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Monday, May 10, 2021

Breaking down wishful recycling

A paper recycling bin on Friday, Nov. 1. // Photo by Merrideth McDowell

By Merrideth McDowell

The moment of hesitation when it comes to deciding if something is recyclable is relatable. Many think to themselves, “Does the cereal box go into cardboard or paper?” or “Is it okay to recycle this dirty old jar?” But before tossing it in, double check.

Wishful recycling, when someone recycles with doubt if it is recyclable or not, is a recurring problem everywhere, particularly for Western residents.Richard Neyer, recycle center manager for the Associated Students Recycle Center, said this is a common issue for campus residential recycling. 

“I think people want to help, or wish something is recyclable, but when you are doing this you are actually hurting recycling,” Neyer said. 

Neyer and his team regularly find trash in the recycling, which he explained could be due to students coming from places that practice single-stream recycling, meaning all trash and recycling go into the same bin. 

Here are some recycling guidelines and rules you might not know about Bellingham’s dual-stream recycling services:

Plastic bottles, cans and glass:

Accepted 

  • Any plastic, aluminum or steel cans, and glass
  • Labels on containers (plastic or paper)

Not accepted

  • Plastic film 
  • Styrofoam 
  • Dirty containers 
  • Small, loose pieces such as unscrewed caps
  • Straws

Mixed paper:

Accepted

  • Any paper product
  • Envelopes with plastic film window (there are certain amounts of other product that is able to be filtered out in processing)
  • Paper with staples 
  • Paperboard (i.e. cereal boxes and toilet paper rolls)

Not accepted

  • Tetra Paks (hybrid plastic/paper containers commonly used for milks and broths)
  • Inseparable hybrid material containers
  • Single use products like hydenic products, paper towels, and toilet paper
  • Cardboard
  • Wrappers with plastic coating (i.e. granola bar wrappers)

Marty Kuljis, operations manager at Northwest Recycling, Inc., said personal education is beneficial for households to better understand recyclable materials. Most recycling stations will have instructions and guidelines listed on the containers, but not always, which means people need to take time to do their research. 

“Keeping things clean and keeping things in the right bin are the most important to us,” Kuljis said. 

A lot of contamination or dirty recycling is found in the plastic, tin, aluminum and glass categories for the facility.

Northwest Recycling, Inc. has a 1-1.5% contamination rate, while a single-stream system could have a 10-30% rate. Kuljis and his coworkers pride themselves in not throwing recyclables in the landfill, so communal efforts to recycle correctly help keep the system efficient and less contaminated with waste. 

Here are some things that you can do to avoid contaminating recycling and making waste:

  • Fully clean containers before recycling
  • Buy recyclable materials and avoid buying harshly packaged items
  • Ensure you are only recycling what is supposed to be in a labeled container
  • Avoid plastic film and use reusable bags
  • Do not throw away any food into recycling vesicles
  • Check your local recycling center to see where specialty containers/materials like tetra paks are allowed in your bins

A significant issue on campus is lack of education on the difference between paperboard and cardboard, AS Recycling Center staff manager Megan Spencer said. The center is producing posters to help with these discrepancies. 

“We’ll find a lot of compostable materials in the paper recycling,” Spencer said. “Sometimes we will find actual food waste in the recycling.” 

Spencer thinks this is where laziness plays into contamination, she said.

On a campus with compostable materials offered, this can become confusing for people when there are also strictly recyclable plastics. According to Spencer, increased awareness of recyclable versus compostable materials is needed. The AS Recycling Center is working on furthering this education on campus.

To learn more about recycling on campus visit as.wwu.edu/recycle/.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for your article – it helps students and staff to understand how they can help and not hurt local waste prevention efforts. A couple corrections:

    “Single stream recycling” does not mean trash is included in the container. People put trash in sometimes, but it is not intended to be there. There are communities in America with “mixed waste recycling” which IS garbage and recycling in one container. These programs have struggled to recover any marketable recyclables, for obvious reasons!

    Finally, Bellingham’s recycling program is not a dual-stream program. Dual stream programs segregate all containers from all fiber (paper & cardboard), while Bellingham’s is a curbside-sorted program for mixed paper, newspaper, cans/glass/plastic containers, and cardboard. Your article notes that AS-Recycling would like students to keep corrugated cardboard separate from paper (matching the Bellingham curbside sort) – this is because they are different commodities, with different pricing.

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