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Meet Dumpster Diving Pro – Juliette Haas

Egremont — If the Green Committee has one wish for the new year, it is that more people desist from “wishful recycling.” This term has entered the recycling trade to describe the practice of putting something into the recycling bin that we think, hope, assume or wish belonged there.

What’s so wrong with putting an oily pizza carton into the paper unit, or a Styrofoam meat tray with the bottles and cans?

This article is by Juliette Haas, Egremont’s sustainability coordinator and founder of the Egremont Green Committee. Photo courtesy Egremont Green Committee

Items that are not on the approved list of recyclables can contaminate an entire load of material. Contamination drives down the value of the material and slows down the assembly line at the sorting facility, and there are global implications.

The U.S. exported a large portion of its recycling to China for many years. Last summer, however, the recycling world was rocked when China pushed back on certain scrap plastics arriving in many of the recycling loads. It imposed a ban on many types of non-recyclable materials that took full effect Jan. 1.

That has thrown many recycling facilities across the country and the world into limbo. Perhaps in the long term, China’s ban will push our society to rethink our reliance on plastic and also force us to come up with more options for its post-consumer use. In the short term, however, some municipalities may have no other way to dispose of mounting piles of plastics than to incinerate them.

The recyclables of Egremont and 22 other cities and towns in Berkshire County are hauled to the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility (the MRF, pronounced “murf”). Because this facility separates so strictly, its markets are doing OK. But wishful recycling still causes more work for the MRF assembly line sorters.

Egremont’s income from the MRF for recyclables has fallen to a current price of about $15 a ton from $40 a ton five years ago. Recycling markets and prices are driven by many factors, but wishful recycling does play a role in that decline. Manufacturers that recycle need clean, high-quality material when making their goods, and the wrong plastic or dirty paper drives down the grade of their finished product. So, the more carefully we all sort our plastics, the more we support the overall recycling system.

During a recent bottle-and-can fund drive at Egremont’s transfer station, some of us wound up dumpster diving in the recyclables container and fishing out redeemable bottles and cans. In the process, we also caught lots of things that didn’t belong in the container, such as plastic bags, bubble wrap, plastic beverage cups, straws, Styrofoam and plastic hangers.

Marj Wexler, chair of the Egremont Green Committee, fishing out a redeemable can. Photo: Corinna Barnard

The practice of recycling – removing your glass bottles, aluminum and metal cans, plastic bottles and containers and papers from your regular trash – is just about as green as it gets. When paper is made from existing paper, when aluminum and metal cans are made from existing aluminum and metal, or when plastic bottles are formed into new ones, we save energy, money and precious resources, and, in the case of plastics, we use less petroleum.

Understandably, there is a lot of confusion in recycling, which leads to the contamination problem. Our residents from New York or New Jersey may be recycling one way in their home state and then have to follow Massachusetts waste-ban laws when here. Also, many people see the recycling triangular logo on the bottom of an item and assume it means it’s recyclable. It doesn’t. The triangle of arrows is just an indication to recyclers. The number in the triangle tells what the item is made from, not necessarily that it can be recycled in the future.

So, what’s an overzealous, wishful recycler to do?

First, call your municipality and find out what they accept. Here in Egremont you can check the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility’s complete list of acceptable material.

Second, read the signage at your transfer station or ask your transfer station attendant.

William T. Wood, Egremont Transfer Station attendant. Photo: Juliette Haas

Continue to recycle, friends – just recycle right. And while you’re at it, compost your kitchen scraps, donate your old or used clothing and textiles for recycling, and return your ink cartridges or your printer to Staples. Use a travel mug next time you buy a coffee to eliminate the cup you throw away. Stop using plastic straws. Take a few minutes to see what’s in your trash and ask yourself how you could produce less.

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