Cleenland visits the recycling center: here’s what we learned

I visited Casella’s recycling center in Charlestown, MA to see firsthand what happens to the waste we put in the recycling bin. I was also curious to learn how the changes China made last year to its rules about what post-consumer material it will import are impacting our local waste management systems. (For a short primer, check out this NatGeo piece.) Casella’s facility takes recyclables from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and 50+ other municipalities in the Greater Boston area. It also handles waste for a lot of private accounts for universities, hospitals, and businesses.

Takeaways, in case you get distracted before the end :)

  • The sorting process is impressive — video linked below.

  • There are a lot of things you may think can be recycled, but can’t. In fact, some of them are downright dangerous for workers at the facility. Don’t feel bad about it! I was screwing up, too. Skim on to get the real deal about what should go in the bin.

  • Recycling barely makes economic sense anymore. Because of the huge amount of recyclable materials generated in the U.S. and the very small market of buyers, income from the sale of recycled materials is very low, meanwhile, costs are increasing.

  • Let’s sidestep this confusing, expensive recycling business all together! Visit your local purveyors of bulk products to reduce your use of single-use plastics. Try starting with one product and take it from there.

Top insights, digested for your reading pleasure:

  • The way the facility separates different materials is fascinating. Hint: it’s not people. (They do quality control for the machines.) If you’ve ever wondered how single-stream recycling becomes multi-streamed again, check out this video from Casella, which is almost as good as being there. (It’s actually sort of better, given the place you’re watching it from is not super loud and dusty, and you’re not disrupting people’s work.)

  • I throw some stuff in my bin that can’t be recycled :( Here’s the list and the reasons why:

    • Tetra Pak milk and other rectangular cartons

      • The plastic coating on the cardboard can’t be removed and contaminates the paper pulp. I thought, huh, why did I think I could recycle that? No one bothered to correct us before because it didn’t matter when China took more contaminated recycling — they just dealt with it even though it lowered the quality of the pulp. Now that China is more restrictive, the recycling centers have to be more restrictive, too. Cartons are trash.

    • Anything smaller than 2”

      • If you watch the video above, you’ll see an early stage of the process sends the recycling over a conveyor belt made of spinning vertical discs spaced about 2 inches apart. Glass bottles fall between the discs into a hopper and the rest of the recycling moves along. Anything under 2 inches big also falls into the glass hopper, is separated out, and thrown away. The cost of sorting and processing these tiny bits is too high to be worth it. More on the economics of recycling in a minute.

    • Black plastic e.g. the bottom of a catering platter

      • Another highlight of the video above is the optical sensor which bounces light off recycling to detect and sort different types of plastic. (So cool.) Thing is, the conveyor belt the recycling travels on is black and the sensor can’t distinguish black plastic from the black belt, so that stuff gets trashed, too.

    • Stuff that has ANY food or drink on/in it

      • Contamination is a HUGE problem for the recycling center, again because the limits on contamination are stricter than they used to be. They can’t afford to wash/rinse/look twice at recycling and you can’t make recycled plastic out of tikka masala sauce or Harpoon IPA residue soooo the offending container or Solo cup is trash.

  • People throw other stuff in their bins that can’t be recycled :( And the thing is, it’s not just about profitability of the recycling center — these contaminants create dangerous situations for the workers, the folks sorting through our garbage. Here’s the stuff to be super careful with and why:

    • Plastic bags including bagged recycling

      • !!! This is the biggest offender. Plastic bags can only be recycled at special facilities (hence the collection bin at the grocery store) but definitely not in regular recycling. At a typical recycling facility/single-stream recycler, they tangle in the equipment and then two bad things happen: 1) workers have to climb into/onto sharp, jaw-like, compact-y equipment to detangle the bags, and 2) the whole operation stops which costs mad $$$.

    • Cords, cables, hoses, the plastic bits that wrap around reams of paper, anything long and wind-y

      • Same problem as bags — they can’t be recycled and instead tie up the machines.

    • Plastic wrap, films, tarps

      • Same again! Can’t be recycled; jams up the works.

    • Hazardous materials, medical waste, and electronics

      • Two words: fire and needles. Check with your local municipality for the best way to rid yourself of these items. Most communities have a drop-off site and/or specified days of the year for disposal of this scary stuff.

    • Paper towels, tissues, napkins

      • The fibers are already too short to be reconstituted into anything useful. This one isn’t dangerous but I’ve seen a lot of peeps throw these in the bin so I thought I’d mention it here.

  • 15-20% of what arrives at the recycling center goes to a landfill anyway! I asked and this blew me away. This is largely due to misinformation (we’re all set on that now!) and what’s called “wish-cycling” in the biz - where people (understandably) put things in the bin that can’t be recycled because they want them to be. We think, “it’s worth a shot.” Instead, putting contaminated, non-recyclable stuff in the bin makes the process slower, more expensive, and more dangerous. To help recycling happen most effectively and efficiently, adopt Casella’s mantra, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

  • Recycling barely makes economic sense anymore. Instead of generating income for communities from the sale of the materials, it’s costing a lot of money to haul, dump, and process the community’s waste with little or no market to buy them. Casella has definitely seen costs go up (technology to sort single-stream recycling, labor to pay workers to sort out contamination, cost of fuel for hauling, etc.) while prices have plummeted. I wrote a separate post with the long story very short and oversimplified if you’re interested. We’re runnin’ out of time here.

You may be thinking, “wow, recycling is more complicated, expensive, and interesting than I thought.” The good news is, we can reduce our reliance on recycling and on waste management systems in general by reducing the amount of stuff we try to get rid of. That’s why Cleenland exists — to help you do it!

See you soon!

Sarah Levy