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When In Doubt, Throw It Out: The Dirty Truths About Local Recycling

Man recycles at solid waste management district

(Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

Bloomington resident Chris Judge says he’s an avid recycler but wonders to what extent his efforts are working. He’s particularly concerned about plastics.  

"In choosing my own behavior, to what extent should I stop using plastic all together or do I trust in the system to recycle the plastic I use? If I have a plastic bottle -- like a milk jug or something -- what's the probability it's actually going to be recycled versus going in some landfill somewhere?”

Judge is aware of an often-cited, grim statistic: only about nine or ten percent of plastics we use are actually recycled.   

Bloomington Public Works Director Adam Wason says he doesn’t know exactly what percentage of Bloomington’s recycling goes on to another use.  

“In terms of knowing where the end product, or the next use of that plastic is, no, I can't speak to who Republic Services sells it to... That's not part of the contract that we have with them,” he says.   

It’s equally hard to find that information for Monroe County. Tom McGlasson, Jr., is the executive director of the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District. He says materials from many different sources are co-mingled at the sorting facility in Indianapolis. Once materials are sorted, there’s no telling the source.  

FROM MARCH 2020: Monroe County To Ban Recycling Of EPS

Judge also has the impression items won’t be recycled if they aren’t pristine. Wason and McGlasson both emphasize items must be clean and dry.   

“I think of the peanut butter jar. You know, we've got three kids, and we go through lots of peanut butter. And, yeah, we kind of scrub out the peanut butter jar, because I can't imagine they can recycle it with, you know, a full layer of peanut butter on it,” Wason says. 

McGlasson says contamination in any given load of recycling cannot exceed two or three percent before a facility decides it’s not economically feasible to process, and sends the whole load to the landfill.  

For example, he says Monroe County’s typical collection truck roll-off box carries, on average, four tons of plastic. 

“If the threshold is two percent, that's 160 pounds. One hundred and sixty pounds of two-liter pop bottles. That's a lot of pop bottles. But it’s a small amount of what’s in the box,” McGlasson says.  

READ MORE: Where Does Yard Debris Go After It's Picked Up?

Another aspect of contamination is what Indiana Recycling Coalition Executive Director Allyson Mitchell calls “wish-cycling.”  

“So, wish-cycling is the practice of putting the wrong things in your recycling bin, but with good intention, or with the assumption or the hopefulness that it will get recycled,” she says. 

“If in doubt, throw it out,” Mitchell says. Contamination by wish-cycling costs the hauler and the city money, and that cost gets passed on to the taxpayer.  

She says the nation’s recycling system is primarily designed for plastics designated with the resin code 1 and 2 -- like Chris Judge’s plastic bottle. These items are readily made into new materials. Plastics 3 through 7 may be recyclable, but fewer facilities handle them, and it has to be logistically and economically feasible to get those plastics to them.  She adds that the state of Indiana doesn’t incentivize recycling.

“In the state of Indiana, it’s literally cheaper to throw things away. Because we have a very, very, very, low landfill tipping fee, which is the dollar amount that gets paid when you as a private citizen or as a trash company tips their load of trash at the landfill or at the incinerator,” she says.   

READ MORE: State To Study Recycling, Aims To Identify Gaps In Infrastructure

There is some hope on the horizon for wider plastics recycling:  waste solutions company Brightmark is building a plastics recycling facility in northeastern Indiana to handle plastics 1 through 7.  In a press release dated April 6, the San Francisco-based company says it will use a form of pyrolysis, an oxygen-less thermal decomposition process, to recycle the plastics into petrochemicals and waxes, among other products. 

Mitchell has more good news: non-plastic recyclables are in demand right now in Indiana. Like cardboard and office paper.

“Pratt industries up in Valparaiso, Indiana, is a paper mill. They make corrugated cardboard boxes. They don't cut down a single tree -- everything they do is from a recycled cardboard or paper. So they're a perfect example of an industry that's here in Indiana that wants all the cardboard it can get from residents of Indiana and from around the Midwest,” she says. 

Likewise, she says Indiana has a lot of manufacturers using recycled glass for new glass products, like wine bottles and pickle jars. Aluminum and steel cans are also in demand. 

You can find a list of recyclable items the City of Bloomington and Monroe County each accept at their websites: bloomington.in.gov and gogreendistrict.com/recycling.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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