Recycling confuses everyone — it’s a constantly moving target as the parameters for what can and can’t be placed in the bin seem to be constantly changing as machinery, the expectations of other countries like China that receive our recycling and types of packaging change.
Angeline Peone and Melinda France, two recycling educators for the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency, spoke to more than a dozen of the environmentally conscious at a meeting organized Tuesday evening at the Frank Greco Senior Center by Legislator Mary Wawro, about what can be recycled, what can be done to minimize waste before one even begins the sorting process and how to avoid “wishcycling” — the act of errantly throwing something into your recycling bin hoping that it can be recycled, without being quite sure.
All of the garbage in Ulster County, regardless of whether thoughtlessly thrown out recyclables are included, is taken all the way to the Seneca Meadows landfill 230 miles away. Peone and France said a grand total of over 133,000 tons, or 15 tractor-trailer loads of waste each day six days a week, are carted over the sizable distance. As the pair explained, when improper landfills that didn’t have measures to prevent seepage into surrounded soil were cracked down upon in the 1970s, the number of landfills in the nation dwindled from over 10,000 to around 3,000. Currently there are 30 landfills in the state, and the currently used site in central New York is the closest to Ulster County.
“All of the objects that we throw out come from the natural world — paper comes from trees, glass comes from sand, plastic comes from oil,” said Peone. “If you think about all of the energy, all of the electricity, the pesticides, the land use … there is already a tremendous environmental impact.”
They said aluminum foil (along with foil pie containers) can be recycled; flower pots, light bulbs, window panes, pill bottles, plastic vitamin bottles, Styrofoam, drinking glasses plastic cutlery and plastic straws cannot be recycled. You are supposed to leave the caps on drink bottles, after first compressing some of the air out of the bottle so that the cap isn’t launched off when pressure is put on the bottle. Other than caps, which can be secured to bottles, nothing smaller than a tennis ball should ever be put in the recycling, because it will literally fall through the cracks of machines. You can get less packaging material around your products if you order from Amazon, but only if you make a phone call to customer service (there is no button you can click electronically).
Peone and France have a mnemonic device for what generally can be recycled: “Bottle, jug, tub or lid.”
“[If it’s one of those], 90 percent of the time it can go in there,” said Peone.
Surprisingly, among the most frequently wishcycled items nationally are soiled diapers: “The one thing that blows my mind every time are diapers — who would think to put diapers in the recycling bin? Well, they made the top 10 list nationwide,” said Peone. Another absolute no: batteries, which can cause fires in recycling plants that can damage equipment and harm workers (at the county RRA, humans sort through the recyclables, along with machinery).
Among the most striking of the divulged recycling truths: the small ouroboros-like recycling symbol — the iconic three arrows chasing one another on a triangular path for all eternity — does not necessarily mean that something is recyclable. It could indicate that the object in question is made of recycled materials, but cannot be recycled again due to the particulars of the machinery involved in the recycling process. For similar reasons, plastic “clamshell” containers (the ones with a hinge that you’ll often get from take-out eateries) cannot be processed by the county’s Material’s Recovery Facility (MRF) in the Town of Ulster.
“They could be any number of different resin codes,” explained France, referring to the type of plastic that is often indicated inside the recycling symbol by a numeral. “If a water bottle is going down the line, I know it will be PETE (referring to a type 1 resin code). If I see a milk jug, that will be number 2 every single time. With these types of containers like clamshell packaging, it could be any number of types. They’re a really complex group of plastics.”
On a table arrayed with all manner of food packaging and questionably recyclable products, the women pointed out nearly identical clear plastic clam shell containers that had three different resin codes.
Back from black
When considering which containers are and aren’t recyclable, the educators said, it’s important to consider that the finished product at a material recovery facility is then sold to companies that reuse the materials. That is to say, an element of what should be recycled is what’s in demand, or generally considered usable in the recycled material market. For this reason, any type of black plastic can’t be recycled.
“Just think if you’re an artist and you use black, can you get black back to white? You can’t — it’s the same with plastic,” said France. “If you have a black container, [manufacturers] cannot bring it back down to clear.”
Additionally, the darkness of these plastics confuses the “eyes” of the sorting machines used by the county RRA.
However, the RRA’s facility only takes 15 percent of the county’s trash; the rest is picked up by private hauling companies, of which there are about 20 currently operating in Ulster and who all have different equipment. The women stressed that, when in doubt, you should call up either the RRA or your recycling pickup company and ask. “Wouldn’t you rather know the answer than just guess?” they said.
Many more R’s
Ultimately, there are more ‘R’ tenets than just “reduce, reuse, recycle” — the educators introduced “refuse,” “recover,” “regift” and “repair,” all of which fall under the larger umbrella of “rethink.” Refuse, in the instance of dreaded unrecyclable black plastic, would refer to calling up local establishments and encouraging them to (or threatening to stop shopping there is they don’t) start using recyclable packaging. In the case of one local grocer, public pressure led them to start using compostable containers, which they are currently working to use with a wider range of prepared foods. In the same vein, people can choose to shop at grocers and food establishment that use recyclable materials and lessened packaging.
“We as consumers need to tell manufacturers, ‘Listen, I’m not going to buy this product if you use this kind of packaging,’” said France.
Clothing can also always be recycled, but in separate containers for textiles, of which there are two at the Kingston recycling facility. The women said 18 percent of America’s landfills are made up of recyclable textiles, which can be used again as clothing, to fill the insides of car seats or as insulation, among myriad other possible destinations.
Also discussed at length: food waste and composting. About 22 percent of national landfill composition as of 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, was food waste, which creates the greenhouse gas methane when it breaks down in a landfill environment. The RRA launched an Organics Recovery Facility in 2012, and its compost is sold in Kingston to local farmers. In Saugerties, detailed at the event by the coordinator of the program Mary McNamara, transfer station users can compost their food waste for free and those without pre-existing permits can get one specifically for food waste for $15 per year.
“You can bring household food waste and scraps whenever the transfer station is open,” said McNamara. “It’s part of the service that they offer now. They now also have, not far from when you enter in, you just dump your food scraps. You don’t need to bring it in a plastic bag, in fact, don’t. You just use any kind of clean container dedicated for food and dump it there. If you want, bring your neighbors’ food and take turns bringing it. Make it part of your routine, whether it’s meat or dairy or anything, not to put food scraps in the trash.”