Today’s batch of burning questions, my smart-aleck answers and the real deal:
Question: Today is trash pickup day in our neighborhood. It got me thinking about the level of cross-contamination of garbage and recyclable containers. Has anybody done a study of this in our area? If so, in a sample of containers, what percentage of recyclables end up in the garbage container, and what percentage of garbage ends up in the recyclable containers? If data is available, how does our rate of compliance compare with other communities? According to the professionals in our area what is the impact of this cross-contamination?
My answer: I just know that my town gave us one of those huge blue recycling bins about a year ago, and it was plenty roomy until the pandemic hit. Just a coincidence, I’m sure. Pretty sure my neighbor keeps throwing all those empty beer bottles in there…
Real answer: Buncombe County Solid Waste Director Dane Pedersen said data on this problem are not readily at hand.
“The county does not track specific data at this time in regards to what percentage of garbage ends up in the recycling containers, and vice versa, but there are plans to conduct a waste audit next year,” Pedersen said.
But contamination in the recycling stream, especially single stream, Pedersen said, “is certainly a nationwide issue that adds cost to material processing and may reduce the value of recycling commodities.”
We’ll take a look at national stats in a minute, but first let’s check in with Curbside Management in Woodfin, which handles and processes most of the area’s recycling. Co-owner Nancy Lawson said she can only address contamination of waste in recyclables.
“We see about 5-10% waste in the material that comes to us,” Lawson said. ” I believe much of this is due to ‘wishful recycling.’ People generally want to recycle well. However, it’s important to understand what we can and cannot accept in our recycling program.”
I feel like we all engage in wishful recycling at times, mainly because it feels wasteful to chuck a large plastic kitchen bowl or a plastic doo-dad that fell off the car into the garbage. But that stuff is likely going to end up in the landfill anyway.
“Some of the biggest culprits that are not accepted are plastics that are not a jug, tub, bottle or jar (think only containers from the grocery store), Styrofoam, and plastic bags,” Lawson said.
You can find a list of recycling do’s and don’ts at www.curbie.com or at the city of Asheville’s recycling page: www.ashevillenc.gov/service/what-can-i-recycle/
From Curbie’s site, here’s a list of what you can recycle:
• Metal Cans, aluminum, steel, tin.
• Plastic containers — only food, beverage, personal care or household plastic containers (jugs, tubs, bottles and jars).
• Glass bottles and jars (clear, brown, green).
• Milk and juice cartons, juice boxes.
• Mixed Paper, newspapers and inserts, catalogs, junk mail, magazines, cereal boxes, paper egg cartons, envelopes, Manila envelopes, office paper, paper, phone books, glossy paper, Post-It-Notes, brown paper bags, paper towel rolls.
• Corrugated Cardboard (lay it flat, under bins)
These are the top 11 items Curbie receives but cannot accept:
1. Plastic bags
2. Paper towels
3. Aluminum foil
4. Black microwaveable trays
5. Plastic film (bubble wrap, plastic wrap)
6. Styrofoam/packing peanuts
8. Mirror and window glass.
9. Motor Oil bottles
10. Metal items that are not cans, such as frying pans/pots
11. Shredded paper
Keep in mind that some alternatives exist. For instance, you can take your plastic bags back to Ingles, and organizations, such as Greenworks, and some counties occasionally conduct “hard to recycle” events for some items, although the pandemic has interfered with those schedules.
For some national perspective on this, Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit based in Falls Church, Virginia, helped out.
“The national recycling contamination rate is 17%,” Harrison said. “That means that 17% of stuff in a recycling cart is not recyclable.”
Also, she said, on average, “Americans recycle less than half of what they could, leaving 20 million tons of recyclables in the trash.”
Harrison said as far as they know, The Recycling Partnership is the only national organization that studies how much trash is in the recycling, and how much recycling is in the trash. They have not conducted a study in Buncombe specifically, but Harrison said contamination rates on the West Coast are not that different from North Carolina’s.
“We estimate that contamination costs the U.S. recycling system more than $300 million each year,” she said. “That cost gets passed down from the processors to the haulers, the communities, and ultimately the residents and puts a strain on the entire recycling system.”
This is the opinion of John Boyle. To submit a question, contact him at 232-5847 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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