There's an urban legend that recyclables don't really get recycled. I've proven this legend false in the past, and decided to research our local situation once again after reading a letter to the editor about recycling in a local paper.
The letter rightly lamented how residents frequently contaminate their curbside recyclables by using plastic bags to hold the bottles, cans and plastics. The bags are not supposed to be included in the curbside recyclables, and in fact can gum up the machines at the plant where the mixed recyclables are taken for sorting.
You can see in these photos that part of the problem is that Princeton's recycling containers are undersized and overwhelmed. People seem to use plastic bags in part because the recyclables might otherwise spill out of the bins, as happens when wind blows them over.
Something didn't sound quite right, however, about another assertion in the letter: that perfectly good recyclables (plastics 1 and 2, cans, paper, etc) are often rejected due to plastic bag contamination, and therefore get sent to the landfill. Though this assertion is dramatic, and might motivate some people to be more careful about keeping plastic bags out of their recycling bins, it also can feed the cynical urban legend that recyclables don't really get recycled.
The letter writer had been careful to run the letter by members of town government prior to submitting it to the local paper, and had gotten her information from a staff member in the town's Department of Public Works. So the claim came with a seemingly good pedigree.
What's true? On multiple occasions in the past, I've contacted the sorting plant where Princeton's recyclables go, and even toured the facility, and though plastic bags can cause problems with their machinery, they did not say anything about rejecting recyclables due to plastic bag contamination. I tried to imagine the scenario. Our recyclables are taken to a transfer station, then the many individual truckloads are co-mingled and loaded in semis for the trip to the MRF (Material Recovery Facility--here's an example), where they are dumped on the tipping floor. Where in this process do we know of a load of recyclables being rejected and sent instead to the landfill?
I decided to call Colgate Paper Recycling, the past and presumably present destination for Mercer County's recyclables, including Princeton's. They take recyclables from towns and businesses, often arriving in semi-trailers that spill their contents on the tipping floor. From there, the recyclables travel up through a maze of conveyor belts with sensors that help sort out the recyclables. Out the other end of the plant come bails of separated paper, plastics, and metals.
Through some luck, a knowledgable man answered the phone. We talked for awhile, and it came to light that no load of recyclables is ever rejected. If a load is contaminated in some way, the plant may pay the hauler less for that particular load. This can happen a couple times a week. There is no way a municipality can be held accountable by Colgate, because they receive recyclables in large semis from the transfer station, and each load contains recyclables from multiple towns, all mixed together.
The only other place a load of Princeton's recyclables could be rejected is at the transfer station. Imagining the logistics, it's hard to see how this could happen. The load would have to be dumped in order to tell whether it is contaminated, and then the contaminated load would have to be set aside, reloaded in a truck and taken to the landfill--a tremendous inconvenience. And for the contamination to be sufficiently severe, Solterra's own crews would need to have willingly put the contaminated materials in their truck during curbside collection.
Logistically, the claim that good recyclables are going to the landfill due to contamination doesn't make sense. More likely, all recyclables, no matter how contaminated, get hauled to the Colgate plant, which deals with them as best it can.
I then asked about plastics numbered 3-7. The man said that these are no longer recycled. However, that doesn't mean that Colgate sends them to the landfill. There are alternative uses that are being experimented with. This raises the question of whether we should be including plastics 3-7 in our recycling bins. Mercer County says no, and Princetonians are expected to follow that dictate. The presence of 3-7 plastics in the waste-stream means more sorting by Colgate, for little or no profit.
But given that many, perhaps most, residents ignore the rules and put plastics 3-7 in their bins, and Princeton is not in a position to enforce the county's rules, a case can be made that any accumulation of a particular material will stimulate someone to seek a use for it. If 3-7 get sent straight to the landfill, there will be no motivation for people to find uses for those plastics. Colgate doesn't like to deal with plastics 3-7, but given their presence in the recycling stream, the plant does try to find alternatives to sending them to the landfill. To be clear, if anything having to do with recycling is clear, even though Colgate includes plastics 3-7 on their list of acceptable materials, they prefer not to have to deal with them.
All of this complexity drives home some basic truths. A lot of people like plastic bags. People want packaging to be recyclable. They prefer putting items in the recycle bin even when repeatedly told not to. Do we deal with this by sending people long, complicated lists only to see those lists ignored? Or do we demand that government at the state and federal levels regulate packaging to require that it all be easily recycled anywhere the product is sold?
Though it's true that regulation can create unnecessary complexity, it's also true that a lack of regulation of packaging has created huge complexity for ordinary people who must scrutinize each one-use container to decide whether to throw it in with recyclables or in with the trash. The unregulated manufacturers are happy. They can create a package most likely to seduce the shopper, and then the shopper, the environment, and the whole recycling industry has to deal with the "day after," the bafflingly complex task of deciding what to do with all those spent containers.
Some other tidbits: The man at Colgate said that soiled pizza boxes cause problems for cardboard processors. (This, as is typical in the complex world of recycling, contradicts what I heard last year on a PBS NewsHour segment on recycling, where an interviewee said that greasy pizza boxes aren't a problem.) He also said that a big problem comes from businesses--long strips of backing for labels get tangled in the machines.