Talking trash

Solid waste experts explain why recycling process is complex, costly

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Franklin Recycling Bin

A recycling bin in Franklin.

The recycling process is notorious for having complicated rules and unclear results, and according to local solid waste experts, there’s a reason: The market is inconsistent and always changing. 

As the city of Franklin transitions from blue bags to blue bins for its curbside recycling program, the rules and standards have become the source of many questions in the community. Do recyclables need to be washed with soap? Are plastic labels on bottles OK? What about bottle caps and juice boxes? 

Finding the answers to these questions takes a bit of a dive into the recycling process. 

Journey starts at curb 

When a Franklin resident tosses an empty Dasani bottle into that blue bin and rolls it down to the curb, sanitation and environmental services employees empty the bin on pickup day. But that’s just the beginning of the bottle’s journey. 

The bottle joins cardboard, mixed paper, aluminum cans and more on its way to Marshall County, where it meets recyclables from other parts of the region, including Spring Hill, Columbia and Lewisburg. There, the Marshall County solid waste department processes the items. 

Processing involves manual labor as the recyclables and, unfortunately, trash get sorted by hand. The contaminants — trash — get sent to the landfill while the Dasani bottle joins its fellow No. 1 plastics. Jack Tucker, the director of sanitation and environmental services for Franklin, said that when compared with much of the U.S., Franklin’s recycling is pretty clean. 

“There’s cities with 30%-plus contamination in their recycling at curb. That’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “We’re very fortunate here in the city of Franklin. Ours averages 6-8%, which for a voluntary program is very good.” 

However, by the time Franklin’s recyclables reach Marshall County’s intake facility and get mixed with materials from the rest of the region, the contamination rate becomes about 20%, according to Doug Giles, the assistant director for Marshall County solid waste. Giles said that something such as a greasy pizza box is not going to stop the processors from receiving a load, but sometimes the contamination is so pervasive that an entire load gets sent to the landfill. 

“We get some loaded in here that are trash — stink, wet — and that’s the stuff we send to the landfill,” he said. “If it’s good, clean recycling, even if it has got a little bit of food waste in it … we know how to deal with it.” 

After processing, like materials are baled together and sold to whatever company offers the best price that month. That company is then responsible for sending the bales to a place that will break down the materials to be reused. The challenge is finding a market for recycled goods. 

Why clean matters 

While a lot of recycled paper from this area stays within the Southeast — there are quite a few paper mills in the region — and a lot of No. 1 plastics get sent to Alabama, according to Giles, some other materials from here and many from the West Coast get sent to a landfill or exported out of the country. However, recent changes in the global recycling market are having major impacts in the U.S. 

In 2016, U.S. exporters shipped 4.3 billion pounds of scrap plastic to China followed by 3.7 billion pounds in 2017. But a crackdown on regulations from China forced a 35% reduction in exports in 2018. Giles said that before the crackdown, China had taken pretty much any plastic from the U.S. and scavenged among the bales for anything useful, discarding the rest. 

Because of this, not only did much, if not most, of U.S. plastic exports not actually get recycled, but it just moved billions of pounds of waste from here to there, creating a problem for China. Tucker said the country had been threatening to crack down on regulations for years, hoping the U.S. would reduce its contamination levels, and it had finally had enough in 2018. Now China no longer accepts anything with over 0.5% contamination. 

“We always thought we were recycling (plastic), and now that we’re finding out that we’re not … we’re finding out that it’s really hard to recycle these things,” Giles said. 

Now, more plastic and other recyclables are staying within the U.S., and our country has to deal with these excess materials. This is part of the reason why Franklin and Williamson County no longer accept plastics other than Nos. 1 and 2 — others are more expensive to process than they’re worth. 

A financial commitment 

However, this issue of profitability pervades the entire recycling industry, not just those in the business of low-quality plastics. Joe Williams, principal at Common Sense Consulting of Franklin and a former solid waste director for the city of Franklin, said that a major problem in the U.S. is that citizens don’t buy enough recycled products. 

“My definition of a recycler is not having a blue container or a blue bag out front, it’s buying recycled products,” he said. “You’ve got to close the loop.” 

He said that without people buying recycled products, there is no U.S. market for recyclable materials, rendering “recycled” items about as wasteful as trash. 

But purchasing recycled products often means giving up everyday bargains. Because of all the labor that goes into recycling, in most cases, it’s cheaper for companies to make new materials from scratch than to recycle used materials. Thus, truly recycled products often bear higher price tags. 

“You recycle because you feel like it’s something you need to do. You recycle for doing the right thing,” Williams said. “But doing the right thing sometimes comes with a cost, so there’s a point at which the cost becomes too high.” 

He said the community has to decide for itself how far it is willing to go. 

How to responsibly recycle 

Let’s circle back to the original question: Why is recycling so complicated?  

As the market changes, so do the regulations, and even now, the rules vary between different regions, different processors, different government programs. Giles recommends speaking to one’s local sanitation or solid waste department to brush up on the do’s and don’ts for that particular area. 

For Franklin, Tucker said the city tries to make it as simple as possible to keep participation high. That’s why rules may be simplified to “plastic bottles” instead of No. 1 plastics, since most bottles will be No. 1.  

But for those wanting to get into the weeds, here are some additional details: 

• The cleanest way to recycle a bottle is to discard the cap, plastic seal ring and plastic label, though Tucker says it’s OK to toss the whole thing into recycling. Avid recyclers may also choose to throw out plastic labels from tin cans. 

• The cleaning process requires some common sense. All food waste is trash, so Coke bottles can simply be rinsed while peanut butter jars will need a soapy scrub. 

• While clean waxed milk cartons are acceptable, wax paper often is not because it is more difficult to clean and manage during processing. 

• Some plastic bags are made of acceptable plastic, but because loads are sorted by hand, it would take too much labor to differentiate between No. 1 plastic bags and No. 4. Because of this, all plastic bags are considered trash. 

• Be especially careful to avoid “tanglers” — long items that could halt spinning machinery, such as garden hoses and ropes — and “sharps” — knives, needles and other dangerous items that could harm processors. 

• To avoid “wish-cycling,” where people toss items into a blue bin because they hope it’s recyclable, Tucker encourages following this motto: “When in doubt, throw it out.” Not all plastics are created equal. 

For more information on Franklin’s recycling program, visit franklintn.gov. The city will not accept blue bag recycling after March 26.

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