I recently read this book and thought it was worth reviewing. Serving as a guidebook to recycling better, this publication is so much more than that! It was visually appealing, as it is illustrated with colorful diagrams and visuals to enhance your understanding of the subject matter.
The author, Jennie Romer, is an attorney and sustainability expert. She has more than a decade of experience fighting for effective legislation on single-use plastics and waste reduction.1 Romer currently serves as a legal associate for the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative “where she leads Surfrider’s policy efforts and litigation to reduce plastic pollution at local, state and national levels.”2 She created the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Bag Law Activist Toolkit3 and founded the website PlasticBagLaws.org.4The New Yorker called her “the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law.”5
“The truth is – and you knew this was coming – that recycling alone won’t save us or the planet.” -Jennie Romer
Purpose of the Book
Romer wrote that people ask her all the time, “Can I Recycle This?” and that was part of the impetus for the book. But the answers are never simple. Laws in different municipalities and recycling material profitability vary greatly. Recycling collection does not translate directly to actual recycling. With her background in law and sustainability, she was able to put together this guide that offers recycling advice, waste management systems and processes, and briefs histories of how these systems came to be.
In her introduction, she echoed my thoughts from my Packaging Series on packaging and manufacturer responsibility. “Recycling is only effective if the materials can be sold for a profit, and the markets for what is profitable fluctuates. Sadly, a lot of our carefully separated and washed plastics end up getting shipped to developing countries and contributing to climate change. And that’s where policy and activism come in: The ultimate goal is to adopt sensible and effective policies to reduce single-use plastic and other packaging, and hold producers responsible for making better packaging and paying for the cost of recycling and waste disposal (and cleanup).“6 Romer also viewed this book as a contribution to that movement.
Concise Overview of Waste Management
The first section of the book covered a concise overview of the recycling system and other waste management methods. Romer explained these complex systems well but with brevity. Topics included defining recycling and what recyclable means, the types of plastic resins (numbers on plastics), global plastic production, and how resources are extracted and produced. The book provided an overview of how single-stream recycling and other types of recycling systems work, sorting at Material Recovery Facilities, and the end markets for recycled materials. Additionally, she addressed “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics, incineration, and how modern landfills operate. There is so much to learn, and I found this section fascinating!
Guide to Recycling
In this core section, the author covered the recyclability of specific items, from straws to eyeglasses to disposable coffee cups. This section used a color-coding system both in the table of contents and on the edges of the pages to make it easy for the reader to quickly assess recyclability.
The Toll of Our Waste
Romer also covered the toll that our waste takes on air and water pollution, wildlife, and human health. She wrote about environmental justice regarding communities adjacent or near incineration facilities, landfills, or chemical plants. The book detailed China’s National Sword Policy and how that has changed our recycling markets globally. She also included the human health and pollution ramifications of shipping our waste internationally.
Personal & Policy Solutions
There are many solutions to avoid buying single-use disposable plastics, and Romer offered many ideas. She detailed greenwashing in advertising and offered advice on how to avoid those products. Most importantly, she explained how to have a voice within policy and regulations, particularly in regards to single-use disposable plastics. She defined Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and explored The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA).7 “The bill is a road map for how to address the plastic pollution problem in the U.S. and was developed by legislators in consultation with environmental groups and other experts,” she wrote. “The legislation looks at virtually the entire life cycle of plastics, from its creation to manufacturing and disposal.”
It can be hard to convey the importance of recycling and environmental responsibility. I found this book inspired me to keep the momentum going on fighting single-use disposal products, preventing climate change, and protecting human and animal life. This is our planet, and we need to protect ourselves from the catastrophes we are creating. We can all be the change. Romer hopes so too: “I hope that this book inspires you to become involved with plastics reduction and recycling.” I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone wishing to learn more about recycling and the related issues.
Ask for a copy of this book at your local library! Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe.
Just like that, with one day’s notice. It was announced in a news release on July 29 and took effect on July 30. I worry that this will not be a temporary suspension and that the “non-essential” city service will end long-term. The City removed glass recycling from curbside pick-up in 2018 and never brought it back.
The mayor seems determined to bring it back. According to their news release, “Residents should keep their recycling containers. Curbside recycling will be reinstated. However, residents may also call 311 to have their containers picked up.”1 Don’t return your bin just yet, though.
The City of Chattanooga has suspended curbside recycling pick-up because of a shortage of truck drivers. There are simply not enough people to run the trucks to collect the recycling with over 30 open CDL driver positions. The City must focus on garbage pick up because that is an essential service required by law. Officials indicated that even garbage services could see disruptions if they are not able to hire a sufficient number of employees.
