This is the second in a series of articles based on a March 4 presentation for MetroWest Climate Solutions by Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation. The next piece will cover relevant pending legislation. If you would like to view the session, go to youtube.com/watch?v=-n5jUY1FJhg.
When thinking about recycling, it’s helpful to start with a definition. Let’s take glass as an example. Recycling is not grinding it up and using it for roadbed materials, Pecci explained. That’s downcycling. Recycling takes advantage of the highest and best use of that material, so glass should be recycled to make more glass, rather than using virgin material. (We’re actually running out of sand that is suitable for making glass!)
We’d rather our plastic bottles weren’t made into clothes (although it’s better than tossing them in the trash). Ideally, we want our plastic bottles to be made into more bottles, and our aluminum to be transformed into more cans. Glass and aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. That’s true recycling, a circular process.
Plastics present a unique recycling challenge, Pecci noted. First, plastics can only be recycled a limited number of times, rather than indefinitely, as glass and aluminum can. Second, the many types of plastics are based on different polymers, and there are many different polymers. You can’t blend #1 and #2 plastics.
Third, plastics are used in conjunction with other materials, which makes many items difficult or impossible to recycle economically. For instance, paper coffee cups and cartons are paper lined with plastic.
Fourth, because we subsidize oil and gas, manufacturers are not very motivated to use recycled plastics to manufacture new items, as it is not cost effective when virgin-fracked gas is so cheap.
Recycling requires collecting plastic items, sorting them by type, and then reprocessing them. It is also contingent on those materials being clean; a half-full plastic jar of peanut butter can contaminate a whole bale of plastic.
It’s easier and less expensive to make plastics out of virgin materials, especially when the taxpayers are footing much of the bill for extraction, but it’s much worse for the environment.
Currently, systems to separate recyclables (the first important step toward better reclamation of these materials) are not working well. How did we reach this impasse?
About a decade ago, the waste companies, which already owned most of the recycling collection and separation infrastructure, transitioned to single stream systems, said Pecci. These companies started promoting single stream as being able to handle almost anything, effectively saying, “You can put whatever you want in your recycling bins!”
For some of these materials, especially certain plastics and papers, there was no real market. The vendors simply bundled up the materials and sent them to China. There, labor was cheaper and people would sort them. And what could not be recycled was burned or buried in China.
Once China built up its own recycling system, they generated plenty of their own content and stopped accepting our very contaminated, badly sorted materials.
That exposed that the system was broken. The waste companies had promoted the collection of unsorted materials, for which there was no real demand. As a result, recycling contracts have shot up in cost over the last two years, according to Pecci. Even if there’s no significant value for the materials, as long as waste companies are getting paid under municipal contracts, there’s no incentive for these companies to change what they are doing. To make matters worse, because of the pandemic, part of the burden of disposal has shifted from the commercial to residential disposal. Residential volume is up an estimated 5% to 10%, exacerbating these problems and costing cities and towns money.
To bring this closer to home, Wayland and Weston residents have the option of paying private haulers to pick up trash or taking our trash to a transfer station. Wayland currently has single-stream recycling. (Some towns in Massachusetts have dual stream, where paper and cardboard go into one container, while plastics, glass and metal are in another bin.) These single-stream and even dual-stream systems do not generate much material that retains its value.
“Deep sort” recycling, used by Wellesley and Sturbridge, is the best approach for generating materials that retain value. Consumers sort brown glass, clear glass, green glass, #1 plastic, #2 plastic, and so forth, into separate bins. Longtime Wayland residents remember a time when we did much more sorting.
For now, Pecci advises us to keep recycling, as we transition to a zero-waste system.
The goal of a zero-waste system is to phase out toxic systems that harm communities and the environment. This means redesigning our products and packaging and rethinking how our trash is managed. The Zero Waste Hierarchy gives us a guide to making this transition.
First, manufacturers need to be incentivized to rethink and redesign their products, making them responsible for “owning” the end-of-life of their products. It’s the only way they will be truly motivated to change their decisions about product design.
Second, we need to reduce our waste as much as possible. Buying produce and meats direct from a farmer eliminates a lot of packaging. Planning meals carefully is also a great way to reduce food wastage. Skip the purchase of single-use plastics (think water bottles) whenever you can.
An important aside here about trash reduction. “Pay as you throw” (PAYT) systems really work. Wayland has adopted this approach and Weston is considering it. PAYT systems, where you pay for the amount of trash you generate, produce significant reductions in the volume of trash a town generates.
Worcester’s move to PAYT resulted in a 47% reduction in waste and a 40% increase in recycling, saving the city more than $10 million over 20 years. Needham reported a 50% reduction in waste with a 30% increase in recycling.
Back to the third item in the Zero Waste hierarchy: We need to seek out products we can reuse. (Think cloth shopping bags, refillable sports bottles, reusable coffee mugs, and steel straws instead of plastic.) Using reusable wool dryer balls eliminates the need for disposable dryer sheets. When the wool balls start to fail, drop them into the textile recycling. Shopping or swapping for second-hand items is also a great reuse practice.
Fourth, we need to recycle/compost everything we can. Since organics (food and lawn waste) make up 28% of our overall waste, that’s a good place to start. Black Earth Compost offers weekly pick-up in Wayland ($17.99 per month). The Weston Transfer Station is running a pilot with Black Earth.
Ultimately, a zero-waste program will save money for consumers, businesses, and cities and towns. It will need to be helped along by enacting legislation that will motivate manufacturers and consumers to change the way we are currently producing, consuming and getting rid of materials.
More on pending legislation in our next installment.
The MetroWest Climate Solutions Group is an all-volunteer committee made up of members of First Parish in Wayland, First Parish in Lincoln, First Parish Church in Weston, the Congregational Church of Weston, and other individuals.