So you’re used to putting all of your recyclables in one, shall we say, basket.
“The analogy I like to use is that single-stream recycling is like scrambling an egg and asking the recycling facility to unscramble the egg,” Justin Stockdale said. “That’s what we’re asking these recycling facilities to do, and we’re asking them for that because we want it as convenient as it can possibly be.”
Stockdale serves as western regional director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Resources Council, which this year is marking its 80th anniversary of working toward a better environment. That includes educating the public about recycling, a practice that has undergone a major shift in parts of Washington County for the start of 2019.
With new waste-collection contracts going into effect in some municipalities – including Canonsburg Borough, Peters Township and South Strabane Township – glass and most types of plastics no longer are among the mix of materials accepted for curbside recycling.
“Glass collected through single-stream recycling collection is heavily contaminated once sorted from other commodity types,” Erika Deyarmin-Young, regional public affairs coordinator for contractor Waste Management Inc., explained. “Broken glass also contaminates other fiber and plastic, in turn, affecting the quality of those commodities, too.”
Even townships like Cecil, which are still within the bounds of contracts that allow residents to keep up with old recycling habits, see the “writing on the wall” and are preparing to make the trending changes in the near future.
These changes are not necessarily sitting well.
“For 25 years, I’ve been working around recycling, and if there is one commodity of all of them that people have an expectation they should be able to recycle, it’s the glass bottle,” Stockdale said. “We are actively working on a solution to bring drop-off collections for glass to the South Hills.”
He sees such a scenario as becoming standard practice.
“We’ll still have some version of single-stream recycling,” he predicted. “You’ll probably still mix your plastic bottles and your aluminum cans and steel cans and cardboard into one bin. But other materials are likely to be collected very discretely and separately from everything else.”
That wouldn’t be anything new.
“When we recycled in the ’80s and early ’90s, we were managing commodities, and that’s how we treated recycling,” Stockdale said. “You would go to a drop-off center. You’d sort materials into different quality grades of material.”
Eventually, that type of practice gave way to single-stream collection.
“We started to break the connection between commodities and recycling, and convenience overtook quality considerations,” Stockdale said. “In the modern world of recycling, we put everything into one bin. It doesn’t require any thought for the consumer. You don’t have to consider what you’re doing.”
And to revisit his egg analogy, combining everything tends to result in glass being ground into pieces so small that they’re barely visible, if at all, in photographs Stockdale has taken of single-stream mixes.
Along with glass, plastics labeled 3 through 7 are on the no-recycle list for municipalities with new recycling contracts.
“These materials are considered contamination,” Deyarmin-Young explained, “and the sustainability of recycling programs is dependent upon collecting high-quality items without unacceptable materials and trash.”
Perfectly acceptable is cardboard, which Stockdale called “one of the most valuable commodities in the waste stream.”
“It’s a very sustainable, smart closed-loop system of: You set your cardboard out for recycling. It goes to a paper mill. It gets turned right back into a cardboard box, and it’s going to be right back on your doorstep someday,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Resources Council has a long history of collection programs involving the likes of household chemicals and difficult-to-recycle items.
“We have a lot of experience with it, and we have a lot of confidence that the communities will adapt to handling their glass differently,” Stockdale asserted. “The trick is that somebody has to put a bin out there for them to put their glass in, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to do that.”