A plastic problem: Towns ask residents to separate what’s recyclable, what’s not

  • Pittsfield transfer facility operations manager Tonya King picks out a plastic bucket with a metal handle Thursday that won’€™t be able to be recycle. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield transfer facilitiy operations manager Tonya King picks out a plastic bucket with a metal handle that won’t be able to be recycled in the near future on Thursday, January 17, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield transfer station administrator Lisa Stevens holds up pieces of plastic that will no longer be able to be recycled in the high quality bin. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Pittsfield facility administrator Lisa Stevens stands by the current bundled plastic that in the future will have to be separated out to get maximum price. “I can get maybe 3 ½ to 5 cents a pound” for most types of plastic if they can be sold at all,” says Stevens. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/17/2019 4:11:03 PM

When it comes to the reason behind a new requirement for people to separate the plastics they bring to the four-town B.C.E.P. transfer station, numbers tell the story.

“I can get maybe 3½ to 5 cents a pound” for most types of plastic if they can be sold at all, said facility administrator Lisa Stevens, whereas for the best type of plastic, known as numbers 1 and 2, “I can get 29 to 42 cents a pound.”

Want more numbers from the Pittsfield facility, which also takes trash from Chichester, Epsom and Barnstead? How about these:

In 2010, the facility sold 79 tons of plastic. Last year, it sold only half as much, 42 tons, even though the amount of plastic being brought to the transfer station keeps increasing.

“Everything is plastic now. Everything goes in a Ziploc bag. And who uses a wooden toilet seat any more? They’re all plastic. And water – they want you to have a water bottle and they’re all plastic,” Stevens said.

With less plastic being sold, more is being shoved into landfills. The facility doesn’t measure how much plastic gets trashed, but here’s an indication: In 2010, the facility landfilled a total of 2,583 tons of waste. In 2018, it sent 14 percent more: 2,945 tons.

B.C.E.P. is not alone in this situation. All dumps and transfer stations are struggling with the collapse of most markets for recyclable material, mostly caused by China’s clampdown.

Back in 2010, China would buy almost anything to use as raw material in manufacturing. Back then, Stevens said, she could sell virtually every bit of plastic that residents dropped off, even large, bulky “rigid plastic” items like chairs, buckets and toys.

But China has gotten much, much pickier. Today, bales of plastic going to market have to be pristine, consisting only of types 1 and 2 plastic such as water bottles or milk bottles, if there’s any hope of selling them. All the other types of plastic – there are seven of them – that are tossed in B.C.E.P.’s recycling bin has to be separated out by staff and sent to the landfill.

That’s why the station is changing its recycling system. Starting next, people will be asked to separate out the plastic themselves. They’ll separate sellable plastic into one of three bins and toss out the rest.

One bin will take Type 1 plastic, known as PET, which is used in soda bottles; one will take Type 2 plastic known as HDPE, best known for milk jugs; and one will take HDPE that has been dyed a color.

Everything else, from cling wrap to bottle caps to PVC piping, goes in the trash.

“If I had unlimited storage and I could hold it until the market comes back, or somebody develops technology for some new use of it, then I would,” Stevens said. “But we don’t.”

The landfill was going to hold an open house on Monday to discuss the situation but the snowstorm and expected single-digit temperatures led Stevens to postpone it. 

As for a broader response to the problem, that could require building and developing more plastic recycling facilities in the U.S., Stevens said. But the real solution is harder: Americans need to use less and waste less.

“We’ve been a lazy country. We’re all about convenience and immediacy; we throw it away and don’t think about it again,” she said. “We’ve got to wake up.”

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

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