Recycling Right

By Van Burbach Ph.D, PG

Environmental Geologist

Beginning July 1, 2019, Greensboro NC will join the rising number of municipalities that will no longer accept glass, and several other items, in their curb-side recycling programs. This has many Greensboro residents concerned and upset at their City officials; however, the fault does not lie just with the local government. Greensboro’s decision is a response to increasing costs of recycling and changing global markets; however, a large part of the problem both locally and globally is contamination in the recycling stream, which is largely due to ignorance and outright laziness on the part of individual consumers. The bottom line is you and I are responsible.

Part of the issue lies with the move over the last few decades to single-stream recycling in most American communities. Single-stream recycling is a system that allows citizens to place all of their recyclables: paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, etc., into one container for curbside pickup. This move has been fueled by American’s idolization of convenience over cost or efficiency. The thinking has been that if we make recycling as easy as possible, more people will recycle. The problem is that all those materials then need to be separated and sorted at the recycling facility, which is very expensive and inefficient, and which often leads to increased contamination of the recyclables. Add to this the fact that many people throw things in their recycling bins that are not recyclable, and the contamination issue becomes much worse.

Let’s take glass recycling as an example. Many glass manufactures use recycled glass in their process; in fact, some of them are dependent on a good supply of clean, recycled glass. But if that glass is contaminated with plastics or other materials, it is very difficult and costly for them to clean it and much of that recycled glass becomes unusable and has to be rejected. For this reason, many glass manufacturers no longer accept any glass from single-stream recycling programs. So cities like Greensboro are left holding the bag, or rather the bottle – lots of bottles. They have nothing they can do with all the glass they are collecting, so it just ends up going into the landfill. Consider also that glass is very heavy, often accounting for 25% or more of the weight of recyclables being collected and transported, and one can see the economic reason for the decision to stop collecting it.

I believe that part of the solution to this growing problem is for our local governments to move away from single-stream recycling, which makes Greensboro’s recent decision a step in the right direction. This will not be as convenient for us as individuals, but I believe we can rise to the occasion. In Europe, there is very little single-stream recycling, yet a higher percentage of people recycle. Also, Europe has less problem with contamination in their recyclables. People in the European culture are, in general, more aware and more accepting of their responsibilities to recycle than the typical American, and do not consider it a burden to have to separate their various recyclable materials themselves or to have to make a special trip to a recycling center. Greensboro has plans to open at least two locations where we can drop off our clean glass bottles and jars for recycling. I am already collecting a load of glassware to take there once they open.