The 4 R’s of Sustainable Waste Management #3

As gardeners we support sustainable environmental practices and affirm the 4 R’s slogan: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (i.e. compost). The first two articles in this series focused on reducing consumption and reuse as ways to keep materials out of the waste stream.

Recycling is the focus of this post.  Technically a form of reusing, recycling is the reprocessing of waste into raw materials for making a new product.  It is the “R” of last resort.  Rethink first, then refuse, then reduce, then reuse and repair and finally recycle!

By separating and sorting trash from recyclable materials, consumers and businesses can contribute to lowered greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts as the amount of non-biodegradable materials manufactured is reduced when recycled materials are processed and made into new products.

This processing begins when you put waste into a recycling bin. It will later arrive at a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) that sorts these materials, removing contaminants like food, non-recyclable plastic, hazardous waste, etc. Finally, the recyclable materials are prepared for sale and transport to facilities that reduce them to their raw form and turn them into something new.

Unfortunately, the U.S. recycling system is in crisis.  You may have heard of the “National or Green Sword”  policy adopted by China in 2018 that banned the import of 24 scrap materials, especially paper and plastic.  China had become concerned about high levels of contamination in imported recyclable materials received from the U.S. and other countries because contamination makes it more difficult to recycle efficiently and economically.  This ban resulted in recycled material being piled up at Materials Recycling Facilities or, worse, being dumped into landfills.

The economic impact of slowing this process significantly threatens jobs in the recycling industry and reduces the price for recycled materials due to excess supply piling up.  Prices of recycled commodities have dropped dramatically across the United States, making it less profitable to process these materials.

Another alarming result is that the U.S. virgin plastic industry is expanding capacity by 60% by 2025. Combined with low oil prices and low virgin plastics prices, this is severely challenging the economics of plastic recycling. EPA statistics demonstrate we only recycle 8-9% of all plastic waste generated in the United States.

China’s ban has served as a wake-up call at the international as well as at the local level.  Although we may not be able to change international recycling policy decisions, here are some steps we can take.

  1. Educate yourself about proper recycling so the recyclable materials are of higher quality and can actually be made into a new product. Get to know recyclables accepted and stay up to date by checking the overview of recycling provided by the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, which covers the Charlottesville and Albemarle County area.
  2. Don’t “wishcycle” and try to recycle everything. Too often people think that if they put something in the recycling bin, someone will figure out what to do with it.  Unfortunately, this can do more harm than good.  If there is too much contamination (food residue or non-recyclable items mixed in), waste companies are forced to send entire loads of recyclables to a landfill or incinerator.  Some 25 percent of American recyclables are contaminated with food waste and non-recyclable materials according to the National Waste & Recycling Association trade group. Waste Management company created a helpful website called Recycle often, Recycle Right to help recyclers.
  1. Keep it clean. Recyclables should be reasonably clean so they can be processed into a new recyclable. Rinse containers and wash out food debris. This will help your local MRF by keeping it from slowing down the sorting process to deal with contamination.
  1. Reduce! Do everything you can to reduce your waste.  Think reusable.  Look for the recycled content packaging when you buy products to help sustain the market for recycled materials.
  1. Don’t put mixed-material products into a recycling bin. Example:  Paper coffee cups with polyethylene plastic liners -the standard at most coffee shops are not easily recyclable.  Check before you toss!
  1. Don’t place your recyclables in a plastic bag. By doing so, you are creating another barrier to ensuring your items get recycled at the MRF.
  1. Keep it capped. Loose plastic bottle caps and jar lids fall through the recycling equipment and are swept into the trash.  Put caps back on their bottles to ensure they are recycled.
  1. Keep organic and biodegradable waste out of the landfills and compost instead!
  1. Convenience! Place bins to make recycling at least as convenient as trash disposal.

The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority reports averages 7,141 tons  materials recycled per year.

Albemarle County no longer has a landfill, but has a transfer station where local haulers can dump their waste loads for transport by larger trucks to other locations. According to the Solid Waste Alternatives Advisory Committee, much of our waste is transported to the Shoosmith Landfill in Chesterfield, Va., or alternate locations, generally a minimum of 100 miles away.  Recyclables collected go to the MRF adjacent to the Shoosmith Landfill.  Recyclable plastics #1 and #2 go to the Sonoco Recycling MRF in Raleigh, N.C., where they are sorted and sold to the reclamation industry for PET and HDPE plastics, whereas the #2 & #4 plastic bags and films go to Trex in Winchester, Va. and are made into plastic lumber and decking.

Household Hazardous Waste, e-waste, and bulky Waste is only collected at the Ivy Material Utilization Center on specific dates typically in the spring and fall.  Visit the Household Hazardous Waste page for upcoming dates, details, and restrictions. Rivanna Solid Waste Authority has a food waste composting program. Through a partnership with Five Star Septic Inc., RSWA is offering a Used Cooking Oil (UCO) and grease collection program. They also have a container for used pizza boxes. Join us for more on the topic of food waste and composting in an upcoming article.

We know that trying to do the responsible thing with trash can feel overwhelming. However, we can be a part of the solution by simply paying attention to the many ways to reduce our consumption and waste, by reusing whenever possible and by recycling properly.

As Extension Master Gardeners, we strive for stewardship and sustainability through horticulture and environmental best practices.  We are committed to improving the lives of people locally and beyond, as well as to care for the land and environment that sustains us.  Less waste leads to fewer disposal facilities, resulting in fewer environmental issues.

Check back for next week’s post on plastic pot recycling.   And a reminder, it’s not too late to join the international Plastic Free July Challenge.