Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The three R’s. An absolute banger by Hannah Montana’s Mitchel Musso and a saying you’ve probably heard more times than you care to count. It’s not uncommon for people to recycle, in fact, most of you reading this probably have a recycling bin in your kitchen right now, but it’s not as simple as just chucking empty products in a bin.
To give some background, in January of 2018 China announced their National Sword policy, a policy banning imports of certain solid wastes as well as heightening contamination limits on recyclable materials. How does this affect us? China has been the world’s largest importer of waste for decades, taking the paper, plastic, and scrap metal from other countries and processing it for reuse in exported products. Tighter regulations make it more difficult for recycling facilities, specifically single-stream recycling facilities like our own in Lexington, to find buyers for their baled materials. What is single stream recycling? In a nutshell, it’s the system that allows you to mix all your papers, plastics, and metals into one recycling bin to be picked up by the collection truck and later sorted at the facility (Watch the video linked at the end of the article from Waste Management to learn more).
In May, Lexington stopped accepting paper products at their facility, and recently, in June, the plant shut down for several days due to a mechanical problem with the machine that separated aluminum but has since been reopened. I spoke with Angela Poe, Senior Program Manager for Public Information and Engagement for the Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works in Lexington, to get some tips on what we can do on our end and how to recycle more responsibly.
Around 25-30% of what the recycling facility takes in either is not recyclable or is unwanted material, which must then be dumped in the landfill. Most of this unwanted material comes from “wish-cycling," or when someone with good intentions put an incorrect item or material into the recycling stream with the false belief that it can/will be recycled. Recycling the wrong materials can result in the damaging or jamming of equipment, slowing the process and causing facilities to divert materials to landfills until the problem can be fixed. This recurring problem has led Lexington to invest $1.5 million into the recycling center to update and replace the current equipment. To keep the current equipment running smoothly until it can be replaced, it is important to make sure we are recycling correctly. On top of making sure you are recycling acceptable items in your area, it is important to remember that contaminated items can lead to hiccups. A good way to be proactive about these issues is to check out what can and cannot be recycled in your area. Lexington Recycling center provides these convenient PDFs detailing what they do or not accept, linked below.
Buying in Bulk
Buying in bulk can be a cost-effective way of restocking on frequently-purchased groceries or household items. You can choose to do this at wholesalers such as Costco or Sam’s Club, or purchasing from bulk bins at places like Good Foods Co-Op. When buying in bulk you have the option of bringing your own reusable containers, which can help cut down on waste even further.
Market Value and Environmental Benefit
It is important to know what the market value and environmental benefit of your recyclables are. For example, glass has a very low monetary value in recycling and the Lexington facility has it taken it away from them, whereas aluminum has a higher value and is processed there. If possible, when you have the option to purchase a product in either glass or aluminum, it is best to pick the aluminum option.
Reduce, Reuse, THEN Recycle
We shouldn’t immediately turn to recycling as our alternative to throwing away material. The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” gives us the methods, but out of convenience we often gloss over the first two and opt for the easier option of letting someone else deal with our garbage. Before we say, “it’s fine, I’ll just recycle it," we should consider other methods. Ask yourself, is it possible to reduce my consumption? Try bringing food in a Tupperware from home rather than a plastic bag or microwave box, bring a reusable water bottle, use canvas bags when shopping, etc. If you cannot reduce, can you reuse? Clean out that jar and refill it at the Co-Op (or other bulk stores) with peanut butter, rice, dried fruit, coffee beans, or whatever item fits your needs.
Rather than assume something might be recyclable, just go ahead and ask. Lexington Recycling Center has recently created a Facebook page, Lexington Trash Talk, where you can ask about recycling in the area. Lexington Recycling Center also has an updates page where you can be the first to know any updates about the facility. Lexington Green Guide has plenty of resources you can check out about how to recycle responsibly and reduce your waste. Recycling is a community effort. To keep our center running smoothly and live a more eco-friendly lifestyle we all must hold ourselves accountable for how responsibly we recycle.
A big thank you to Angela Poe for talking with me about this topic. If you have any more questions make sure to check out the links below or contact your recycling center today!