Encouragement Without Education Backfires On Recycling Efforts

Longtime Slashdot reader Alok writes: High contamination in recycled garbage, such as plastic bags mixed in with the recyclable plastic waste, are causing major problems for sustainability efforts in U.S. This has been exposed as a big problem recently, due to recent stricter China import rules on importing waste materials that led to changes in the sourcing pipelines. Cities such as Philadelphia have ended up processing nearly half of the recycling garbage using waste-to-energy incinerators instead, where they’re being burned alongside garbage. “Today, the average U.S. recyclable load is about 25 percent contaminated,” reports Gizmodo. “To make their commodities saleable, material recovery facilities started hiring more ‘pickers’ and buying more equipment to remove items that shouldn’t be in the recycling, in addition to slowing down their processing lines.” [C]ommunities like Philadelphia are going have to generate cleaner material that is more marketable,” Scott McGrath, Environmental Planning Director at the City of Philadelphia Streets Department, said, adding that the city will be focusing more of its efforts on educating residents about what can and cannot be recycled. McGrath said if Philly can convince residents to stop tossing plastic bags in the recycling bin, that alone would be a big deal.

Anne Germain, Vice President of Technical and Regulatory Affairs at the National Waste and Recycling Association, an industry trade group, said public education was something the recycling industry as a whole had let slide over the years. “We were more about encouraging recycling than saying stop doing this or that,” she said. This, combined with the widespread adoption of single stream, has made the public increasingly enthusiastic about throwing everything in their blue bins, resulting in a lot of what Center for American Progress representative Kristina Costa calls “aspirational recycling,” or attempting to recycle garbage. “Once you start saying more and more materials are acceptable, it seems that a lot of people start to think everything is acceptable,” Germain said, adding that the increased complexity of packaging today compared with a few decades ago has only added to the confusion.

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