Recyclers are having increasing troubles finding markets for materials collected in curbside recycling.
You can help the planet, save a little cash and teach your kids about conservation and responsibility.
Just pay attention to the little pictures.
Pizza boxes. Aerosol cans. Aluminum foil. Plastic cups.
Monroe County’s environmental services crew has come up with more than 100 exquisite little drawings of things you can recycle, and things you can’t.
They’ve made downloadable posters, shot two videos, drafted a new FAQ and authored a 38-pager “Recyclopedia” filled with the little drawings, which were created this summer by nationally known illustrator Chris Lyons of Pittsford.
The flurry of educational activity is a response to what has suddenly become the Big Problem of American recycling — too many of the wrong thing being thrown in our blue and green recycling bins.
“We know folks want to do the right thing. They just need the information in a way they can understand,” said Michael Garland, the county’s environmental services director.
Changes in the global recycling marketplace have made companies that buy bulk paper and plastic much pickier about what they’ll accept. They’ll reject shipments if there’s too much unrecyclable material — plastic bags, foam egg cartons, discarded food — mixed in.
Employees pick contaminants off a conveyor belt in the paper sorting area at the Monroe County Recycling Center. (Photo: JAMIE GERMANO, @jgermano1/Staff Photographer)
Too many contaminants can make a batch of mixed paper or plastic unusable.
Hence, Monroe’s education campaign. Launched this fall, the campaign seems to be having a positive effect, according to Garland.
“There’s a lot of good info out there now. It’s helping,” he said. “I think we were ahead of the curve on that.”
Recycling programs across the nation were set back on their heels early this year when China, a major importer, banned recyclables imported from the United States. Officials cited contamination as a factor in the ban.
That left municipal and private recycling programs in a bind. In some parts of the country, no other markets existed for recycled paper fiber, and that material was warehoused or buried in local landfills.
The situation in New York was not so dire. Government and industry officials said no recycled material was being dumped in landfills save for glass, for which markets had evaporated years earlier.
But the glut of paper fiber drove down the prices that recyclers would pay. The companies that operate large recycling centers in Monroe, Ontario and other New York counties were losing money on every shipment of recycled paper.
As a consequence, recycling centers began charging more for the material they accepted, and those extra costs were passed on to consumers. Recycling center operators also reduced their payments to the municipalities for whom they worked.
And because much of the recycling industries followed China’s lead and tightened their contamination standards in response to China’s actions, recycling centers had to hire extra workers to better clean recyclables before they were shipped.
Six months later, conditions have eased, but only a little.
A spokesman for Waste Management Inc., which operates Monroe County’s recycling center, said prices for paper have improved but the company still lose money on that commodity.
Casella Waste Systems, which operates a large regional recycling center in Ontario County, is shipping some paper at a loss, thought not as often as before. A spokeswoman said the company still has to employ extra workers because of the mor stringent contamination standards.
The best way to meet those stringent standards — and avoid further costs to consumers — is the prevent contamination at its source.
That’s your house, and the other places where you and your family spend their time.
Those are the places targeted by the county.
They’re tailored for distinct locations — apartments, schools, offices, public places — and come with matching labels that can be attached to recycling bins.
One of the posters would be a handy guide to hang near the home recycling bin as a constant reference.
The posters are festooned with Lyon’s little illustrations, making them ideal for helping young recyclers learn the dos and don’ts.
Garland raves about those illustrations.
Apartment recycling sign (Photo: Monroe County/Chris Lyons)
“Someday they’ll end up in the Museum of Modern Art,” he said, only half-jokingly. “The artwork that went into it … is remarkable, how he’s able to capture all these images.”
“It was a lot of fun and it’s important work. That’s a nice combo,” said Lyons, who is an adjunct faculty member in the industrial design program at Rochester Institute of Technology. “I’m an Illustrator and I love to draw. I don’t much care if it’s the New York Times or Monroe County Recycling — I love being busy and working with great people.”
Garland also is particularly proud of the carefully indexed Recyclopedia, which will tell you precise what is and isn’t recyclable.
As the Recyclopedia notes, there are numerous items that residents can’t put in their blue boxes but that can be re-used if they’re brought to the county Ecopark. The drive-in recycling center is located southwest of Greater Rochester International Airport in Chili.
It accepts scrap metal, old televisions, pharmaceuticals, electronics, printer cartridges and a host of other materials. The Ecopark recently added eyeglasses and hard-cover books to its repertoire (paperbacks can be recycled in residential bins).
The county also purchased equipment that compacts bulky Styrofoam packing material into denser chunks that can be sold for use in making plastic lawn furniture, Garland said.
Chicken stock carton (Photo: Monroe County/Chris Lyons)
There are plenty of items in everyday life that aren’t accepted in recycling bins and aren’t welcome at the Ecopark either.
Anything tainted with food waste should be tossed. So should the lightweight cups in which hot coffee or cold soda are sold. Ditto old spackling, metallic gift wrap and plastic Keurig-style coffee pods.
The county’s new educational material is laden with the slogan “when it doubt, through it out.”
It pains recyclers to think that something that can be re-used might wind up in the trash, but officials say that beats having a bundle of paper fiber rejected by a finicky recycling mill operator because of too much contamination.
Purity above all. Said Garland, “We know quality sells.”
More: Monroe County Ecopark
More: Monroe County’s Recyclopedia
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