After Monday’s post about emptying the trash, I started thinking about a conversation I had a couple years ago with an outreach educator from a waste management group. The woman was running a competition among high school students to build a portable sorter for recyclable materials. We got to talking about how materials are sorted in actual recycling plants and how they are received by the plants.
Ever wondered why some cities have citizens do a lot more sorting than other cities? I have your answer!
Waste management programs have two needs. First, they want as much recyclable material recycled as possible instead of trashed. Second, they want that material sorted as completely as possible. Paper mixed into the plastic lowers the quality of the recycled product.
The best way to get material sorted is to have households sort their own material. If your city does this, you might have a plastics bin, a paper bin, a glass bin, a metal bin…and you probably don’t have much trouble keeping metal out of the glass bin–high quality sorting. You also need a lot of space for all this sorting, so you might give up and not recycle. The more sorting households do themselves, the less likely they are to participate, which reduces the quantity of material recycled (which, in turn, increases the amount of material sent to the landfill).
The way to get the most recyclable material is to have sorting machines and people at a sorting facility go through all the trash from a city. All households participate by default, but this mass sorting lets a lot of junk into the wrong pile–even material that is not recyclable at all, like pizza, might end up in the cardboard pile. This method produces the lowest-quality product.
Each municipality has to find the balance between getting households to participate in recycling programs and getting the highest quality sorting. There are some intermediate methods available. Our city has households sort recyclable material into a separate bin from the trash, and the paper gets sorted from the plastic somewhere else. This makes it quite easy for us to participate in the recycling program. Without a garage, it would be tough for us to keep five bins for recyclables, but one extra bin in the kitchen isn’t hard at all.