While this is certainly pandemic related, the other major factor is a lower than average salary for city employees. The mayor’s Chief of Staff said, “The impact to recycling due to our driver shortage illustrates one of Chattanooga’s most acute problems: pay for city employees is far below the market rate, a problem our budget will address when we present it to City Council in August.”2 These positions require a CDL and three years of experience, but the base pay offer is only $31,548. The mayor announced that he’d like to raise the pay to $45,000 with City Council approval, and resume recycling services within 60 days.3 But it seems that even if they increase pay rates, it could take months to fill that many open positions.
“This was a difficult decision. An increasing shortage of drivers, low employee retention and hiring challenges are just a few of the issues that made continued curbside recycling untenable.” -City of Chattanooga press release4
How to Recycle Now
Going forward, we will have to take our recycling to the closest recycling center. The City’s news release told residents to go to one of the five city-run recycling centers. However, there are a total of 10 recycling centers in Chattanooga and Hamilton County, and you can use any of them. I’ve created a map showing the 5 city centers in green, and the 5 county centers in orange:
Generally, all the centers take #1 and #2 plastics, aluminum and steel cans, newspaper, mixed paper, cardboard, glass, and some offer computer equipment and oil collection. I’ve listed links to both the City and County’s websites under Additional Resources.
Note that none of the recycling centers collect #3-#7 plastics. The only reason they were allowed in the curbside bins is that the Chattanooga Code of Ordinances states that they will collect it.5So even though they include that they will pick up all plastics #1-#7, only #1 and #2 are actually sent for recycling. There is little or no market for #3-#7 and those are landfilled.
For residents who are either unable or unwilling to cart their recyclables to the centers, this will be the end of recycling for them. That recycling will now go to the landfill. These are typically 96-gallon bins. Our household routinely filled the blue recycling bin long before the garbage bin, and we only put our garbage out every few weeks. But I regularly see other households’ garbage bins overflowing week after week, and I can only expect to see an increase with no recycling curbside service.
Update:The City apparently did not account for the increase in recycling that would be dropped off at the recycling centers. With the exception of glass, the bins have been full and so overflowing it was hard to fit my stuff into them. This has been frustrating and extremely disappointing.
Time For Change?
I argue that now is the time for a change. Single-stream recycling systems are wrought with problems regarding sorting, separation, and contamination (meaning residents mix in unrecyclable items). So do we want our imperfect single-stream recycling system back? Does it increase recycling participation even though it lowers the quality of the recovered materials? Or do we need to look at other options such as lowering our use of single-use disposable plastics? Perhaps we could shift our focus to reducing waste in general?
Perhaps now is not a time to demand bringing the old system back, but a time to overhaul the City of Chattanooga’s waste management systems in general. We could pass city-wide bans on single-use plastics such as straws, plastic bags, and take-out containers. We could implement city-wide composting to reduce methane emissions. This would also allow the city to have great soil for landscape projects, urban gardens, and free or low-cost soil for residents. The opportunities are out there, but are we ready here?
Let me know your thoughts by leaving me a comment below. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!
Update: The City of Chattanooga announced that they would do a one-time emergency curbside pick-up of the blue recycling bins. The announcement’s wording was that the city wanted to “empty” the bins before the plan to hopefully resume full service in October. Residents were informed to put recycling bins out on the same day as regular garbage pick-up. Many were excited that they could again recycle, even if it was just this once. Others were skeptical, myself included. I asked if they would be picking up both bins with one truck, as that would mean all of the materials would be landfilled.
Evidently, many called and emailed the city to ask the same question, which prompted the city to respond and be transparent. The materials from the one-time emergency recycling pick-up will go to the landfill. The city wants to empty the recycling bins, since it was ended so abruptly, to have a fresh start. “Many residents’ bins have..been sitting outside in the weather for several weeks now—rendering the material inside too poor a quality for a second life in the recycling aftermarket,” wrote a city spokesperson.6 The City should have been upfront about this. I know that at least half of the city residents have not followed this story and will put their stuff out, unknowingly sending it to the landfill.
Chattanooga, we can do better than this.
Page, “Recycling,” City of Chattanooga government website, accessed July 31, 2021.
Page, “Where/When to Recycle, Hamilton County,” Tennessee government website, accessed July 31, 2021.
In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.
Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.
“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”
If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.
But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.
Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.
Industrial Composting Facilities
There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.
Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is not an industrial composting facility in your area, the only option is to throw compostable plastics in the trash, since they cannot be recycled.
If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.
Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.
Wincup polystyrene disposable cups
I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.
WinCup disposable polystyrene cup. Photos by me
First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.
Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.
BASF ecovio line
BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:
BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4
This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.
Molded fiber take-out packaging
These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like amagnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.
Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.
My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.
In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.
In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.
Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.
Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.
In Part 1 of this post, I explained how glass recycling works in general. In this second installment, I’m going to explain some of the problems, controversies, and solutions.
So now you know that glass is 100% recyclable! And besides recycling, it has many other potential uses.
If you read my previous post, you also know that glass from curbside pick-up in Chattanooga was not being recycled for about 4 years. This was happening for several reasons according to WestRock, the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for Chattanooga and much of the Southeast. At present in Chattanooga, glass can only be recycled at the local centers, as it is no longer accepted in curbside recycling.
But it’s not just a problem in Chattanooga. It’s happening all over the place. There are many claims for not recycling glass.
“Glass [has a] 73 percent recycling rate in the European Union, 34 percent in the United States.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine
Exploring the realities of glass recycling
There is a huge market for glass
According to MSW Management Weekly, cullet has declined in prices in most parts of the country. They cited that contamination leads to increased processing costs thus lowering the value of glass. They wrote that many communities are either contemplating or are removing glass collection from their recycling programs because glass recycling is expensive and labor-intensive.
The assertion that there is not much of a market for glass is just plain wrong. If you’ll recall, recycling has to be profitable for it to happen. Many MRF’s are claiming that there is no market for glass, but Laura Hennemann, Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Strategic Materials, indicated that they need more glass to meet end-market demand in their Atlanta facility. There is more demand for glass than there is supply! Strategic Materials is the largest glass recycling company in North America. There are many end markets for glass, and you can read more about those in Part 1.
In single-stream recycling systems, meaning where all materials go into one bin for curbside pick-up, all recyclables contaminate each other because they’re all mixed together. Broken glass gets mixed in with all the other materials, and that makes it difficult and costly to sort because the machinery to separate at that level is a serious capital investment for the MRF. If the machinery to separate is cost-prohibitive, the materials get landfilled.
Curt Bucey, an executive vice president at Strategic Materials Inc., quoted in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, said “that when used glass arrived at its plants 20 years ago, it was 98% glass and 2% other castoffs, such as paper labels and bottle caps. These days, some truckloads can include up to 50% garbage.” Even so, the technology for separating the materials is available!
Garbage and non-glass (ceramics, metal, plastics) mixed in with glass can somewhat affect the value of glass, but the value can be maximized by implementing best practices. The Glass Recycling Coalition (GRC) offers lots of information and resources on those.
You do not have to clean and remove labels from your glass
Glass does not have to be cleaned and the labels do not have to be removed. Glass recyclers, including Strategic Materials, have machinery that manages those as part of their regular processing. They prefer people to rinse their glass, of course, but it will get recycled either way. Personally, I rinse my recyclables because I don’t want them to attract bugs or start stinking until collection or drop off day.
Another reason many MRF’s assert that they cannot sort the glass before it reaches their facility because the glass causes damage to their conveyor belts and machinery.
Glass use has decreased but only slightly
Many manufacturers of processed foods have greatly increased their output of plastic packaging in the last 25 years. Plastic is cheaper to produce and cheaper to ship. Additionally, there is a reduced chance of product loss from glass breakage. Many retailers and consumers prefer plastic for similar reasons. However, informed consumers know that there are certainly risks to our environment and health from using plastic containers. We know that there is still a high demand for recycled glass. This seems to indicate that even if usage has gone down, it’s likely only a slight decrease.
Broken glass is accepted
Broken glass is accepted by glass recycling companies (as opposed to MRFs), as it gets broken down into cullet anyway. Strategic Materials even said they prefer broken glass because you can fit more of it into a container.
Mixed colors are also accepted
Mixed colored glass is ok too! Strategic Materials and other major glass recyclers have optical sorters that sort glass by color.
China’s SWORD policy does not affect glass
In 2017, China passed the National Sword policy banning plastic waste from being imported from the West, starting in January 2018. Laura Hennemann of Strategic Materials asserts that glass is produced and recycled domestically, so this policy does not affect glass recycling in the U.S. and Canada.
Conflicts of Interest
When recycling doesn’t make money, it gets transported to landfills, and then companies make money from landfilling the materials instead. In a recent New York Timesarticle entitled “The Conflict of Interest That Is Killing Recycling,” the author interviewed Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America. She noted that “Some of the biggest and most dominant recycling companies in the U.S. are owned by landfill companies. Therefore, when recycling doesn’t work well, the landfill side of their businesses becomes more profitable.”
