Carolina Curious: Why Are Recycling Instructions So Complicated?

Carolina Curious: Why Are Recycling Instructions So Complicated?

7:41am Mar 12, 2019
WFDD listener and Winston-Salem-based recycler Stephanie Bennett. BETHANY CHAFIN/WFDD

Winston-Salem resident Stephanie Bennett is a WFDD listener and wants to know more about something that most of us do every day. She's serious about recycling but doesn’t understand why it can be so complicated. And when she goes to the city’s website to demystify the process, the instructions are involved.

"Automatically you’re confused about what can be recycled and what can’t,” she says.

For this edition of Carolina Curious, WFDD’s Bethany Chafin and Stephanie Bennett head to a local recycling facility to sort it out.

Inside the MRF

In hard hats and steel-toed boots, we watch as a giant conveyor belt moves truckloads of recycling that's been collected around Winston-Salem into a material recovery facility, or MRF.

This is where it’s all sorted, and Stephanie and I are already mesmerized. Richie Huckabee with Waste Management, the company that runs the MRF, tells us that all sorts of things come through here.

Sorters make sure the right items get separated out at the material recovery facility. Image courtesy Waste Management.

“Bowling balls, batteries,” he says. 

We watch a child’s plastic baby pool go by, then a blanket and some pillows. 

The wildest thing to come through? A pair of bear paws a taxidermist tried to recycle. 

“I have seen the front of a car come into one of these lines before. You'll see all this material, and they're [MRF workers] responsible for gathering this stuff out before it goes into the system and does damage to the system,” Huckabee says. 

In order for the MRF to run smoothly, consumers have to do their homework. Site Manager Terry Feeny takes us through the maze of machinery; every piece has a specific function.

There’s the TITECH that uses hundreds of air guns and an optical scanner to shoot and sort plastic items - about 100 to 120 tons a month.

Then there’s the glass breaker. “[There are] heavy, steel gears that are spinning at hundreds of miles an hour. And as the glass hits these gears, it shatters it,” Feeny says. The glass falls down and is sifted through the system. Most items here are sorted based on surface area and weight. 

Market Forces

Recycling differs from place to place. There’s no one law mandating cities do it a certain way.

In Winston-Salem, for example, you can put all your recycling together curbside into one big, blue bin. It’s called single-stream recycling. But how do you know if what you’re putting in there is truly recyclable?

To answer that, we asked Susan Robinson, Director of Public Affairs for Waste Management.

“Recyclables are feedstock to make new materials. Only when it’s [recycled item] displacing the use of raw resources and making a new product, then that’s recycling,” she says.

Inside a material recovery facility or MRF. Image courtesy Waste Management.

What that means is that recycling is dependent on market forces; there has to be a buyer for the commodity. And the market is changing. China used to buy about 30 percent of U.S. recyclables. Now these products have to be sold stateside.

This is one reason why recycling can get complicated. Another reason is some misinformation involving the numbers on the bottom of plastic items. 

“It’s probably one of the greatest areas of confusion and frustration in our industry. That labeling, those numbers, is not an indicator about whether or not a container can be recycled in any particular program,” Robinson says.

The numbers identify what kind of plastic an item is made with, and while this is helpful information, it’s a combination of material and container shape that indicates whether something can be recycled for a specific program.

Good Intentions 

It turns out that 16 to 20 percent of material collected is not able to be recycled. This is partially due to something Susan Robinson calls "wishcycling." 

“Wishcycling is the term that’s coined for material that consumers think should be recycled, or they’re confused, so they just put it in the cart, and they just leave it up to the recyclers to figure it out,” she says. And that’s why industry officials say, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

The final product ready to be sold to a buyer. Image courtesy Waste Management

Recycling instructions can be a bit of headache, but Scott Mouw with the non-profit Recycling Partnership says it’s worth it. He thinks people should be applauded for giving it their best shot.

He adds the fact that people care about being confused shows how invested they are. “They want to recycle. They understand the huge economic and environmental benefits from recycling,” he says.

Our listener Stephanie Bennett is one of these people. As we leave the MRF she’s enthusiastic.

“I was actually telling a friend like a year ago, I wish they had tours of recycling places,” she says.

And now that she’s been? She thinks everyone should visit a recycling facility.


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