It’s not always easy to understand what can and can’t be recycled. It differs from area to area depending on the capabilities of the sorting facility in the closest proximity to where we live. It is also so important to get clean waste streams to help secure end markets for the resource. Sarah Ross, SOU’s Student PEAK Zero Waste Coordinator, sat down with Jamie Rosenthal, Recology’s Waste Education Officer, to go over some recycling myths and how we can understand them better.
Here are some myths, debunked to help with the confusion:
Jamie: There’s a lot to feel good about, and a lot more work to be done. I’m proud of Recology’s long- standing relationship with SOU, and I feel especially grateful for the positive impact the students have made on the overall success of our city’s recycling program. We’ve actually received feedback from our sort facility in Northern California that Ashland has the cleanest recycling stream of all the locations they accept material from, which is certainly celebration-worthy. I think what sets Ashland apart from other locations is the overall desire to expand our understanding of recycling, and to do better when we learn what that is.
Sarah: I started out by asking Jamie one of the most common recycling myths; if an item has the chasing arrows symbol on it, it’s recyclable?
Jamie: No. That symbol isn’t trademarked, so any manufacturer can slap it on any product. All too often, sadly, this maneuver is to manipulate you, the consumer, into feeling good about your purchase. The chasing arrow symbol and numbers (1-7) were created in the late ‘80s to refer to the general category of plastic resin the item is made from, not its recyclability. Another little known fact: there are over 40,000 types of plastic resin, not seven. This is why we aren’t able to recycle “by the numbers.”
On SOU’s campus, we can recycle #1 and #2 plastic bottles, plastic jugs and plastic tubs that are clean and dry. You can recycle soft plastic bags at your local grocery store, or at the Ashland Recycle Center, or drop them off at the Student Sustainability Office in Stevenson Room 310 to be used for the Student Food Pantry – not in the recycling bin.
Sarah: Drawing from the first question, I then asked Jamie, our second myth; it’s harder to recycle now than it was years ago?
Jamie: The items allowed in mixed recycling bins at SOU are the same currently as in the past. What has changed is the impetus to reduce non-recyclable items in the bins and do a better job of recycling correctly. If you check the SOU recyclable materials page of what is allowed in your bin, to avoid the urge to ‘wishfully’ recycle items you think should go in, you are doing fantastic work!
Sarah: In terms of compostables, which we have on SOU’s campus, it’s often confused that can compostable products like cups, plates and cutlery be recycled or composted?
Jamie: Ack! Oh no. Composting and recycling happen in wildly different ways. When “compostables” end up in recycling bins, they can mix with the high value, desired plastic and compromise its quality. Additionally, compostables are problematic at industrial composting facilities because they don’t actually break down at the rate needed for those facilities to churn out their product in a timely manner. Imagine opening up a brand new bag of compost, only to find large hunks of artificial material in the mix. If you’re a serious gardener, this just isn’t OK.
Sarah: Let’s get into myth No. 4, that always stumps recyclers – that lids are recyclable.
Jamie: When a metal lid is no longer attached to the can it originated from, it will find its way into problematic places, such as the folds of cardboard, thus contaminating that specific stream of material. Plastic lids are always a recycling ‘no’, but if you’re able to contain the metal lid within the metal can it came from, say by stomping on the edge of the can once the metal lid is inside, you’re good to recycle that. Just make sure to check your work, by turning the can upside down and shaking it vigorously, to make sure your lid doesn’t fall out.
Sarah: Finally, the predicament that most people ask about; of the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), if I’m recycling, am I doing my very best for the planet?
Jamie: Unfortunately, no. Reducing and reusing are far more important than recycling. If you’d like to go the extra green mile, consider buying used instead of new. Did you know that buying a refurbished computer instead of a new one saves 139 pounds of waste, 7,300 gallons of water, and 2,300 kilowatt hours of energy required to manufacture a new one?
Here’s the GOOD news: SOU’s Recycling Center has student workers who hand sort the university’s recycling and are careful and conscious about recycling correctly. Please help them out by washing out all recyclable containers as this can contaminate a whole bag of recycling. According to Recology’s sorting facility where we send our material, we get it right 95 to 96% of the time, whereas the rest of the country is hovering around getting it right only 70% of the time. Thank you for being part of the solution, and keep up the great work – we know it’s not easy and your efforts are SO appreciated! And let’s also not forget – reducing and reusing (and repairing) is always far more important than recycling.”
Story by Jamie Rosenthal, Recology waste education officer, and Sarah Ross, SOU’s PEAK Zero Waste Coordinator