Paper and cardboard recycling presents different challenges from steel and aluminum cans and glass. Unlike these materials, paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. As paper is recycled, the fibers in the paper become shorter and shorter. Eventually, the fibers become too short and can no longer be used in making new paper products.
Recycling paper has become more difficult in the past few years. For many years, China took the vast majority of American recyclables for processing. Then, a few years ago, China stopped taking our trash. I guess they decided they were having enough trouble dealing with their own garbage. Evidently, China was paying well for our garbage. When the Chinese market for our recyclables shut down, things were really a mess. Nobody would pay their prices, and there was a huge scramble for new places to send the trash. Things are still pretty messed up. And paper and cardboard are really a problem.
Paper and cardboard need to be clean in order to be recycled. They cannot be contaminated with food, or grease in particular. If a piece of paper or cardboard in a batch is contaminated, the whole batch is contaminated. And here’s the thing. In this country, we use single stream recycling. That means we put all our recyclables in the same bin. The potential for contamination of paper products is high when different materials are mixed.
According to Athens Services, the company that deals with our trash, cardboard and paper are being shipped overseas. This is because there are not enough mills for processing recycled paper in the US; the sheer amount of paper and cardboard we are sending for recycling has outstripped our capacity to process it domestically.
For the past 3 weeks, we have left our paper and cardboard out of our recycling bin to see just how much we waste we generate. WOW!!! It’s HORRIFYING!! The amount of cardboard and other paper and plastic waste from the things we are buying on-line is AWFUL! I know that with Covid we have increased our use of Amazon, but seriously! IT’S TIME TO STOP!
As the Covid pandemic has worn on – and on, and on, and on – we know more now about how people contract the virus. While my husband and I are both considered “at risk” due to advanced age (I am rolling my eyes in disgust), it does seem that it is pretty safe to go out into the world for brief excursions, as long as we wear masks, wash hands, etc. In truth, we have gotten so used to the convenience of on-line shopping, that it is hard to turn the clock back to an earlier time. I think it is safe at this point to be out in the world, of course paying attention to wearing a mask and avoiding crowds, and starting again to do routine shopping in person and locally that we have been doing on-line since the pandemic started. Carefully returning to pre-Covid shopping habits will help decrease cardboard waste and all of the other packaging waste and energy expenditure that goes along with on-line shopping and in-home delivery. Of course, this approach may need to change depending upon the guidance given by State and local public health authorities.
I am channeling Nancy Reagan here – words I NEVER thought I would write! – when I say that we are trying to adopt a JUST SAY NO! attitude toward on-line shopping in the interest of decreasing the cardboard that comes into our home. Wish us luck!
So what about www.plasticfilmrecycling.com?
I’ve always wondered just how trustworthy the plastic film recycling process is. First of all, and I know I’m going to sound like a conspiracy theorist, plastic film recycling is sponsored by various companies and organizations representing the packaging industry. Secondly, I haven’t been able to figure out the end market for this plastic film. Where does it go? Who uses it? As with most of the questions I’ve asked about where our recyclables go, I haven’t been able to find any answers.
Today I found an interesting blog posted by The Ecology Center in Berkeley. Check it out:
In short, the research indicates that this plastic film isn’t being recycled into much of anything – because there is no viable market for it. And that’s the problem with recycling. Everything we send for recycling CAN be recycled. But if nobody wants to process the materials, there’s no market and it goes nowhere.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that we really need to re-think our attitude about recycling. For years, we were able to kid ourselves that recycling was profitable for the people collecting the materials. And it was – when we were sending our junk to China. But now, things are different. There is no reliable market for our recyclables. And there’s no place to send it that isn’t a moral disgrace. Sending our garbage to developing countries who do not have the infrastructure to deal with it is unacceptable.
So that means that SOMEBODY needs to pay for recycling our waste. Recycling is probably not profitable from a dollars and cents perspective. But it DOES profit the planet – and that ultimately means all of us. Either we the people – the consumer – or the manufacturer is going to have to foot the bill for dealing with recycling. My guess is that either way, Joe and Jane public are going to foot the bill. But really, what choice do we have?
The plastic crisis is real. Landfills are filling up with plastic that will never, ever decompose. The fish in the ocean are full of little tiny plastic pieces that we are eating. It’s everywhere. Continually making new paper from virgin wood destroys forests - a critical part of the environment that helps us all survive. And recycling metal and glass is more energy efficient and respectful of natural resources than manufacturing these materials from the raw ingredients.
SO IT MAKES SENSE – RECYCLING IS HERE TO STAY. BUT NOW WE HAVE TO PAY FOR IT. NOTHING IS FOR NOTHING, IS IT?
Bearing in mind that REDUCING the amount of packaging we purchase is critical, and that RE-USING what we can is in everyone’s best interest, I have found that there is STILL stuff that can and should be recycled. Here’s the story of how Olga and I stopped trusting our trash company and started doing our own recycling.
My friend Olga and I live in suburbia, in different communities. Both of our towns contract with a private refuse service rather than having their own municipal waste service. And here is where the adventure begins!
