Recycling embodies the best of what we want for the environment. It’s the disposing of trash so it lives to see another day, either as a similar product or reborn as an entirely new one.
No matter the outcome, Earth wins.
But to achieve such lofty goals, we all need to tighten up our recycling focus. “Toss and run” doesn’t work nearly as well as “separate and score.” To be a bit more technical, it’s single-stream versus multi-stream recycling.
Even trash is complicated in the 21st century. Sort of. With the emphasis on “sort.”
To make it a bit easier to understand, let’s turn to China.
What would be your reaction if you learned China told us to take our recyclable stuff and stick it where the landfill doesn’t shine?
Disbelief? The temerity of our Asian brothers? Maybe. But their rejection was a learning lesson for American recyclers back in 2013 when China implemented its Green Fence policy.
It seems the People’s Republic had grown a bit weary of accepting America’s dirty recyclables and implemented a ban on their import. The touchy, or trashy, issue has been in play between both countries ever since.
The backstory is one of initial success. China accepted much of our country’s recyclable materials as a source for serving its own high-demand container and packaging industry and, more importantly, selling product back to us. Clearly a win-win for both counties.
Then things got creepy. Let’s have Trish Ethier, Fauquier County recycling information program coordinator, explain the problem:
“Essentially, the Chinese considered our recycled materials trash. For example, say a 1,650-pound bail of old pizza boxes were shipped to China for recycling. Upon arrival at their papermills the goal was to recycle them into new pizza boxes and sell them back to us,” she said.
“But when they opened the bales, they were filled with maggots feeding on residual grease and cheese and were unusable. We couldn’t blame China for not wanting our trash.”
Today, Ethier and her counterparts nationwide are trying to get people to clean up their act so we don’t have to deal with similar problems stateside. And deal with it we have to, since recyclable shipments to China have essentially evaporated.
Ethier’s passion for recycling has served Fauquier County for 14 years. “I love my job because not only do I get to preach what I’ve always practiced, but I get paid to do it,” she said.
And what is her job? Think of an old-time circuit preacher’s craft and his oft-told opening line: “This is what I’m about to tell you. Then I will tell you. Then I will tell you what I told you.”
In Ethier’s case, it’s all about real-time communication in settings as diverse as grade schools, high schools, colleges, church groups, civic organizations, garden clubs, boy and girl scout troops and on and on. The message is always the same, “Recycling matters. And here’s how to do it right.”
Single versus multi
First, let’s underscore that any recycling is better than no recycling. But like Sears’ legendary merchandise categories, “good,” “better,” “best,” similar delineations apply to recycled materials.
Here in Fauquier County, many residents use commercial trash companies to collect and dispose of their garbage, including recyclables. This is accomplished by providing their customers with a separate container for all materials that can lead second lives: plastic, glass, paper, etc.
Such items are heaved into the single rolling container and faithfully positioned curbside once or twice a week. Upon collection of the single-stream materials, the trash companies head to Manassas to enter the refuge into a materials-recovery facility where they are sorted into separate recycling categories.
One study---The MRF Material Flow Study---reported a loss of up to 12 percent of plastics to the paper stream during single-stream sorting. Moreover, there is a higher chance of cross-contamination of materials treated in the single-stream process.
Susan Collins, director of the Container Cycling Institute said, “Mixing everything together is convenient but leads to waste when wet paper and bits of broken glass can’t be sorted.”
Conversely, multi-stream recycling demands more work on the part of residents but is the gold standard for producing clean, highly reusable materials. It’s also the challenge Either faces in convincing residents to shift to multi-stream cycling.
But the refuse expert walks the talk, acting as a perfect role model. “At home on our 10-acre farm, I divide my trash into multiple categories. Residents should focus on separating glass; plastic bottles, aluminum, and steel cans; mixed paper; newspapers; corrugated cardboard; and plastic bags.”
She even uses kitchen waste to make compost for the farm. “I just have a tiny bag each week that is considered trash. And it’s important that all the recyclables be rinsed or cleaned before disposing of them,” she said.
Clearly, if there was an Academy Award for recycling, Ethier would have a mantel full of bronze buddies. But one needs to think in terms of creating a new habit when establishing an at-home multi-stream recycling program. Once established, it becomes second nature.
When a sufficient volume of recyclables is accrued at home, residents take them to one of six collection sites located in the county: Warrenton, Catlett, New Baltimore, Marshall, Markham or Morrisville. Last year the county faithful generated 11,000 tons of clean recyclable materials. A recycling collection center is located in Remington too, for town residents.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of people recycling on a daily basis,” said Ethier.
Hours of operation vary by day and season, but the collection sites are typically opened at least between the hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. For addresses and specific hours of operation, visit www.fauquiercounty.gov/government/departments-a-g/environmental-services/residents/collection-sites.
Ethier underscores when transporting recyclables in plastic bags, the bags should be emptied at the collection site in the assigned container and then disposed of in a container designated for plastic bags only. “Those bags are sold to the company that makes Trex decking material,” she said.
And therein lies a comforting thought: Sitting on a deck made from recycled plastic bags and firing up the grill in celebration.
Let the recycling begin.
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