Markets change, and we will have to change with them, that was Sherill Baldwin’s message at a recycling workshop at the Woodbridge library last month. And as the recycling industry is struggling to find new markets, it continues to evolve.
Baldwin, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), was the guest speaker at a recent workshop on recycling hosted by the Commission on the Use of Publicly Owned Property (CUPOP) as part of its “First Tuesday” series in conjunction with an outreach by the Sustainability Committee.
Baldwin updated the audience on “what’s in and what’s out,” of the blue bin. “She will help explain the “whats” and “whys” of what’s in and what’s out,” said Michele Cohen of the Sustainability Committee when she introduced the speakers.
The recycling market was shaken when China announced in 2015 that is was changing its policies and limit what it would accept. Still, in 2017, 60% of paper went to China and 36% of plastics. Glass is too heavy to be transported and was always recycled within a radius of 500 miles, Baldwin said. A year later, only 40% of the recycled paper went to China; plus, they wanted only cardboard. As for the plastics, only a fraction, about 5% nationwide, was exported to China.
For Woodbridge in particular, that meant the town actually started paying to have recyclables removed. In 2018, it paid $63,000 for the removal of recyclables (in comparison they paid $275,000 for trash disposal and transportation). The recycling rate is at approximately 22%, said Kelly Hammill, the Public Works office manager. “We are working on getting that number increased by offering more recycling options at the Transfer Station,” she wrote in an email. Education campaigns such as the state’s “What’s In What’s Out” also are part of the effort to increase participation.
As for the Chinese market, it is now feeling the lack of those materials, and paper companies are buying mills in the US, or are cooperating with mills in the US. Those will be looking for recycled paper, creating a new market.
The point Baldwin was making was that recyclables, in spite of market imbalances, still have value. According to a survey by the Northeast Recycling Council, a ton of recyclables is worth $46 on average. “It used to be $72,” she added. “But the materials continue to have value.” The cleaner they are, the more value they will have – no batteries mixed in or toothbrushes or bottle caps.
The way to think about what to put into the blue bin is not to ask “is this recyclable,” because lots of materials are. Rather, the question to ask is “is this acceptable,” irrespective of the resin codes on plastics.
Hence, plastic bags and plastic toys are out, because they clog up the machines which sort the recyclables, and endanger the employees who work to remove the clogs. Cardboard or paper can’t have a liner, because that would be considered “contaminated.” Lithium batteries are explosive – leading to small fires at the recycling plant almost every week, she said. Pill boxes are not acceptable because they are too small in diameter and will fall through the screen. The same goes for six-pack rings.
RecycleCT has published a search tool to help people figure out which things are acceptable. It is available at http://www.recyclect.com/.
With 5,000 to 10,000 new products on our shelves every year, it is easy to miss a recycling opportunity. Manufacturers so far have not considered what happens to the products once they leave the manufacturing plant. But people are moving away from the excessive packaging. Walmart for instance pledged by 2025 to sell all items under its own brand name in packaging that is recyclable or reusable or compostable. “That’s a pretty big deal,” Baldwin said.
She also introduced new labels that will be used for all food containers, labels that will specify what to do (“Rinse and replace cap”) before the item goes into the blue bin.
But some things are just plain trash: plastic straws, used pens and pencils, toothbrushes, Styrofoam, garden hoses and the like. Shredded paper is not acceptable either.
When the materials are loaded on the belt, they are sorted automatically by weight, or blown off the belt or picked out by magnets. The last thing to fall through the grate is glass. “And you know what else falls through the grate,” Baldwin said, “toothbrushes, bottle caps, batteries, and more. That is why “we, the consumers, are at the front line, we are instrumental in the whole process, to try and contain contamination,” she said.
The second speaker that evening was Patricia Taylor, director of the Plastics Project at Environment and Human Health. She talked about the impact of plastics on the environment and ultimately human health.
She cited studies of rainwater done in Denver, which found 90% of samples contained plastic particles; in Pennsylvania, 93% of tap water contained microplastics that people ingest when they drink the water. Plastics that are incinerated (only 9% of all plastics are being recycled) end up in the air and are carried long distances. By 2050, plastic trash will outweigh fish in the ocean.
Consumers do have a lot of clout, she said. Duracell, for instance, reduced its use of plastic in packaging, and uses recycled cardboard instead. “Customers wanted that to happen,” she said.
Taylor warned that plastics leach chemicals into fatty foods. That could have an effect on things such as peanut butter in plastic containers or milk and oil, all of which are being sold in plastic containers.
The younger generation is more aware of the toxins in the environment. Rather than using the motto “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” the motto now is “Refuse, reduce, re-use, recycle,” adding our choice to say no.
She encouraged people to look for bamboo or metal straws, to cart your groceries to your car when you forgot the re-usable shopping bag; and to look for items made out of recycled materials.
People are becoming more and more concerned about exposures, she said. But it’s always possible to refuse, reduce and re-use.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent