Oneida and Herkimer counties have a 52% recycling rate, which is an especially impressive effort when compared to the national average of 35%.
“Our residents really care about recycling! It’s really nice to see that from our community,” exclaimed Samantha Brown, Recycling Coordinator at the Oneida Herkimer Solid Waste Authority (OHSWA). “We take about 400,000 pounds of recyclables per day, Monday through Friday.”
But recycling isn’t all about the quantity of the recyclables; quality matters as well. And when good intentions meet a lack of knowledge, you get a practice known as wish-cycling, which diminishes the quality of the recyclables.
“Wish-cycling is when people put things in the recycling bin that they want to be recycled or think might be recyclable… but they’re just prolonging the route that it takes to get to the landfill,” said Samantha.
Knowing what and how to recycle can be more complex than many would think. If you want to be a savvy recycler, it helps to know what happens to ineligible items when they get tossed in your curbside bin.
Wishcycling is when people put things in the recycling bin that they want recycled or think might be recyclable…but they’re just prolonging the route that it takes to get to the landfill
Some of the most common wish-cycle items are small bits of plastic: straws, silverware, credit cards, bread tags, etc. These items will slip right through the residue screens on OHSWA’s sorting equipment. Their recycling plant has about nine conveyer belts, lasers that detect certain plastic, and people monitoring the streams — all to sort the materials and take out what’s not wanted. But Samantha warned that an ineligible item being pulled out last minute is a pretty mild scenario of recycling malfeasance.
“Tanglers” like plastic bags, hoses, ribbons, and clothing can wind around the equipment. Several times a day, OHWSA staff pause the jammed equipment, cut up the perpetrators, and pull them out by hand. The worst-case scenario is that a hazardous item has infiltrated the recycling stream. Broken glass or needles can harm the staff emptying the curbside bins. Flammable items like rechargeable batteries and cigarette butts act as kindling in the hot metal trucks and equipment, occasionally causing a fire.
The most unexpected issue with poor recycling habits is that they actually take away from what makes recyclables recyclable!
For one, the misplaced garbage items that sneak by all the sorting processes end up diluting the value of the “bales” that would go to prospective buyers who upcycle the items — bales being the compacted cubes of recyclables and the prospective buyers being recycling mills. Certain plastics can be turned into polyester thread for clothes and rugs, old cardboard can be turned into the wavy padding inside new cardboard sheets, and plastic film can become composite lumber for decks and park benches. However, mills won’t want bales riddled with useless garbage.
Mills don’t want dirty bales either, which is why it’s so important to only recycle empty containers and perhaps give them a quick rinse. When half-full peanut butter jars go through the compactor, the PB oozes everywhere, contaminating more materials, sticking them together, gunking up the equipment, and attracting wildlife. Sometimes, the OHSWA facility runs exceptionally soiled materials through the plant multiple times. Thankfully, OHSWA has never landfilled any recyclables, but a little extra effort from residents is greatly appreciated.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” advised Samantha. “It’s better to accidentally put a recyclable item in the garbage than a garbage item in the recycling bin. If you’re determined to learn the answer [about an item’s recyclability], you can go to our website and use the Am I Recyclable? search engine. If it’s not on the list, call or email us. We know it can be really confusing, and we love to help.”
As Samantha’s examples have demonstrated, sustainability isn’t just about the potential of a given item, but a holistic cost-benefit analysis. That’s why Styrofoam is rarely recycled.
“We get a lot of calls about Styrofoam,” Samantha said. “Styrofoam is made of expanded polystyrene — plastic. We would love to take Styrofoam, but mills that take Styrofoam only want pure, white, uncontaminated Styrofoam, so it can never have been in contact with food or liquid. That counts out takeaway trays, meat trays, egg cartons, and cups. That’s a lot of the Styrofoam off the bat. Mills won’t take packing peanuts either, because there are cornstarch alternatives that are virtually impossible to tell apart without doing a lab analysis. These alternatives are bad for equipment.”
Even eligible Styrofoam doesn’t come without its hurdles. “We don’t offer a drop-off program for eligible Styrofoam, because it’s 98% air, so you need to run it through at compactor — a $60-75,000 piece of equipment — so it’s doesn’t take up so much space. For a mill to pick up a truck of Styrofoam, we’d need a minimum of 40,000 pounds of it; that’s about the weight of 8 million Styrofoam cups. It would take years to accumulate a useable amount of material. Thankfully, industries are moving away from Styrofoam packaging, plus there’s a statewide Styrofoam ban coming up, so it’s not a good environmental investment to host a drop-off program.”
The plastic bag ban doesn’t have a cut and dry environmental gain either. Geez, just when we thought we were onto something, huh?
“With the plastic bag ban that was passed, the issue isn’t paper versus plastic and which is better. The goal of the plastic bag ban is not to encourage a switch to paper bags, but to reduce the littering of plastic bags — which clog up gutters, get tied up in trees and fences — and, really, to encourage a switch to reusable bags. It’s an issue of single-use bags versus reusable bags,” Sam explained.
Funnily enough, plastic bags were once a measure to protect the environment as an alternative to using trees to make paper bags. Paper bags are also exhaustive to the environment because, even though they’re recyclable and biodegradable, they take a lot of water to make, they’re heavier to ship, and they occupy more space, so they require more fuel to transport. It’s safe to say that you’re doing your best when you bring your reusable bag to the store.
All these things considered, it’s obvious that it’s not as easy to do our part as citizens in the recycling effort as we may have thought. That’s why OHSWA has adopted many tactics to make recycling a breeze for its residents: accepting a wide range of materials, using food scraps to power Oneida County’s Water Pollution Control Plant, allowing different recyclables to be mixed in curbside bins rather than requiring sorting, providing certifications to businesses that have sustainable practices, etc. But if you really want to become the ultimate tree hugger for Mother Earth, you can follow OHSWA’s recycling newsletter, which is written by our guest Samantha.
“It’s an educational e-newsletter that covers common questions, gives updates on our facilities, and even has holiday-themed releases about the seasonal items that you’re unsure how to dispose of,” said Samantha.
With this convenient source of recycling expertise, you won’t keep having a false pride in your curbside bin. So, next time you feel good about your environmental efforts, it’ll be because you know that ya did good, kid. Not because you guessed.