Explore where your garbage goes at York County Resource Recovery Center, which has undergone $10 million in renovations.
Paul Kuehnel, email@example.com
The commonwealth of Pennsylvania is about to invest in your trash.
Consultants will sort through garbage and recycling around the state to figure out what you’re throwing away and what you’re recycling because, frankly, it’s not a pretty picture.
Much of what’s put in recycling bins doesn’t belong there.
Recycling in Pennsylvania is a $1 billion stream of revenue, said Larry Holley, manager of the division of waste minimization and planning for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
To keep the revenue strong, that stream of recycling materials needs to be cleaned up, in Pennsylvania and all over the world – and soon.
Recyclables are unloaded from a truck at Penn Waste’s facility. Kathy Masch, director of operations, says that the recycling “stream turns brown” around the holiday because of an increase in packing materials. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)
- For years, China bought about 70 percent of the world’s plastics along with other recyclables, but in 2018, it cut back on almost all imports because of too much contamination.
- Contamination in the recycling stream isn’t just peanut butter or mayonnaise that hasn’t been cleaned out of a jar. It’s also diapers and true waste that didn’t belong in the recycling bin in the first place. Sorting out the waste at processing plants is expensive.
- When China pulled out, it created a piling up of recyclables in the United States, Some communities didn’t have a back-up plan for selling their plastic, paper and cardboard. The glut of recyclables drove down their value.
- The cost of recycling is offset by the value of used glass, paper, cardboard and plastic, among others, that are sold as commodities.
‘Diapers to dead animals’
What people put in their recycling bins is often not acceptable or it’s just plain garbage, causing so much contamination that it’s costing recycling centers more money to sort out the wrong stuff.
“We see everything from diapers to dead animals,” said Amanda Moley, director of marketing at Penn Waste Inc. in York County.
That contamination costs Penn Waste money.
“We’ve invested in technology. We’ve invested in more employees. We’ve slowed down the recycling process,” Moley said. Some consumers aren’t being diligent with what is recyclable at Penn Waste. Additionally, this is what is recyclable for Lancaster County residents using Penn Waste.
That lack of diligence is costing recycling centers more money, which could eventually trickle down to municipalities and consumers.
Check your knowledge
1. Are plastic grocery bags acceptable in your recycling bin?
2. Can you put medical equipment, like needles, in your recycling bin?
3. Is your milk carton (paper) recyclable?
4. Can you put a tire in your recycling bin?
5. What do you do with lithium batteries?
Answers: 1) No because they get caught in the recycling conveyor belts and wheels; they can be returned to most grocery stores for recycling, though. 2) No, it’s a hazard to machines and employees at recycling centers; check with your local municipality regarding the best place to drop off medical waste. 3) Yes, but take off the plastic lid first. 4. No, but in some places, you can put your used tire, minus the wheel, out for garbage pickup; ask your hauler exactly what’s acceptable. 5) Don’t throw them in either your recycling bin or in the garbage; they are a fire hazard, so check with your local municipality about how to dispose of them.
If you scored a 5, congratulations! Start teaching others.
Why PA is involved
Why are consumers getting recycling wrong? And how does education need to change to get consumers to recycle properly?
That’s what the state DEP is trying to figure out.
They’ll study waste and recycling in urban, suburban and rural areas across the state to figure out who’s getting it wrong and how wrong they are, Holley from the DEP said. The state is currently looking for the consultant it will hire to do this work.
Ultimately, the state needs to figure out how to better educate the public. That $1 billion recycling stream is a valuable one, and contamination from consumers threatens the health of that stream.
“One thing I love about the commonwealth: We’re so far into the implementation,” Holley said. State residents have grown up with recycling, and they’ll change to fix the contamination problem.
How bad it can get
Crawford County stopped its county-run recycling efforts last year.
The solid waste authority had been providing recycling drop-off points for residents in rural areas, but the bins were often full of non-recyclable garbage.
“We did a study, and we found an extraordinarily high contamination rate,” said Lisbet Searle-White, a former board chairman for the authority.
“When it was time to renew our contracts for the next year… we were told by our haulers that we would be assessed a $200 contamination fee per load,” she said. Contamination could be a single plastic bag that wasn’t acceptable. “That made it completely untenable.”
As it turns out, only 30-35 percent of Crawford County residents paid for garbage collection, so the remainder either threw their waste in recycling bins or burned it, Searle-White said.
“We have more of a trash problem than a recycling problem,” she said.
When the county stepped out of recycling, the burden fell to the municipalities, which are only required by state law to provide the service if the population exceeds 10,000 in a community or if the population is densely populated.
Other Pennsylvania communities that aren’t required to provide recycling have begun to question whether they, too, should get out of it.
One county doing it well
Penn Waste processes about 700-800 tons per day. Take a peak at what the process looks like at Penn Waste’s recycling center.
Ty Lohr, firstname.lastname@example.org
Centre County hasn’t been affected by China’s recycling turnaround because it has an unusual program.
When the recycling truck pulls up in front of a home, the red bin is sorted at the curb: paper, plastic, cardboard, green glass, etc. Unacceptable materials are left at the curb, often with a note from the recycling team explaining why, said Ted Onufrak, executive director of the Centre County Refuse and Recycling Authority.
The county does this at 28,000 homes and about 900 businesses, so its recycling loads have very little contamination. The county owns its processing facility, too.
Centre County never exported recyclables to China; it uses primarily Pennsylvania-based companies to sell its paper, cardboard, glass and plastics, Onufrak said.
When other counties couldn’t export to China any longer, they had to create new revenue streams for their materials.
In York County – and every county is different – the impact has been less, Dave Vollero, Solid Waste Authority executive director, said.
“I think there’s a pretty robust program in York County, so you won’t see that change that Crawford County experienced.” he said. The waste goes to the incinerator, turning it into electricity and sold into a regional grid.
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