The purpose of a MRF is to sort materials and divert them accordingly, but they are also a business which must generate income. If a MRF owns landfills, and if landfills generate more income than recycling, then the recycling system breaks down. Additionally, landfill fees also increased between 2016 and 2018, making landfills slightly more profitable.
Public Relations affect recycling
I mentioned in my last post that I believed that some communities, including Chattanooga, may be collecting glass just to appear to be a greener city. Ninety-three percent of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass, according to the Glass Recycling Coalition. MSW Management Weekly wrote that glass collection often continues even if it is not getting recycled. “In many cases, however, the public relations benefits and avoided tipping fees are felt to outweigh the collection and processing costs.”
A Domino Effect
This statement from an article at waste360.com sums up what happened to glass recycling in recent years: “Early in 2015, the industry’s largest players announced that glass should and would be eliminated from single-stream programs.” Many MRFs “felt permission to follow suit without justification or apologies.”
Many MRF’s demanded glass to be removed from single-stream (curbside pick-up) and often the municipalities comply. Strategic Materials says most municipalities trust their MRF, and believe there is no market for glass if that is what the MRF claims. Laura Hennemann at Strategic Materials suggests that municipalities should ask questions or seek out solutions together, rather than just stop recycling glass.
What is happening within other municipalities in the Southeast U.S.?
The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) did a study of where glass from MRFs ends up. They found that 54% does go to glass processors. However, over 38% goes to landfills either as cover, fill, or trash.
In April 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the end of glass recycling in many places across the country. “Some cities…consider it more cost-effective to have residents throw glass bottles in the trash than to recycle them.”
The Atlanta area
In June 2016, Canton, Georgia announced that their garbage and recycling collection company, Waste Management, would end acceptance of glass bottles curbside on July 1. The company indicated that the MRF, also WestRock, would no longer accept glass bottles in the metro Atlanta area. Waste Management “halted its collection of glass in Kennesaw, Marietta, Smyrna and parts of Gwinnett County.” Gainesville, Georgia was affected as well.
A City of Marietta spokesperson said MRFS are not able to make a profit recycling glass and it contaminates other recyclable materials. She said there was no market for mixed glass within a single-stream recycling system. She also remarked that the glass was damaging equipment at the MRF. City of Chattanooga officials cited the same reasons.
In December 2016, Knoxville, Tennessee announced that Waste Connections would stop accepting glass curbside through its Eastern Tennessee region by January 1, 2017. The Waste Connections municipal marketing manager wrote that the glass market has become limited. He said the change would preserve the overall integrity of their recycling program. He also indicated that broken glass damaged WestRock’s equipment.
A report from October 2018 indicated that in Louisville, Kentucky, 82 percent of all of the residential wasteended up in a landfill despite recycling efforts. Louisville also uses WestRock as an MRF.
We now know that most of those cited reasons are misconceptions and are inaccurate!
Atlanta is starting a new bid process in 2019. Perhaps with a new MRF, they’ll be able to recycle glass curbside again!
In July 2016, the City of Decatur began charging residents $25 for a separate recycling bin and now have a 97% participation rate. City officials attribute that to a comprehensive education campaign.
Develop solutions collaboratively
Strategic Materials and the Glass Recycling Coalition want to work with MRFs to develop solutions to improve glass recycling. They seek to improve the quality, reduce landfill costs and tipping fees, and increase efficiency. As they state, glass does not belong in a landfill. They had a webinar called “Breakthrough Glass Recycling Opportunities” that you can watch on youtube, and it features many ideas and innovations related to glass recycling.
MRFs need to invest in and upgrade their facilities
The Closed Loop Fund is a finance project which invests in improving recycling infrastructure and sustainable manufacturing technologies that advance the circular economy.
Single-stream recycling needs to be rethought
The problems with glass recycling do not lie with consumers, who are eager to recycle glass. Glass manufacturers, who prefer recycled glass, want to be part of the solution. The problem is with single-stream recycling.
Single-stream recycling is a very flawed system. So I believe if you have the ability to participate in a dual-stream recycling system you should. That’s where you separate materials at the recycling center or store. It improves recycling overall!
Keep using glass!
Remember, glass is ocean-friendly, unlike plastics. In general, glass use has decreased for bottled beverages, also the main recycled glass item today. This is because beverages are also readily available in plastic and aluminum. We, as consumers, have the ability to demand more glass through our purchases. For example, I don’t buy many food or beverage products in plastic because of the possible leaching of toxic contaminants. You can do the same!
I hope this two-part series has helped you better understand glass recycling’s complexities. Do you have questions or ideas? Leave me a comment below. Thanks for reading!