You have questions. We have answers.
Are my recyclables actually getting recycled in Boulder County? I’ve seen a lot in the news lately about how recycling is dead in the US because China has stopped taking recyclables.
Yes, your recyclables are actually getting recycled in Boulder County. In 2018, China enacted its National Sword Policy, which resulted in largely banning the recycling of solid waste from the US and other countries. While this did have a significant effect on many recyclers, Eco-Cycle was not one of them. Our marketing strategies have never been reliant upon sending recyclables to China. Instead, we send materials to domestic and North American markets with whom we have developed partnerships since 1976. As a nonprofit mission-based recycler, it is not within our business model to landfill materials. Unlike some of the larger recyclers who are also waste companies and make a profit off of landfilling garbage, Eco-Cycle would have to pay to landfill any items, taking valuable resources from our nonprofit work. And, of course, our mission and reason for existing is to capture and recycle valuable natural resources. It is for this reason that we use profits made from our social enterprise activities, such as operating the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC), to educate the public to make sure that the materials they send to the BCRC are clean and only those we can market for remanufacturing. So please recycle carefully and according to these recycling guidelines for Boulder County as we DO have to pay to landfill nonrecyclable contamination.
While the policy change in China initially caused big ripples throughout the global recycling markets, the change has actually presented the US recycling industry with an opportunity. Now is the time for industries and recyclers to partner in developing new end markets within the US so that the full value of these materials is reinvested in our own domestic economies, and more green jobs are created in our state.
So keep recycling! Recycling continues to be one of the most important actions each of us can do every day to protect our environment, increase climate resiliency, conserve natural resources, and create green jobs. We’ll continue to do our part to help keep recycling thriving in Boulder County if you’ll continue to help by following our guidelines for producing the cleanest, most marketable recyclables possible.
I’ve been wondering forever whether I’m doing the wrong thing if I bag my recyclables in a plastic bag. I live in an apartment complex where I have to take my recyclables to a shared recycling container, so I carry them down there in a bag and throw it in. I notice that most of the other recyclables in there aren’t bagged. Is it okay if I put them in a bag?
The answer is NO. Please do NOT put recyclables inside plastic bags (or in any bags)! This is actually our #1 contaminant at the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC)—plastic bags containing recyclables, or plastic bags thrown loose into the recycling cart. This is a big problem for two reasons.
First, it’s inefficient. The equipment at the BCRC is designed to automatically sort recyclables into their different material types (cardboard, plastics, glass, paper, etc.). But when materials come in plastic bags, neither the materials nor the bags can go through the system. A staffer has to see the bag, grab it off the moving conveyor belt before it goes through the rest of the system, rip the bag open, and shake out all the contents onto the conveyor belt. That slows things down considerably, creating costly inefficiencies, and puts our staffers more at risk of coming into contact with something broken and sharp.
Secondly, the plastic bags wind around our sorting equipment and jam it up. In fact, we have to stop the conveyor belts twice a day, and staffers have to cut bags off the sorting equipment by hand, which costs time and money. We then have to pay to landfill these plastic bags. Talk about inefficiencies.
Instead of bagging your recyclables, collect your materials in a bin with handles, and carry that bin to your apartment building’s shared recycling container! If you must use a plastic bag to transport your recyclables, consider reusing it again and again after emptying.
How clean do my recyclables need to be? Why do you list food as one of your biggest contaminants in the recycling bin?
Food in your recycling bin is a big deal. Your recyclables go to the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC) where people, as well as automatic sorting systems, separate materials so they can be sent to their respective markets. Food residue on recyclables puts our workers’ health and safety at risk because of mold, pests like rodents and stinging insects, and unpleasant smells in the facility. Additionally, food and liquids inside containers can destroy the value of recycled paper, and affect the value of containers. So, how clean is clean? Before recycling, be sure to empty your containers by scraping out all food into your compost bin, or pouring out liquids. Give each container a quick shot of water, shake it up to loosen any remaining food, pour it out, and then recycle it.
Why is plastic harder to recycle than other materials?
Plastic is in a category of its own for several reasons. First, plastic is made with fossil fuels, so its initial production process is harmful to the planet. It’s a harder-to-recycle material because it loses quality during the recycling process. Other products like glass, steel, and aluminum can be recycled an infinite number of times back into the same product. Plastic is usually “downcycled” into something like carpet or a bench, an item that is typically landfilled at the end of its useful life, so it’s not a cyclical system like it is with glass, steel, or aluminum.
