From toothbrushes to nail polish tops, the amount of plastic items used by just one person in a single day is thousands.
But where do all of those small items that have started to fill our lives go when we’re done?
“We’ve become a disposable-based society right now,” said Calandra Waters Lake, director of Sustainability at William and Mary. “People feel good about recycling instead of putting something in the trash can, recycling in mind should be the last option, the first should be are you buying something reusable?”
When an item is put into those famous blue bins, it’s easy to take the out of sight, out of mind approach. But in reality, the lifespan of a plastic product is only just beginning when you recycle it and sometimes, it isn’t even recycled at all.
When recycling plastic, it is important to understand where each item goes and that not all of it can necessarily be recycled.
Most items in James City County, York County and Williamsburg are processed through the Virginia Peninsula Public Service Authority. VPPSA contacts the collection to County Waste, which then takes it to a material recovery facility, or MURF, said David Magmant, director of operations at VPPSA.
At the MURF, items go through machines, like optical sorters, which can differentiate between plastics.
There are a lot of plastics that local facilities don’t have the capability to process, said Carl D. Thomas, senior environmental specialist with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Before, when China was accepting plastics, which are items like yogurt cups and styrafoam, the items held enough value for U.S. industries to ship to China for processing.
Now, those plastics are staying on our shores and where they go is still a mystery to a lot of residents.
“It’s a lot of ‘wishful recycling,’” Magmant said. “People take material and say ‘I think this is recyclable,’ and just toss it in without knowing. You’d be amazed at what people think they can put in their recycling.”
Items that can be processed are taken through different routes. Some get remade into chairs and other plastic products, but others provide service in different ways.
At Tidewater Fiber Corporation, which will be taking the contract with Williamsburg in the next year, items are sorted between what can and cannot be accepted. Items that can’t be accepted for recycling are then taken to a refuse-derived fuel facility where they are used to produce energy through heat and steam.
“They used to have coal and oil but now they burn trash,” Thomas said.
But there are items, like greasy pizza boxes, that can’t be recycled or turned into energy and those end up right in our backyards— at the landfill. Thomas said each county has their own recycling and waste programs, but in general the extra waste that can’t be processed goes to landfills in Virginia Beach and Suffolk.
In addition, there are a number of convenience centers in the area that collect those items for disposal, but Thomas said it is very possible that even items from the centers can go back into the environment through wind and other environmental factors.
“We have such a low terrain that if you have a landfill, it’s going to put trash into the waterways,” he said. “You throw out a paper bag, that’s going to go to a landfill where it might get caught by the wind and end up in a stream.”
And it’s not just seeing a plastic bag in the stream at the park or finding bottle caps at the beach. It’s about what kind of world is being built for the future.
“Where we don’t want our trash to show up is in a landfill,” Thomas said. “It’s valuable land area and it can be an environmental burden and legacy.”
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