We want to do the right thing when we recycle household waste, but are we?
Recycling continues to become a more normalized part of the daily routine in many households, but most people don’t know what happens to the items they put in their recycling carts after the waste haulers have them. removed.
Your good intentions can inadvertently lead to more waste.
Recyclable materials are generally divided into two categories, single-stream and multi-stream. Most people are familiar with single-stream recycling, where you put all of your recyclables in one bin for collection. This is the most convenient way to recycle, but not necessarily the best way.
Sarah Lundy, Calhoun County’s recycling coordinator, says single-stream recycling generates a lot of recyclable material, but it’s not as valuable because it’s more contaminated. She says contamination is one of the biggest problems with recycling.
Multi-stream recycling requires a bit more work. As you need to separate the materials into separate containers (paper, cardboard, plastic, etc.).
“People don’t always know. They want to recycle, so they put it in the recycling cart, but they can contaminate everything,” says Patty Hoch-Melluish, Environmental and Storm Manager for Battle Creek. “If liquids or food are left in a container when it is compacted by the truck picking it up, it leaks and contaminates the load.”
Lundy says, “The material is still valuable and recyclable, it’s not a premium material. What we do at the Marshall Recycling Center is based on our needs – to be able to monitor what is happening so that we can control material and limit contamination. This works great for residents who want to ensure their stuff is fully recycled and is in the best possible condition when recycled. We ask people to bring things sorted and as separated as possible simply because we don’t have a lot of staff.
The advantage of using the recycling center instead of curbside collection is that it minimizes recycling contamination. This will allow it to become a next-level product. It’s also less likely to end up in a landfill. If you want to make sure your recycling is truly recycled, then multi-stream recycling is the way to go.
In early 2020, much of Battle Creek’s recycling was going to landfills due to contamination. Although some products may be made from plastic, they cannot be recycled in single-stream curbside recycling programs. An example of this would be plastic film such as grocery bags. In a machine-sorted facility, they get caught and tangled in the sorting line. Workers usually have to clean the machine at least once a day, and the machine can be stopped for hours.
As a community, Battle Creek struggles to communicate effectively and is still figuring out the issues of recycling. Currently, you can visit sites like bcwater.org to consult the community calendar and find collection dates for polystyrene, electronics and tires. Another great resource is BC Works, the City of Battle Creek Department of Public Works newsletter. It contains information on what can and cannot be recycled.
Education is the next step, says Bessie Stears Battle Creek Environmental Program Coordinator.
“I think the visualization is huge, people in the city don’t know ‘what can be recycled,’ Stears says. “Explaining the recycling process helps people understand why certain items can’t be recycled or why you need to clean them before putting them in the recycling bin.”
A good education will lead to less contamination and less waste, which is the whole point of recycling. Although our city is not large, our efforts are essential. Michigan landfills have created a total waste of 1,522,350.05 cubic meters in 2021 alone, according to the State of Michigan.
“Battle Creek single-stream recycling first goes to Kalamazoo (that’s their transfer station) and ends up going to Elkhart and from there, we don’t know,” says Hoch-Melluish.
Another problem with the recycling process is that there are unknown factors such as where the material goes after being transferred to another station. You can counteract this by asking your local representatives what happens to all this material. Expressing your concern for the environment can prompt representatives to discuss the problem and possible solutions.
Hoch-Melluish says discussing recycling at school will also inspire more people to actively participate in recycling and wonder what happens to that material. Children will take what they are taught and share it with their family, which will hopefully lead to more conversations about the importance of recycling.
The key to improving the efficiency and quality of community recycling is an open process. Communication must be clear and honest; it’s the only way to recognize problems. We should connect with experts who can help educate us, so we can answer the question: does this belong in recycling?