Earth Day 2021:
The recycling dilemma
By Peter Leonard-Morgan
While progress is made globally on a daily basis with advancements in sustainability and renewable energy, recycling remains, to many, a mystery. Despite good intentions, most of us are confused by terms such as single and dual stream, and have little local guidance as to how to easily ensure that what we put in our recycling bins actually has a chance of being recycled.
Sadly, it is not just a simple matter of throwing plastic, glass and paper/cardboard into a blue bin and it all gets magically recycled and repurposed. Far from it, unfortunately.
Conversely, as an example, Germany has such strict rules as to which color bins which materials must go that facilities must continually re-sort the right materials into the correct containers, so that it is successfully broken down and recycled.
Members of the Middleburg Go Green committee recently took a field trip to the Fauquier County Corral Farm recycling collection site, home also to the county landfill. Corral Farm is an eye opener, and a wonderful example of how an environmentally sensitive region works hard to combat the scourge of a throwaway society.
At Corral Farm, residents of the county are welcomed with open arms to dispose of their plastic, glass and paper waste in their dual stream system. Dual stream recycling, also referred to as source separated recycling, is the process whereby fiber materials, paper and cardboard, are disposed of by the consumer in separate receptacles to glass, metal and plastic.
Loudoun County does not practice dual stream recycling, therefore making it far more difficult to sell recyclables due to the fact that buyers must invest time and manpower into hand sorting paper material from glass, metal and plastic. In fact, glass can no longer be collected for recycling in Loudoun County due to the fact that China no longer buys our recyclables so the Board of Supervisors valiantly came to the rescue and launched the purple bin program, an initiative whereby large specially adapted covered purple dumpsters (actually they are more pink than purple, but that’s just semantics!) have been sited at various locations around the county to accept glass recyclables. From there, the glass is taken to a facility where it is finely crushed for use in sand, gravel asphalt and other ingenious applications.
Fauquier’s facility goes far beyond merely accepting recyclable materials. At Corral Farm, they have a substantial staff which takes the dual stream recyclables, once dropped off by residents, and carefully sorts it into paper, cardboard, tin, aluminum and plastic. Following a circuitous route, those separated materials are crushed and baled, resembling futuristic straw bales, which are stacked for collection by the businesses which buy this commodity.
The sale of these processed materials is where it becomes really interesting, because locales such as Fauquier County have built up reputations among buyers as quality suppliers of recyclable material which has been properly processed and sorted. This results in higher prices and greater demand than locations which do not have dual stream systems and processing facilities. The buyers then repurpose these materials into new items such as cans, bottles, bags and garments, to name but a few.
So what, one might ask, can we as individuals do to improve our sustainability footprint, when it comes to recycling? In Loudoun County today, the most important thing we as residents can do is to clean out plastic containers before placing them in the recycling bin. Also, peel off paper labels and throw those in the regular trash, and compact any plastic bottles and replace their caps so that they don’t spring back into their original bottle shape. This makes them less susceptible to being whisked off in the wind to litter the landscape.
Cardboard boxes should be flat packed and paper bundled as much as possible. Glass bottles are a major problem; if these go into the same receptacle as cardboard and break in transit, the glass shards co mingle with the cardboard and render the cardboard useless for recycling, so consider putting glass bottles and jars in a separate blue recycling bin. And the ‘rumor’ that one should not put pizza boxes in the recycling bin is correct! Unfortunately the residual food in those boxes ends up being tasty for flies which leave their larvae and, eventually maggots which infest the entire bundle of recycling.
Ironically, some Chinese businesses have suffered from the fact that China no longer takes our recyclables, as they needed them for their products, things like the stuffing which goes into toys and furniture. But there are still other countries buying this commodity from us which they are able to repurpose.
Single use plastic grocery bags deserve a special mention. These bags, as with the flimsy plastic sheaths in which our newspapers are delivered, clog up recycling machinery and therefore must not be put in with the recycling. Instead, local stores such as our very own Middleburg Safeway, have dedicated receptacles outside the front door for these plastic bags which are then bought by Trex in Winchester to be made into Trex composite decking. Truly a great example of repurposing an item which otherwise is devastating to our environment and to wildlife.
This Earth Day, let’s all commit to more effort to treat our beautiful planet with the respect it deserves, and leave the next generation with a vibrant and healthy planet!