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Recycle Less, Recycle Better

Recycling is going to save the world, right?


Recycling is a last resort.


You have all probably heard that China has thrown the recycling world into turmoil by refusing to take all US recyclables.  In fact, they will take paper and plastics, etc, but they insisted on a low level of contamination that the US is having a hard time meeting.  That is largely due to the commercial practice of sending mixed barches of potentially reusable material to MRFs (Materials Recovery Facilities) where they are separated mostly by machines,  where contaminateion is high, and where contaminated batches are sent to the landfill.

On my travels over the past couple of months, I have seen many recycling bins at airports, zoos and botanical gardens, and other public places.  The idea is wonderful, but looking in the bins is really depressing.  Even with clear graphics and labels on the bins, there was organic material with the  paper or plastics, there were plastic lined cups in the paper bin, often nowhere for cans to go.  In short, I did not see one bin that was not contaminated by stuff that didn’t belong.

If not done properly, "recycling" is worse than putting stuff in the garbage.  There is a mantra in the recycling world - if in doubt, throw it out.


What happens to this stuff?  It gets landfilled because it is just too difficult and time consuming to go through each and every bin and re-sort.  I am delighted to say that at least one airline (KLM) takes what comes off the planes and sorts the recyclables.  They also use cooking oil to fly the planes.

It is very important to know what your hauler will accept, and what not.  In the city of Corning and in most of Steuben County, there are at least three recycling systems.

   City or County sanctioned, curb side pick up, recycling every other week
   Private hauling, weekly
   A mixture of the above

The County, which operates the transfer stations and landfill is one of the few in the country that is still dual stream.  That means that you, the resident, are expected to sort your recyclables for curb-side collection - cardboard, paper, plastics (#s 1 and #2 only), metal and glass.

The biggest private hauler is Casella which offers zero sort (or single stream) recycling.  This means that you do not have to source separate the various materials: you can put them all in the same bin.  However, it does NOT mean that you can put anything and everything in that bin.  Casella accepts only the materials listed above, with the single exception that they also take #5 plastic.
(Plastics are numbered 1-7. If they do not have a number in the three arrows recyclable sign, they probably are not.)
#1 are the ubiquitous clear plastic water bottles and similar. 

#2  High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) - milk bottles, cleaning supplies and shampoo. 

#5 wide mouth containers like yoghurt pots.

#3 - PVC - unrecyclable.

#4 - film including single use grocery bags - recyclable but must be returned to a grocery store.  DO NOT include in curb-side recycling. 

#6 - polystyrene - theoretically recyclable but no one takes it because of the bulk. 

#7 the rest, mixed- reuse or discard.

The county curb-side system is efficient in that the product is largely uncontaminated and therefore can be sold for a competitive price.  The pay-as-you-throw (blue bag) system is also considered the best way to reduce garbage and encourage recycling.  So it is a good system, but many people think that it is expensive and, of course, inconvenient because you have to sort.  But sorting saves you money.

Casella is obviously a for-profit organization.  It is headquartered in Vermont. They charge a fee for curbside collection regardless of how much garbage you put out.  They take all your recyclables and ship them to a MRF (Materials recovery facility) where they are sorted by machines, with people picking out the plastic bags which tend to gum up the works.  And contaminated materials (especially glass) are consigned to the landfill.  Then they sell your recyclables and pocket the money.

There is a third system - a private hauler who charges a flat fee for garbage collection and offers zero sort recycling.  All the recycling is taken to the Erwin transfer station and sorted there.  Any proceeds stay with the county .

The ideal system would be to keep the bag system (the less you throw away, the cheaper it is) plus a zero sort recycling system keeping the money in the county.  For any system to work well, a huge amount of public education is necessary. 

One category of waste needs a separate entry, and that  is organic waste.  Namely, anything that could go in the compost.  So far, the only choice is your own pile in your backyard, but I’m working on it. 

Until there is a better way, put your organics in the trash. 

Recycling is good, yes.  Well, better than throwing away material that can be converted to new products.  But in the hierarchy of REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, recycling comes in a distant third.  The key is reduction - just don’t use stuff that you know will be thrown away.  And don’t buy/use containers because, you know, they’re recyclable.  They may be, but they so seldom are.  Less than 30% of reusable material is actually recycled. 

I strongly urge you to watch The Story of Stuff/Water for the nasty facts about single use plastic bottles. 














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