Recycling - does your local program do what you think it does? | Plastic-Free Discussion Board

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Recycling - does your local program do what you think it does?
December 24, 2009 - 2:50 am

I wanted to let folks know that there is an excellent research report just out from the Container Recycling Institute, a group that promotes recycling and studies how best to do it.

The sad truth is that “single stream” recycling programs, where you throw everything together into a bin instead of separating things, may be convenient but ends up producing a great deal of contamination particularly by broken glass. Single-stream, though it picks up lots more material than dual stream (paper separated from everything else) programs, produces LESS recyclable tonnage overall. What’s rejected goes to the landfill.

The report is 35 pages but I highly recommend it if you want to understand what is taking place once the recyclables leave the curb.

After reading it, I’ve decided to toss glass in the garbage since that is where it is likely to end up anyway. Heavy as glass is at least it will not travel so far to get to the landfill and I will not be contributing to the contamination I read about.

Mention is made of what Beth has referred to: down-cycling. True recycling allows a material to return to use again and again. For to high a percentage of what your recycling company picks up, it isn’t happening.

I’ll be using the material to publicize the issue in my local newspaper. You might consider doing so as well.

Beth Terry
404 Posts
December 24, 2009 - 2:56 am

Wait! Before tossing that jar or bottle, can you reuse it? Is there a glass recycler nearby you could take it to? Could you list them on Freecycle? Someone might want them. We have a store here called the East Bay Depot for creative reuse. They always take glass jars. Of course, we don’t want glass to contaminate the recycling stream. But maybe there’s a way to get some use out of it rather than throwing it away.


December 24, 2009 - 11:31 pm

Apparently the thing with glass is color – the highest prices in the recycling of glass are obtained from glass (broken or not) that is of a pure color. So browns would need to be apart from blues, etc. Once on a bicycle trip with my son in West Virginia we came across a place that used that glass. It was so pretty – they had big piles of different colors towering above us.

The trouble with individuals trying to recycle glass apart from community programs is that there aren’t any buyers for the stuff near cities. Also, glass is so very heavy to haul anywhere.

The up side to land-filling glass is that it is inert and no threat to groundwater. If you think of glass as melted sand (which is what it is primarily), it is about the nature-friendliest material we use.

Beth Terry
404 Posts
December 25, 2009 - 12:28 am

It’s true that glass is pretty inert, so from an end of life standpoint, I can see your point. But tremendous energy goes into creating glass containers in the first place, so I don’t like to see them wasted. I just wonder if there’s a person in your area who would like to use them for canning or food storage. For canning, you’d just have to buy new lids. You could offer them on Freecycle.

December 25, 2009 - 11:25 pm

I’m with you all the way on keeping things in use wherever possible. Glass is about as durable a material as we have. Once it’s been broken, though, I think the trash is the best place for it.

By the way, don’t know if you read the research report but it is more ammo for state bottle bills. Having a deposit fee on bottles does wonders for getting them returned to be reprocessed into new bottles. It also keeps the returned material free of contamination.

The main thing I took away from the report is that there is an inverse relationship of consumer convenience and the quality of material collected for recycling. But it isn’t -1…in other words, the quality of the material degrades faster than the convenience increases. Throwing everything in one bin seems wonderfully convenient but the amount of “good” material that ends up for recycling is woefully low.

December 28, 2009 - 4:42 pm

My $0.02 – even broken glass has uses – glass mosaics use small pieces of glass. I wanted to make a table once but was turned off by the price: if I purchased a new mosaic side table from an upscale store for at least $400, I’d be at half the cost of producing one myself with purchased glass pieces. I never made my table, I didn’t even think of used glass pieces. I’d post and see if someone would take it. If not, at least you tried. Just today somebody said they’d take my old scratched teflon pans – something I consider poisonous (and I did full disclosure in the post). But if you’re in a small town the chances might be slimmer, my freecycle’s got something like 6k members.

When I was little, I was obsessed with glass (shiny!), there was an industrial glass recycling center between my mother’s house and my grandparents’ house. I thought those piles of broken discards were the most beautiful things in the world, and whoever owned them must be the richest people in the world. Our landlord at the time had a friend who worked there or something, and he gave me a big chunk once, edges rounded for safety. That’s a discard that remains treasured to this day :D

Beth Terry
404 Posts
December 30, 2009 - 4:23 am

ejwm, I love your story. It reminds me of the mom in the book Bee Season, how she would collect beautiful trinkets and make her secret mosaic room with them. Oh, wait. That was a spoiler. If you have’t read/seen it, forget it.

August 27, 2011 - 4:58 am

Clif said:


The sad truth is that “single stream” recycling programs, where you throw everything together into a bin instead of separating things, may be convenient but ends up producing a great deal of contamination'


I'm also doubtful of the merits of single stream recycling.  Here's my UK take on the issue:…..recyclate/

Beth Terry
404 Posts
August 28, 2011 - 11:02 am

Hi Joddle.  I'm getting a 404 Error message when I click on your link.  Has the URL been changed?


I do know what you mean, though.  It's tricky because on the one hand, recyclers want to collect as much material as possible in case they can find a market for it — and according to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, there are new markets for different kinds of plastics opening up all the time.  On the other hand, it gives customers the impression that all plastics they put in the bin are being recycled, and that's simply not true.  The only stuff that gets recycled is what can be sold.  The rest goes to the landfill.


And of course, we know that recycling plastic is generally downcycling.  But that's another issue.

March 8, 2012 - 5:13 pm

Austin, Texas is working hard to stop plastic bag use though it is good it is just a drop in the bucket.  We also have single stream recycling.


In 2009, the Austin City Council passed a Zero Waste Plan with the goal of reducing the amount of waste sent to area landfills 90 percent by 2040.”  I'm proud our city has taken this challenge on but it will be a difficult battle.



October 17, 2012 - 1:52 pm

I’m wondering if there has been any update to this issue that you know about?  My city (Philadelphia) has single stream and I recycle just about everything except styrofoam which I keep separate to take to a different recycling facility.  I’d hate to think that my efforts are going to waste!  


Since this was originally posted 3 years ago I thought maybe systems have improved…does anyone have information on that?  

Beth Terry
404 Posts
October 17, 2012 - 2:47 pm

Hi.  I don’t know specifically about Philadelphia’s recycling, but in general, systems for sorting materials are getting more and more sophisticated.  I would call the department in charge of recycling for your area and ask what items are actually getting recycled and what end up in the landfill.  Recycling is still a market, and only those materials that can be sold will actually be recycled.

October 18, 2012 - 7:20 am

I droop my recyclables off at the dump in special receptacles for each item. I spoke to the lady near where I live and they send the recyclables to companies that reuse the material to make money. They bail the stuff and then once they have enough bails to make the trip profitable it is loaded onto a truck.


The one thing I would worry about is if you have a pickup service from your home. There is no way for me to know if the company was separating the stuff or just dumping it all to go into the landfill.

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