Granite Geek: It’s time I stopped patting myself on the back for recycling

  • I've been patting myself on the back for years because I collect recyclables at work in this fine-looking container. It’s become obvious that a lot of that self-congratulation was overdone.  David Brooks—Monitor Staff

  • In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, photo, workers clean consumer plastic shopping bags from the clogged rollers of a machine which separates paper, plastic and metal recyclable material, in a processing building at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass. Recycling programs across the United States are shutting down or scaling back because of a global market crisis blamed on contamination at the curbside bin. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, photo, a child's shoe, which was co-mingled with recyclable materials collected from residential collections, is transported on a conveyor belt to a machine that separates paper, plastics and metals in a processing building at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass. Recycling programs across the United States are shutting down or scaling back because of a global market crisis blamed on contamination at the curbside bin. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, photo, a trailer door is opened on a truck filled with unsorted recyclable refuse as it is offloaded and added to a giant pile in a processing building at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass. Recycling programs across the United States are shutting down or scaling back because of a global market crisis blamed on contamination at the curbside bin. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • A forklift takes a bundle of residential mixed fiber, comprised of a variety of paper and cardboard, off a conveyor belt at the end of a separating machine at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company, in Westborough, Mass., last year. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2019 4:05:48 PM

The collapse of the nation’s recycling efforts in the course of just a few months following decades of careful buildup is an environmental problem, of course, but for many of us, it’s a psychological problem as well.

“I’ve talked to some of our staff who said they weren’t going to tell their kids,” said Mike Wimsatt, head of the solid waste division in the state Department of Environmental Services, when I queried him about what to do when your recycling program dies. “They didn’t want them to be disappointed.”

“Disappointed” is an understatement. The loss of recycling is painful because the idea that our junk is being turned into useful stuff is central to many people’s congratulatory self-image. It’s certainly central to mine.

For years I have collected recyclables in the office and taken them home to add with the material I haul to the town dump each week. You can be sure I patted myself on the back each week as I carried a box of bottles and cans down to my car.

Then last year China stopped letting us ship millions of tons of crud to them under the guise of recycling, revealing that a lot of what I thought was being recycled was really being dumped in another part of the world, out of sight and out of mind. There is much less difference between the trash I took to the dump and the recyclables, which is pretty depressing.

Mind you, the ecological value of recycling hasn’t changed. Turning an Old Thing into a New Thing, rather than creating a New Thing from scratch by chopping up trees or mining rocks or making synthetics out of petroleum, usually requires less energy, almost always uses less raw material, and definitely generates less waste. We should be doing more of it, not less.

We’re not, however.

In fact, if you’re in a single-stream program, where all recyclables are heaved into one bucket for convenience, there’s a very good chance that you’re not recycling at all. The material you carefully separate is probably being burned or tossed into a landfill because it’s way too expensive to divide it into sellable subsets. 

Even if your town hasn’t publicly admitted that its single-stream recyclables are being trashed, as Franklin and Bow have done, the chances are that the company contracted to handle your waste is doing it quietly, waiting for the market to rebound.

I’m slightly better off because my town requires me to separate material into plastic, glass, aluminum, etc., when I take it to the transfer station. Some of that separated material has enough monetary value to actually get recycled, although a lot of it – especially mixed paper, which can make up half of the volume of a community’s recyclables – is probably getting landfilled.

Those of us desperate to maintain our do-gooder license are looking for ways to make sure our material actually gets recycled. But there really aren’t any.

Wimsatt’s only suggestion for frustrated recycling wannabes is to find a neighboring community that still separates out material and see if they’ll let you bring your separated material to them. Some material still has value if it’s clean and sorted, such as HDPE plastic (number 2 plastic, used in milk jugs), aluminum cans or corrugated cardboard (but not other types of paper).

However, the value is small enough that most communities probably won’t serve outsiders.

“I would never encourage anyone just to show up at somebody else’s facility, so call first,” Wimsatt said.

Maybe I could skip the middleman and take my material directly to the big facilities that process recyclables? Nope.

“Those facilities are set up to take in truckload quantities of material. They’re not designed from a safety standpoint to have residents show up in their Subaru with a few bags in the back,” Wimsatt said.

Markets, that fabled “invisible hand” we love to talk about, should solve some of this problem in the next couple of years. Recycling facilities in the U.S. that shut down because it was cheaper to send our material to China will be rebuilt and domestic markets for some material will return, which is why communities aren’t dismantling their recycling programs. 

But the deeper lesson remains: There’s no magic bullet for reducing our impact on the world around us. The first two steps in the three R’s –reduce and reuse, then recycle – are more important than ever even though our society, including my job and probably yours, is built around not doing them but instead having everybody buy new stuff. So it won’t be easy. But boy it’s important.

A side note: One tree-hugging do-gooder thing that I am certainly not going to stop is composting. I take home the coffee grounds from work and some co-workers’ banana peels or apple cores and toss them into my compost pile. I’ve also started putting some paper and non-recyclable cardboard into my compost so it can break down rather than being sealed up inside a landfill for a century.

This is a small step, though; it doesn’t begin to make up for all the trash that my life is sending out into the world.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)




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