our single-stream approach. Convenient as it may be, it brings challenges, notably, contamination.

One bin deemed for all recycling makes it easy to lose sight of just what is and isn’t recyclable, and that burden is left to the sorting facilities to literally sort out. Bear in mind, these operations are designed to handle certain recyclables and utilize systems of machines that go about the sorting process, with personnel overseeing the operation and quality control. Given the specific nature of different recycled materials and the machines themselves, facilities can handle only a limited variety of products that can be repurposed.

The process is easily disrupted and wholly dependent on proper recycling. Plastic bags are a nightmare for facilities. When the bags are a part of the curbside mix, they enter machinery made for rigid containers and clog up the process and contaminate perfectly good materials. Forcing workers to halt operations and busy themselves with cleaning up the mess is costly as well.

There are other materials that mess up the process. So, what can you do? How can you be part of the remedy?

Put in the recycling bin only what your hauler accepts. Nothing more.

Keep out all plastic films and bags. Bring it to a grocery store collection bin.

Clean things out. Food, grease, and the like cause contamination.

Chris Gass is the education and outreach coordinator for the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District whose columns focus on environmental topics and stewardship.


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