Does The Stuff You Throw In Your Recycling Bin Really Get Recycled? WYSO Curious Lifts The Lid
Carmen Milano, a 63-year-old yoga teacher from Yellow Springs, points to the instructional sticker on the top of her big green Rumpke Recycling bin.
“Here first it says plastic bottles one to seven, caps removed.” She laughs. “This is my favorite. Pizza box, with grease removed. Do you remove your grease from your pizza box?”
She wants to know, what happens to that greasy pizza box, the bottles with caps, and what about recycling that’s tied up in a plastic bag? How does all this stuff actually get recycled given that it’s in the same bin?
“I find it hard to believe that true recycling can happen to all this material,” Milano said. “My fear is that the truck goes behind the hiding wall and dumps it in the landfall with all of our trash.”
So, she reached out to WYSO Curious—and we tried to answer all of her questions by following a capped plastic bottle on its recycling journey.
Plastic Bags And Greasy Boxes
The first stop for Carmen’s bottle is the Dayton Rumpke recycling facility. If I was a child I might think I’d stumbled onto Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory: there’s a massive mountain of cardboard, glinting aluminium cans, and plastic bottles with brightly colored labels. One by one, Rumpke recycling trucks empty their colourful cargo onto the plant floor and then a Bobcat pushes everything onto a conveyor belt. Six employees stand at the start of the conveyor belt, grabbing anything that can’t be recycled or could jam the equipment.
I see the sorters remove a lot of plastic bags from the line that look like they might have recycling in them. They get tossed into the reject pile. This material is moving through here at 25 tons per hour, and so the sorters have to move fast to protect the equipment from potential jams.
“The line moves so efficiently that we don’t have time to open the bags,” Brian Nixon, one of the sorters, explains to me.
Amanda Pratt, Rumpke’s Director of Communications, says plastic bags are one of the biggest equipment jammers.
“That material that’s rejected, that’s headed for the landfill,” Pratt explains.
She says that food contaminated cardboard, like those greasy pizza boxes, can’t be made into clean paper and so that pizza box will end up in the rejects bin too. Or it could possibly slip past the sorters and make it all the way to a manufacturer, only to be rejected there.
“So what you’ve done is basically increase the carbon footprint,” Pratt says. “Because you’ve put it out with your recycling, a separate truck has come and taken it through this whole recycling process, it’s been shipped to a manufacturer and now has to be re-hauled to a landfill.”
She suggest trying to remove the grease saturated insert to your pizza box, or maybe only recycle the lid.
After the first stage of manual sorting, comes the machines. The recycling passes through spinning disks, and cardboard passes over top while the glass breaks and falls below. Everything else travels along the conveyor belt into a large tractor-trailer, which then gets sent on to the Cincinnati Regional Recycling Facility.
The regional facility has more machines and more people separating the whopping 800 tons of material that comes through every day. The amount of recycling has gone up since they started taking everything mixed together. But Brad Dunn, the recycling operational manager, puts it in perspective.
“The landfill is taking about 6000 tons per day, we are taking about 800 tons per day.”
He tells me that their most recent study shows that 60 percent of what ends up in the landfill is actually recyclable. Rumpke’s been asked why they don’t pull recycling from the landfill—the answer is that the time and costs involved in pulling stuff from the landfill wouldn’t be profitable. While recycling is good for the planet, it’s also a business.
“Recycle right. That is the key message,” Dunn says. “We have the facility capacity and technology to deal with a lot of material. And if you give us good material we are going to make it happen.”
I ask Dunn about the plastic bottle with the cap on, which he says is a PET bottle.
“You know this is good stuff. Polyethylene Terephthalate is very widely used in the manufacturing industry,” he says.
He tells me 540,000 PET bottles come through the regional facility every day. The manufacturers they sell to periodically change, but currently bottles and caps are both headed for Evergreen Plastics in Northern Ohio. Recent technological advancements mean that cap is now recyclable and that it’s okay to leave it on. The cap may be reborn as a detergent bottle or a trash can. The bottle may become a textile, the top of a gym shoe, or a carpet fibre.
“Some carpet that you are walking on in your home maybe contained a PET bottle that you drank a year ago,” Dunn says.
So Carmen, there you have it. No plastic bags, no greasy cheesy pizza boxes, leave the caps on, and yes, that mix of stuff in your bin really will get recycled.
WYSO Curious is our series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering. WYSO Curious is a partner of Hearken, founded by Jennifer Brandel.