The recycling roller coaster | Features
From plastic to glass to mattresses, recyclers share do’s and don’ts, opportunities and challenges
By Jillian Manning | July 16, 2022
There’s nothing less appealing than being on a beautiful northern Michigan beach or trail and finding empty water bottles, snack wrappers, and other trash strewn along your path. . Alas, litter is not uncommon in our natural areas during the summer months as usage figures increase.
The first step, of course, is to leave no trace. The second step is to recycle as much as possible, especially those water bottles, as the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that only about 29.1% of plastic bottles are actually recycled. Many of your favorite outdoor spots offer both trash cans and recycling containers, and you can always take bottles home with you to recycle.
That being said, the proactive urge to put every bit of plastic, paper, and metal in your recycling container can sometimes hinder rather than help. According to GFL Environmental, one of the waste and recycling companies serving much of northern Michigan, “Contamination is the biggest problem affecting successful recycling practices today, when people throw away things they shouldn’t, such as grease-soaked cardboard, plastic bags, or paint cans.
Back to basics
We all know we’re supposed to break down and flatten cardboard, but how important is it to rinse your containers before putting them in the trash? In fact, very. Even small amounts of food residue, like the gunk at the bottom of your peanut butter jar, could contaminate an entire load of recycling and divert it to landfill. Up to 25% of what we recycle (i.e. 1 in 4 items) is considered contaminated.
Another no-no is to pack your recycling. Waste Management, a national player with operations in the North, wants recyclables loose in your bin rather than tied in a trash bag. In fact, bags (i.e. wraps) are generally discouraged, from plastic grocery bags to sandwich bags and freezer bags. Instead, customers should go to plasticfilmrecycling.org to find where items like these can be recycled safely and efficiently.
Mia Jankowiak, communications manager for the Great Lakes region of Waste Management, says some of the worst items to recycle are “clothes hangers, film, grass clippings, leaves, bowling balls, propane tanks and batteries”. Also on most recyclers’ toss list are Styrofoam, e-waste, shredded paper, plastic bags, scrap metal and ceramics.
So what can you put in the recycling bin? Waste Management focuses on “traditional paper, plastic, metal and glass materials,” according to Jankowiak, as does GFL. This includes plastic containers; metals like pie pans, steel food containers and drink cans; cardboard and paper such as cereal boxes, paper towel rolls, newspapers and computer paper; and some glass products with the lids removed. (For a complete list, go to wm.com, gflenv.com or contact your local branch.)
The recycling market
We admit it – these lists seem restrictive and more than a little complex. But again, so is the recycling industry. Even though recycling may seem like a public service, it’s still a business, and not all post-consumer products are easy to reuse, reinvent, or sell to another outlet.
“Metals have had a good market since the Bronze Age,” jokes Andy Gale, president and CEO of Traverse City’s Bay Area Recycling for Charities (BARC). The non-profit organization offers services in Grand Traverse, Antrim, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Benzie and Manistee and works with GFL for the recycling of metal, paper, plastic and glass.
“The paper market in the Midwest here is pretty good,” Gale continues. “The number one and number two plastics – your water bottles and your laundry detergent – those things always have good markets. But half the other plastic there [are numbers] three to seven, and there just aren’t really good markets for these things.
And what about the glass, meaning all the bottles of wine we collect from local vineyards? “There really isn’t a market for that,” Gale says. In fact, some recyclers have stopped accepting glass altogether, unlike the practices of countries like Sweden and Belgium where 95% of waste glass is recycled. An article in Chemistry and Engineering News reports that only “one-third of the roughly 10 million metric tons of glass Americans throw away is recycled,” despite the fact that “glass can be recycled endlessly by crushing, mixing, and melting it with sand and other raw materials.”
If your drink ends up going in the trash, at least it’s not the end of the world. “Glass that goes into a landfill is pretty inert,” says Gale. “There are no chemical reactions. … It doesn’t break down into something nasty like electronics, wood, or plastic. It does not create greenhouse gases like organic materials, like paper or cardboard do inside a landfill.
Gale adds that markets are constantly changing, so glass and other materials could experience a renaissance. “As technology evolves and the world changes around us, more and more things are recyclable. People [also] make things more recyclable.
Get rid of everything else
One product that has a good market these days is a mattress, according to Gale. “We bought a mattress recycling company in 2014 called Michigan Mattress Recyclers, and we really grew it,” he says. “When we bought it, I think they were making about 5,000 mattresses a year. And right now we’re making about 15,000 mattresses.
While you can’t drop off your old Serta at the end of the driveway, you can drop it off at BARC’s Traverse City or Kaleva drop-off locations for a fee of $10-$35 or schedule a pickup for an additional $75. The dismantling work is the hardest part – Gale says the mattress becomes “skin[ned] like a fish” to separate wood, plastic and fabric, but ultimately the pieces of a mattress are 95% recyclable.
Over the years, BARC has become a local expert on other harder-to-recycle items like refrigerators and e-waste. Did you bypass the Christmas lights? They will take them for a small fee. House cladding, sofas, light fixtures and dining tables? Yes to all of the above (again, for a price).
As if all that hard work wasn’t enough, BARC offers zero-waste event services for everything from graduation parties to weddings to the Bayshore Marathon. They have also started an initiative called De/Re Construction which involves deconstructing homes slated for demolition and using salvaged materials to build small homes as a solution to the labor housing shortage.
Whatever products BARC receives, they first check what can be reused. Quality items that pass through the recycling facilities are sent to their 2,400 square foot Kaleva resale store. Items that do not find a second life are recycled, with the aim of ensuring that as little waste as possible ends up in a landfill.
“There is a hierarchy,” says Gales of the waste reduction steps. “We want to reduce, reuse and recycle. It’s in that order. Reduce when you can, then whatever you can’t reduce from your life, try to reuse it. …And then recycling or composting is the last thing.
To learn more about the services provided by Bay Area Recycling for Charities, visit monbarc.org.
The plastic game
When it comes to proper recycling, plastic is one of the most difficult substances to assess. Here are some examples of the seven types of plastic:
– #1 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate): water bottles and peanut butter containers
– #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene): milk jugs, shampoo bottles and detergent bottles
– #3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride): credit cards and children’s toys
– #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene): sandwich bags and grocery bags
– #5 PP (Polypropylene): yogurt containers, bottle caps and straws
– #6 PS (polystyrene): polystyrene
– #7 All other plastics: clear plastic cutlery and sports bottles
Check with your local recycler to find out what types of plastic they accept.
Those in Grand Traverse County can also go to the county’s RecycleSmart Take It Back recycling directory website (gtcountymi.gov/983/Take-It-Back-Recycling-Directory) for how and when to recycle most items.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) offers a similar online service that lets you search by material or zip code and provides a list of recyclers who may take various items. (recyclesearch.com/profile/michigan-directory)