Because it is downcycled, new bottles are still made out of fossil fuels and no market demand is created for recycled plastics to be made into new bottles. The plastics industry tends not to buy back their own product (unlike glass, aluminum, cartons, and fibers), so even though they could be making new bottles and jugs with at least a percentage of recycled plastic, they opt to make them out of virgin fossil fuels instead.
Lastly, unlike other materials, plastics have a whole variety of polymers and chemical additives that make for a HUGE variety of incompatible materials. Aluminum is aluminum. Steel is steel. But plastics are made from seven different polymers. Within those seven polymers is a huge variety of products depending on the additives used to create different material characteristics. That’s a lot of variety to sort and market.
The recycling industry has LONG asked the plastic industry to standardize plastic products and to talk to recyclers at the design phase of their product instead of creating endless numbers and types of products and putting the onus on recyclers to magically “recycle” their product without their participation.
- Wondering if your plastics are being recycled in Boulder County? If they’re listed on these recycling guidelines they’re being recycled. Learn more here.
If I see a recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic item, does that mean it’s recyclable?
No, this is an unregulated symbol and it doesn’t indicate the recyclability of an item. There are now some reputable third-party certification organizations that actually confirm the recyclability of some products and their packaging. But for now, you still need to go by the guidelines in a community to know whether an item is included in that local recycling program and facility, rather than going by the symbol on the package. Local guidelines change from place to place because the recyclability of a product or packaging depends on local markets, facilities, and sorting capability. While universal guidelines and consistent labeling is certainly a goal in the recycling industry, we currently can’t depend on a recycling symbol to let us know if it’s locally recyclable in our region’s facilities.
- If you can’t avoid plastics, see this graphic to learn which plastics are the most toxic to human health and difficult to recycle
Why are so few plastics recyclable?
Plastics are far more difficult to recycle than other materials because most plastics fail the basic recycling criteria. First, they are not designed to be recycled. Plastic packaging contains toxic additives, dyes, and chemicals that contaminate new products. Consumer brands constantly introduce new packaging with different resin types, shapes, colors, and chemical additives that are costly and complicated to collect and sort. Marketing plastics is difficult because, unlike other industries like the aluminum, glass, and steel industries, the plastic industry does not buy back enough recycled plastics. On average, plastic beverage containers are made from less than 10% recycled content. Subsidized fossil fuel prices make virgin plastics cheap to produce. This creates insufficient demand and market value to cover the costs of collection and processing. Unlike steel, aluminum, and glass, which can be recycled infinitely, plastics are a far lower-grade material, and degrade in quality each time they are recycled. For all these reasons, only a fraction of plastics are recyclable, and most of those are downcycled into products that cannot be recycled again. Despite the fact that most plastics are not recyclable, the chasing arrows recycling symbol appears on almost all plastics, misleading consumers to believe they are recyclable. The recycling industry has repeatedly asked the plastic industry to standardize plastic products and to work with recyclers in the design phase to find recycling solutions. Instead, plastic producers continue to create endless types of plastic, putting the onus on consumers and recyclers to develop new recycling infrastructure and markets to deal with their products.
If I’m not sure if something is recyclable, should I put it in the recycling bin just in case? Or if I accidentally recycle something that is not recyclable, will the whole load get thrown out?
We want to stick with putting only recyclable items in the recycling bins, and avoid what we call “wish-cycling”— tossing an item in the recycling bin and hoping for the best. Rarely does an entire load of recyclable materials get rejected from a recycling facility; however, it can happen. For example, if a communal recycling dumpster at an apartment complex contains more garbage than valuable recyclable material, it might be taken straight to the landfill. Hazardous material, such as diapers or syringes, may also result in an entire load being rejected for health and safety reasons (real people handle our recyclables!). When “contaminants” get mixed in with otherwise valuable recyclables, it won’t result in an entire load being rejected, but it will cause other problems like mold, spillage, fires, or mechanical damage. Eco-Cycle, as the operator of the Boulder County Recycling Center, must pay to landfill contaminants found in the recycling stream, which can be a huge expense. We may also receive a lower price for materials sold to recycling end markets if there are too many contaminants. You can minimize recycling contamination by familiarizing yourself with Eco-Cycle’s recycling guidelines for Boulder County and following them closely!