Shared from the 10/13/2019 The Denver Post eEdition

Are you recycling or “wishcycling”?

For a better environment, you should know the difference


Photo illustration by Jeff Neumann, Special to The Denver Post


Workers separate paper and other contaminants at Alpine Waste & Recycling on March 13, 2018. AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post file photo

The stacks of stuff in the garage seem never-ending. Throw in the so-called single-stream recycle bin or the trash? Try to find a place to recycle? There ought to be a use for this stuff, right?

We can drive ourselves crazy trying to reduce our carbon footprint.

We want it to be easy, or at least easier. We want those little green arrows and triangles with numbers to actually mean something can go in our recycle bin. We want to do what we can without all the wondering, wishing and anxiety.

The 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — seem simple enough. But it depends on your consumer habits (where and what you buy), and where you live when the time comes to unload that packaging, container or household item.

Everyone warns against “wishcycling” — throwing things in the recycle bin because we think it should be recycled when we know it probably isn’t recyclable or must be dropped off at a unique location. Those numbered triangles sometimes lie (just like those not really “flushable” wipes that create havoc with sewer systems). Styrofoam is marked thus and as far as I can tell isn’t recycled by anybody.

Manufacturers encourage such wishcycling by announcing how green or sustainable they are and printing “please recycle” on packaging. Even if you live in a large city or a community that has established recycling programs, it’s doubtful you’ll find a place for everything. Much of that “please recycle” seems to be “green wishing.”

Despite all the campaigns encouraging recycling, numbers are low in Colorado.

“In 2018, we created a record 9,307,000 tons of waste while our recycling rate flat-lined at just 12%, which puts us far behind the national average of 35% recycling,” according to a Recycle Colorado report. “On average, each Colorado resident throws away nearly eight pounds of trash per day, or more than 1.45 tons per year. That’s more than eight million tons piling up in our landfills every year.”

We must do better.

When I sought out experts and activists and asked them to name five things everyone could do to increase recycling, the answer was usually, “it depends on where you live.” Argghh.

So, I took another tack, and tried to find out why we have so much hard-to-recycle packaging and whether anyone was envisioning a “post-plastic world.”

I spoke with Susan Selke, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and is director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University (disclosure: my alma mater). The school’s graduates go work for companies that make packaging or need it developed.

She gave me much to think about regarding packaging and recycling. Here are the highlights:

• We are a consumer-oriented society and want our goods delivered intact, cheaply and, if edible, to have the longest possible shelf-life. That requires packaging.

• The biggest environmental impact is creating and transporting that packaging and the consumer goods.

• The wrong packaging creates more waste: if it fails, the product could be ruined, which means it and the packaging are thrown out.

• Lighter and stronger packaging generally means less environmental impact.

• Plastic is not inherently bad.

I took a deep breath. But it’s littering our landscapes and our oceans and choking marine life and single-use plastic — or single-use anything — just seems wrong. Selke didn’t disagree.

“I don’t think we should be looking at a post-plastics world,” she said rather gently. “I think we should be looking at managing plastics better. There is nothing evil or inferior about plastics.”

Well, she is a chemical engineer, I thought. She backed it up, though, with details about why our ketchup is better off in plastic than glass (plastic preserves it nearly as well as glass and has fewer upfront environmental impacts), about research to convert spent plastic into energy or make plant-based plastic, about how many large companies are working toward greater sustainability (aided by organizations such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and the Association for Plastic Recyclers; sometimes recyclers, such as Waste Management, are asked to test new materials for recyclability) and about how embracing items made of recycled materials increases the market for recycled material.

Bingo! We’re back to asking consumers — you and me — to recycle. And, you guessed it, she said your ability to do that depends on where you live. Argghh.

“One of the fundamental issues is that there are great inconsistencies from place to place,” Selke said. “Most people want to do the right thing and they see recycling as the right thing. When rules are different all over the place, it makes it really challenging.”

I turned to Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler. On its Colorado-specific website it says:

“In 2018, we recycled more than 177, 254 tons of bottles, cans, paper and cardboard. “This will save: 1.2 million trees, 694 million gallons of water, 431 million kWh of electricity.”

Mark Snedecor, director of recycling operations for Waste Management of Colorado, emailed me answers to questions and interesting recycling facts along with just what I was looking for: The No. 1 thing Coloradans should recycle is aluminum beverage cans. Why? Aluminum is endlessly recyclable and there’s a market in the state for the cans. Which means it can be back on the shelf as a new can in 60 days.

Glass, too, is endlessly recyclable and there’s a state market (Momentum Recycling in Boulder County is making it into new bottles), but not all recyclers take glass, so not everyone can easily recycle it. Yet.

He followed that up with five more things that are the most valuable and readily reusable item in the recycling market: tin and steel food cans, cardboard, colored plastic bottles (such as detergent bottles), clear plastic water bottles and plastic milk jugs. All should be rinsed clean and be dry when they go in the bin.

Recycling experts from Denver City and County provided a similarly simple top five list: Glass bottles and jars; cardboard; junk mail (mixed paper to recyclers); aluminum and steel cans, and plastic water and soda bottles.

These are everyday items that are not difficult to put in a separate box or wastebasket in the house and carry to a bin if you have curbside service or put in the trunk to drop off at a recycling center.

No need to get angsty about every single thing you’re getting rid of, just follow the lists. If everyone did that, the impact would be enormous and Colorado’s shamefully low recycling rate would skyrocket.

If you don’t have curbside recycling or a drop-off location in your community, talk to your town council or county commissioners. Many counties, including rural ones, have stepped up to offer a place to drop off recyclables, and some in larger communities, such as Denver and Colorado Springs, offer hazardous materials disposal for things such as paint, batteries and cleaning materials. Check your county’s website.

If you believe the price of curbside recycling is too high, see if a couple of neighbors want to share the cost with you or, if you have a smaller family, ask if the waste company offers pickup monthly or every two weeks at a lower cost. It’s pretty hard for two- to four-person households to fill those huge trash bins every week anyway. (If you can afford to consume that much, you can afford recycling services.)

Denver residents can up the ante. The Denver curbside service collects trash and recyclables from all single-family residences and apartments with up to seven units without charge. Compost is collected for a nominal fee.

Even with free service, 25% of what Denverites send to the landfill is recyclable — and it’s mostly those top five, easy to recycle things: plastic bottles, glass bottles and jars, cans, paper and cardboard, spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said in an email.

The website — detailed and easy to use — tells residents exactly what to put in the bins and how to prepare them. ( For example, you can put in aluminum cans, foil, pie plates and trays, but not those pull-off tops from products such as yogurt (they might be coated or be too flimsy for the machinery).

Just click on the “recycling” tab and you’ll get a clear list of what to recycle and what to throw in the trash. It’s printable, so you can put it on your fridge or tape it to your indoor recyclable receptacle.

If you hire your own waste disposal company, ask for details about what’s recyclable. Many provide a dos and don’ts list. They seem happy to help when I’ve called to ask if something is recyclable — I’m sure they’d rather have a call than end up with contaminants that mess up the sorting equipment and increase the costs of recycling. Snedecor says about 25% of what people put in recycling bins is trash — clothing, toys, yard waste and food – that must be pulled out and sent to landfills, along with anything it has contaminated (coffee-soaked newspaper isn’t recyclable).

And use your head. Soiled diapers are not and never have been recyclable, yet Snedecor says during a typical eight-hour shift at Waste Management’s Material Recovery Facilities, workers pull out more than 200 disposable diapers. Every shift. That’s not wishcycling, that’s yuckcycling. Plus, it’s contaminating things that are recyclable, so you’re stinking up more than those sorting workers’ day.

While that may be the most absurd contaminant imaginable, plastic bags are the most common.

Despite years of education campaigns, signs, news articles and pleas from recyclers, people continue to put plastic bags and other so-called “tanglers” into single-stream bins.

So just stop that. And do the five things that will make a difference.

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado reporter and editor who worked for The Gazette and Durango Herald. Now a regular columnist for The Denver Post and a freelance writer, she lives in Cañon City.

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