By Michelle Tomko
Most communities are interested in doing the right thing when it comes to recycling. But figuring out what the right thing is can be a bit confusing. Which container does this go in? Can this be recycled? What does that symbol on the bottom of my milk jug mean again?
Literally streamlining this whole process is the concept of single stream recycling. It’s an easier catch-all system that can take a lot of the guesswork out of recycling in your community. What exactly is single stream recycling? According to Amy Cook Menzel, Communications Manager for the Atlantic County Utilities Authority(ACUA) in New Jersey “single stream recycling enables people to combine different recyclable materials in one container. ACUA moved from ‘dual stream,’ or using two containers, to single stream in 2009. Prior to this, people had to separate bottles and cans from paper and cardboard, using two containers to collect and store recyclables before their curbside collection.”
How does single stream recycling work at your facility? “Once the recycling truck gets to the ACUA’s recycling center, everything is dumped onto the tipping floor. Mixed material is separated by people and machines,” said Menzel. “Paper and cardboard, which are more two dimensional float over the top of rows of spinning disks. Bottles and cans drop between the disks. An optical sorter is used to detect different densities of plastics, sending a puff of air to separate water bottles and PET plastics (polyethylene terephthalate) from other materials on the conveyor belt. Then a big magnet pulls metal cans off the belt as they pass by. The recycling staff does a lot of hard work sorting material as it flies by on the conveyor belts,” she continued.
Single stream is not only a simpler process for community members, but it also can be more effective for the recycling trucks on the road according to Menzel. “Single stream recycling is easier because people only need one container, which is helpful, especially for businesses and schools where storage space may be at a premium,” she said. “Single stream recycling is also much more efficient from a collections standpoint. When we had dual stream recycling, our trucks had a divider. One part of the truck was for paper and cardboard, one for bottles and cans. One section might fill first, and the truck would need to drive all the way back to dump material before going back out to complete the route. Now we can use a larger vehicle, making less trips back to the recycling center and operating more efficiently,” Menzel explained further.
What types of materials can be put into a single stream recycling system? For towns in Atlantic County using the ACUA’s facilities, there’s a lot of material that’s accepted, including paper, cardboard, metal and aluminum cans, glass bottles and containers and plastic bottles,” Menzel said. She went on to say that her company has a specific online tool called the Waste Wizard that helps consumers know how to properly dispose of a specific type of material.
“Not everyone knows what should and shouldn’t get recycled. So we do get some material that doesn’t belong in the recycling. That’s why it’s so great to be able to share information about this. Through public education and inspecting materials as they come into the recycling center, we work to keep our residue rate, what’s leftover as trash, to less than ten percent of the total material that comes in,” she explained.
What is recycling contamination and how can it be avoided? “Contamination is the inclusion of materials that should not be recycled. Contamination might be an item like a Styrofoam cup that is not on our list of accepted items, or it could be an accepted item, like a ketchup bottle, that contains food waste and hasn’t been rinsed. Contamination can compromise the quality of other materials, reducing the value or even result in materials being rejected by end markets,” according to Menzel.
How much recycling ends up in landfills as opposed to being used for new products? “Material that is not on the list of accepted items ends up in the landfill. Approximately ten percent of the material that comes to us is not accepted for recycling. New Jersey’s goal is to have a minimum of sixty percent of the total waste stream recycled. Atlantic County towns are doing pretty well, but we could always do better,” she explained.
What advice do you have for community associations that are trying to start or beef up their recycling programs? “Contact your local recycling coordinator. Every town has someone who is in charge of recycling who should be able to assist. ACUA has lots of information online for residents, schools and businesses, including multifamily dwellings,” Menzel advised.
What are some dos and don’ts when it comes to recycling? “Please, please, please do not put your recycling in a plastic bag! Do not include plastic wrap or loose bags in with your recyclables. Bags and other items like hoses and rope get twisted and tangled in the sorting equipment. It takes time and manpower to stop the machinery and remove the bags and problem items,” she said. According to Menzel, “bags are a huge problem for recycling centers!”
A little cleaning during the recycling process is necessary for things to run smoothly according to Menzel. “Don’t assume that just because there’s a recycling symbol on a container, it can be recycled. Take a few minutes to learn what is recyclable in your community. Empty and rinse containers before putting them in the recycling. Empty, clean, and dry are three words that warm the hearts of recycling professionals,” she said.
“Remove caps from bottles and put them in the trash. Keep greasy pizza boxes out of your recycling,” she quipped.
Amy says to avoid something she calls “wish-cycling.” “Yes, it would be wonderful if we could put everything into the recycling container and have it go on to have a second life as a new product, but that’s not the reality of how things work. Including material that is not accepted in a local program is not helpful. If you aren’t sure and don’t know what to do the motto is ‘when in doubt, throw it out’,” she said.
What would make a single stream, or any recycling program fail? According to Menzel “There needs to be a market for materials to keep recycling going strong. Look for products that are made from recycled material. The manufacturers who purchase recycled materials to make new products need good quality feed stocks and contamination can negatively impact the value of the materials sold and the costs for recycling programs.”
Menzel also offered some simple advice for the casual recycler. “Most people want to do the right thing, but don’t always know what to do, so it’s great to be able to connect people to the right information. Our society creates a lot of trash! There are tons of opportunities to reduce the amount of waste we create, including easy things like bringing your own bag to the store, using a reusable water bottle or coffee cup.”
Do you have anything to add for our readers? “I’d just add that recycling remains as one of the easiest things we can all do to have a positive impact on the environment. Recycling reduces the amount of waste that is sent to the landfill. By using recycled materials, we save natural resources as well as reducing pollution, energy and water use,” Menzel said.