Are you recycling right?
August 6-12, 2018
By Becca Bona
Over the past forty years, ‘Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle’ has become a familiar adage. Not a new practice by any means, recycling gained traction after the first Earth Day in 1970.
Various surveys, statisticians, and researchers all agree – the practice has been good for the environment. According to a 2017 report conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans were recycling at a rate of 34.6 percent in 2014. That means – thanks to recycling – about 1/3 of generated waste was kept out of the landfills.
Plus, the practice is more common today than ever. Americans consider “recyclable” and “recycled” as their favorite green terms, according to a 2015 Shelton Group Study.
But have you ever wondered what happens to that cardboard box or plastic bottle after it disappears from your recycling bin? Understanding local recycling guidelines, restrictions, and restraints is more important than ever as the industry faces a tumultuous national stage.
‘WE DON’T WANT YOUR GARBAGE’
As far as recycled materials go – like any other commodity – there’s a market for that. In the past, China has been the consumer for processed recycled materials.
Things changed in 2017 when the Eastern nation cracked down on what processed recycled materials they were willing to accept. If materials arrived by boat that were deemed unacceptable – they were sent back.
All a part of a broad move to protect against pollution, the restrictions were just that – strict. This year, those conditions were paired down further so that staples – like cardboard and plastic – are piling up on the U. S. coasts.
These events have caused recycling agencies across the country to rethink their processes at their most basic levels. For Pulaski County that starts with one thing: education.
‘YOU'RE RECYCLING RIGHT, RIGHT?’
First, a little history and structure.
Arkansas is made up of 18 solid waste management districts statewide. Originally set up in 1992, these districts are responsible for much more than recycling.
Pulaski County is known as the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District, and oversees Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, Sherwood, Jacksonville, and Wrightsville.
A Board – those responsible for establishing policy and governing the district – is currently chaired by Mike Watson, Mayor of Maumelle, and consists also of the Pulaski County Judge and the mayors of Jacksonville, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Wrightsville. The mayors of the smaller communities of Alexander and Cammack Village are ex-officio members of the Board.
Within the umbrella of the Regional Recycling and Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County, main duties include recycling; properly disposing of, or recycling electronic waste (e-waste); proper tire removal and recycling; and helping to stop and prosecute illegal dumps – the disposing of waste via methods other than curbside pickup or other approved avenues.
Executive Director Craig Douglass came on board with the Regional Recycling and Waste Reduction District a little over a year ago. That didn’t stop him from looking at the current system very closely.
As the time draws close to reexamine many of the contracts the district oversees, Douglass worked with local Gilmore Strategy Group to do a study of the current practices of the district – largely to take stock and check efficiency.
He found one important thing as it relates to recycling.
“Most people want to recycle,” says Douglass. “[A]lot of people say it’s the right thing to do, it’s good for the environment. What we’re finding out is that there’s a lot of peer pressure in recycling. Because (although I’m not a psychologist) people get a better sense of self if they do recycle. They think ‘I’m doing the right thing.’”
There isn’t an issue with the want to recycle, but rather, the method. Hence the question – You’re recycling right, right?
Douglass, who has a background in advertising, could see the potential issue at play. Instead of spending his efforts on trying to convert people who don’t recycle into people who do – he wanted to concentrate on those that already do by giving them to tools to make sure they’re doing it correctly.
“It’s our responsibility [as a district] to make sure you’re doing the right thing and doing it right. We have started a campaign the theme of which is do recycling right,” he says. “Our strategy right now is not to focus on getting people to recycle, it’s educating people who already do and make sure they’re doing it right.”
The campaign kicked off this summer with targeted print, video, and social ads, all very simple and to the point.
A few landing pages were created with concise information labeling what can and can’t go in that familiar green and yellow bin. For instance, plastic bags are recyclable, but not via your recycling bin.
“When we say something isn’t recyclable, that means that the sorting machinery can’t do it. It simply can’t handle it, so it shuts it down. […] Plastic bags are recyclable, but don’t put them in your recycling bin because they can’t go through the machine. Take them back to Kroger, Target, or Wal-Mart – they’ll take them, and they’re recyclable.”
Plastic bags are a prime example of what Douglass and the team call ‘tanglers’. The machinery at The Materials Recycle Facility operates with many twists and turns, and, as Douglass notes, movement can be easily blocked via these tanglers.
“Anything that’ll wrap or tangle, don’t put it in your cart. If you can wrap something around your arm, don’t put it in your cart,” he says.
Following the basic rules are key, as Douglass hopes that educating the district will help improve the end product – ultimately standing up to China’s standards.
Currently, Pulaski County’s recycled end product sits at a 36 percent tarnished rate. China is willing to take materials that are less than 0.5 percent tarnished, or as it’s called in the industry – contaminated. (In this sense contamination does not mean poisonous or toxic, rather, items slipped by that weren’t supposed to be recycled in the first place, and the end product is ‘impure’.)
Currently, the district can handle plastic bottles and jugs – as long as they’re empty and clean. The ‘empty’ part is important – for contamination sake. Cardboard is also acceptable, as long as its broken down, and clean, as is paper, newspapers, magazines, junk mail and paperboard. Aluminum, steel, and tin cans are okay, as well – as long as they’re empty.
Visit mydoright.com for a simple list of dos and don’ts.
The ‘Recycle Right’ campaign is critical not only for Pulaski County’s recycling facility but also for the end customer.
“If you can’t sell it, there’s no need for you to recycle it – it’ll just all stack up and end up in the landfill anyway,”
E-WASTE AND TIRES: DISPOSE OF IT PROPERLY
Beyond recycling in the traditional sense, the Regional Recycling District in Pulaski County is seeing an uptick in e-waste, along with the national trend.
“[E]lectronic waste is the fastest growing area of the overall waste stream,” says Douglass. “It is also the most toxic. Materials in electronics include things like lead, mercury, cadmium, and you don’t want those in a landfill.”
These items are actually very recyclable, and there is a system in place residents should be aware of when readying to dispose of phones, computers, televisions, and more.
“We have five Green Stations around the county,” says Douglass “One in Little Rock, one in North Little Rock, Sherwood, Jacksonville, and Maumelle. […] You can take electronic waste to green stations and drop them off.”
Another thing people may be unaware of, is the risk discarded tires pose. “They are public health risks because water collects in them, they attract mosquitos, they attract rats,” Douglass explains. “They can catch on fire and that’s toxic.”
Residents should discard of tires through an approved dealer or through the interdistrict waste tire management program. Tires can be reduced to rubber, which is currently happening in Pulaski County.
“We have a contract with Davis Rubber Company […] and we recycle the tires. We have a recycling rate of the tires that we manage at or slightly above 90 percent.”
By keeping these things in mind, we can change our ‘contamination’ rate and better our environment.
Visit tiresbegone.com for more information on disposing of tires properly. Visit mydoright.com for information on recycling in Pulaski County as well as how to dispose of e-waste properly.
Sources: EPA, Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District, Scientific American, The Recycling Partnership