Olga and I both had large residential dumpsters for our refuse. We were told by the disposal company that there was no need to sort our trash; their facility had a state-of-the-art sorting system that would take care of that for us. We were told that they accepted plastic of all types! WOW!! They even had a video showing the process! Awesome. For YEARS I didn’t give this a second thought. We just chucked everything into our dumpster – trash, yard waste, recyclables - and that was that.
Fast forward to about a year ago when I started learning more about recycling. Every local municipality with its own refuse management has TONS of rules about recycling…no plastic bags, no plastics of specific numbers, no paper contaminated by food, cans and glass must be clean, among others. And I started thinking….if EVERYBODY else has these issues with recycling, why does the company Olga and I use NOT have these problems? Why don’t we have to do what Pasadena or Burbank does?
So, since enquiring minds want to know, and what the heck else do I have to do during corona lockdown, I called our trash company and asked some questions. Why don’t we have to clean our recyclables? What percentage of the glass, paper, plastic, metal collected are recycled? How many tons of refuse are collected from my town? How many tons goes to the landfill? Is the yard waste that is collected composted? And the answer to all these questions was – we don’t collect that data. When I asked if I could tour their facility, the answer was a swift, “NO!”
My next thought was that I would go into full investigative reporter mode and follow the trash trucks for several weeks to see if I could figure out what was happening. But going on a stake out has never really appealed to me – I like the idea of coffee and doughnuts in the car, but when and where do we go to the bathroom?
So Olga and I decided on a different course of action. We both started sorting our own recyclables into boxes in our garages – glass, paper, carboard, metal and plastic. Olga found a recycling place near us. And in August I went with her to take our recyclables to the center. Our logic is as follows – if they’re paying us for this stuff, they must be taking it somewhere where THEY get paid and are not paying the fee to dump it in the landfill.
In the course of exploring all of this, at our house we decided to stop using a dumpster and to use individual trash cans instead. We thought we would have a better idea of our waste output if we did a little sorting. And now that our yard waste isn’t mixed with trash, we are more consistent in using it for composting and mulch. And here’s the kicker – our monthly bill for trash is ONE THIRD of what it was when we had the dumpster!!! YAY!!
Olga and I do some other stuff too:
I have to admit – never did I think I would be collecting trash, sorting it, and taking it to a collection site. However, at least now I think there is a good chance that the stuff we are recycling may actually be getting recycled, instead of going to a landfill, which is what I suspect may be happening with our trash company. It is also clear to me now that while I thought we were recycling we were actually WISH CYCLING for years!!!
DON’T BE A WISH-CYCLER!!! TAKE A FEW MINUTES AND DO RECYCLING RIGHT!!!
IF YOU HAVE A MUNICIPAL RECYCLING PROGRAM, BE SURE YOU KNOW THE RULES FOR HOW TO RECYLE PROPERLY!!
When I first started researching recycling, I was so encouraged by what I was learning about aluminum and metal cans. Infinitely recyclable! Those were the words I was reading. YAY! At last, something we could feel good about recycling!
The truth is not quite so simple. While Aluminum and Steel can be recycled over and over without losing their integrity, there are some caveats.
Aluminum cans are generally recycled into cans. According to some of the research I did, the aviation and automotive industries prefer to use “new” aluminum in their manufacturing process. I don’t know that this is a problem, just an interesting thing to consider. Aluminum foil can be recycled too…the only issue is cleaning it first. I have seen it recommended to ball the aluminum up into at least 2 inch round balls for ease of handling at the recycling facility. I just found out that you can buy aluminum foil that is 100% recycled – there’s a win!
Metal cans are also a little problematic. I used to call these cans tin cans. In reality most food cans are made of steel and have a tin lining. The good news is that, like aluminum, these metals can be recycled indefinitely. YAY! All we have to do is wash them, put the lid inside the can and crimp it closed, and BAM! – recyclable!!! We don’t even have to take off the label.
But here’s a little problem. Some cans, instead of being lined with tin, are lined with a substance called BPA (Bisphenol A). This is especially true for soup cans. So why do we care about this? There are two reasons: (1) BPA can contaminate the recycle stream, and (2) BPA is felt to have adverse health effects. I’ll write more about this in another blog.
Aluminum is lightweight, making it less expensive to transport than other recyclables. But the cans still have to go somewhere to be processed and re-made into cans. From what I could see, most aluminum can re-processing facilities are clustered in Southeastern USA. I have e-mailed/called two municipal recycling centers and the private company that handles my trash to find out where the aluminum they collect goes – radio silence. I asked the same question about steel cans – silence. I sincerely hope the aluminum we use is being actively turned back into usable metal here in our own country, and not outsourced to Africa or Southeast Asia.
At then end of the day, aluminum beverage containers can be recycled, are recycled and should be recycled aggressively. But, as I always say, better yet is to really consider if that beverage or food you are eating/drinking is worth the environmental cost of the packaging.
So the take home is this: