Last January when we wrote about recycling we suggested keeping your recycling bin contamination free, avoiding wishcycling and knowing what must go to a special facility to be recycled. Many of our tips from that post are still relevant. But of course, 2020 has been a year like no other, and plenty of things have changed.
What’s changed since January 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world and disrupted everyday life in so many ways. Our waste habits changed almost overnight, municipalities struggled to adapt and many still are struggling. On top of people’s home waste habits changing quickly, our sanitation workers have been essential workers throughout the pandemic, and outbreaks and quarantine requirements have impacted workforce availability.
Philadelphia saw a 25% increase in curbside waste tonnage starting in March. Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams says, “To put this figure into perspective, a 25% increase in tonnage is equivalent to more than one full day of extra trash curbside each week.” With fewer workers available and the increases in waste, it has been a true recipe for disaster.
Among other cities, Philadelphia particularly has struggled specifically during the pandemic, but many would argue the seeds for the struggle were in place well before 2020. I have watched as my recycling and trash are hauled away in a single truck. The response from the city is that they do this to “reduce health risks and buildup of litter associated with uncollected material.” But social media groups and anecdotal evidence indicate that waste and recycling being hauled together happens frequently and in almost every neighborhood, including outside the city limits.
What can you do if your curbside recycling is not working? First off, put pressure on your elected officials to make it work as much as possible, or at least work better. Nothing is going to change until those in charge feel the pressure to improve the broken system.
The second thing to do is take matters into your own hands. The city’s Sanitation Convenience Centers accept recycling (and have blue bins available for pickup), in addition to accepting oversized items. While far from ideal, taking matters into your own hands might be one of the best ways to know that your recyclable materials are going to be, in fact, recycled.
Work on Reducing
Several of the topics covered by our Small Actions Spark Big Changes campaign in 2020 can help you understand how to reduce how much you put out for both trash and recycling. In December, we looked at reducing and reusing STUFF, in November we talked about the benefits of composting, and in July, we discussed the specific reduction in plastic use. Plastic recycling remains problematic, with many plastics only being able to be recycled once or maybe not at all. Aluminum and glass can almost be recycled infinitely when done correctly, and the market for recycled paper products continues to grow.
Recycling at Home Best Practices
One of the main reasons that much of Philadelphia’s and the United States’ recycling is so expensive to sell is that it is deeply contaminated. You can help address this problem by knowing what you can recycle and how best to clean your recycling.
How clean should it be?
What does it mean to have clean recycling? Your can of tomatoes, jar of jam or bottle of milk need to be rinsed of visible residue before you put them into the curbside recycle bin. Cardboard boxes (flattened, with stickers and labels included) are almost always ok, unless debris and grease have soaked into the fibers. Pizza boxes, for example, are often greasy, but if the top of the box is clean you can tear it off and recycle it curbside, discarding only the soiled portions.
You can recycle glass bottles, but do not include broken glass, window glass, light bulbs (recyclable at some home improvement stores) and porcelain in your curbside recycling. Don’t even consider adding in napkins, paper towels, used paper plates, waxed coffee cups, tissues or straws — they are as off limits as the Styrofoam containers and packing peanuts that often come in shipped materials. Plastic bags, including those air-filled packs that often come in shipping boxes, cannot be recycled curbside, but many grocery stores accept them along with regular grocery store plastic bags if they are clean and dry.
What bin should you use?
The city of Philadelphia provides bins for residents. They are available for pick up at Sanitation Convenience Centers throughout the city. Click here for more details and for specific locations.
You can use any sturdy container of 32 gallons or less that is clearly marked “recycling”.
You cannot put recycling out in a plastic bag (even the blue recycling bags. The bags get stuck in the machinery at recycling facilities and clog them).
What can you recycle curbside?
- Glass jars and bottles
- Paper (non-metallic)
- Cartons (milk, juice, broth, wine)
- Flattened cardboard (try to keep it dry!)
- Books and magazines
- Egg cartons (cardboard cartons, Styrofoam should be put in the trash)
- Plastic containers (rinsed, lids and caps ok)
- Aluminum cans
- Metal tins
- Steel cans and lids
- Empty paint cans
- Empty aerosol cans
What can’t you recycle curbside?
- Plastic bags
- Disposable takeout containers made from Styrofoam or paper
- Greasy pizza boxes
- Disposable plates, coffee cups
- Compostable plastics
- Pet food bags
- Chip bags
- Aluminum foil
- Light bulbs
- Propane tanks
- Garden hoses
- Cassette tapes
- Tissues, paper towels and napkins
What can you recycle by taking to a special facility?
- Plastic bags
- Chip bags
- Drink pouches
- Candy bar wrappers
- Brita filters
- Electronics (computers, radios, etc.)
- Light bulb
How can you reduce the amount of recycling or waste you create?
Reduce: You know the phrase reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s especially important to remember the first part of it. In a world where almost any item is available to be delivered right to your home or office via the click of a button, being aware of the environmental impact of having that item shipped to you is of utmost importance. If you suspect something will come in unrecyclable plastic or with excess packing material, consider if you really need that item or if you can purchase it in a more sustainable way.
Reuse used goods: When you need to purchase an item or you find yourself with more than you need, Philadelphia is full of consignment shops, thrift stores, used clothing boutiques, children’s sales and home goods and electronics resale shops that both accept used goods and offer gently used items at a fraction of the price of purchasing new. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and several apps and websites also provide places to buy and sell everything from leftover birthday party swag to shoes and baby gear. You can donate bedding, car seats, prom dresses and even used textiles (including very worn clothes) at a number of locations, listed on Green Philly’s website.
Buy Bulk: Many supermarkets (including Philadelphia branches of Mom’s Organic, Whole Foods, Wegman’s and Weaver’s Way) allow you to buy items such as laundry detergent, rice, pasta, spices, nuts, beans and more in bulk with your own container. Make sure to note the weight of your container and subtract it from the full weight of your purchase.
Yard Waste and Composting
Yard Waste: Many municipalities, including the city of Philadelphia, have special pickups during the year (particularly in the fall) for yard waste. Instead of throwing your yard waste in the trash, it can be collected separately and used to create compost and mulch. Philadelphia’s sanitation centers accept Christmas trees, and many neighborhoods have private events that allow residents to bring their trees for nominal fees for reuse as compost or wood chips.
Composting: Food scraps and yard waste are close to 30% of what we throw away (epa.gov). When thrown into an oxygen-deprived landfill, the very same items break down slowly and produce methane, contributing directly to global warming. Composting enables you to turn your organic waste — items such as fruit peels, food scraps, coffee grounds, leaves and more — into a resource that can help nourish your soil and spruce up your yard. You can compost at home or with the help of compost collection services in certain communities and markets, such as Mom’s Organic in Center City.
Recycling in the Philly Suburbs
Recycling requirements differ from county to county, and your municipality may have specific guidelines for your curbside trash and recycling. You can find out more about
your municipal requirements online or by calling your local administration building. You may also have access to county-wide recycling events for hazardous waste, electronics, shredded paper or other items that do not comply with municipal guidelines. Here are some links to county-specific resources to help you and your family start a conversation about recycling:
Recycling is indeed tough and as the usage of plastics has grown over the years we find that most plastics continue to go into the landfills where they never breakdown. Plastics are made from petroleum or natural gas and when we landfill these we are wasting a valuable resource that has the energy value of the original raw product from which they were made. We at Penn State worked on a project where we could burn the waste plastics in a 300,000 BTU burner at 2000 degrees F and create hot water or electricity. It is a project that I felt had a place in countries around the world as well as in our own country. I wanted to just let you know that we are always looking for partnerships for this project and I have been involved with the academy in the past on promoting the use of high tunnels in Philadelphia. I look forward to any thoughts that you might have on this issue. All the best, Dr. Bill Lamont, Professor Emeritus, Penn State University.
Transcript of Rethinking Recycling
A Message from the American mystic Daniel Clay
When people speak of the environment and of global warming, it is so often that grandiose topics are addressed. But the very basics are often left unaddressed.
It is frequent that you fail to address simple issues that have major impacts: recycling, refuse, garbage, trash. These words are not words that people think about when they are thinking about global warming and huge environmental impacts. Sometimes recycling is addressed a little, but it is a major issue because your attempts at recycling are really created to fail, not because people wish to see recycling fail, but because recycling was initiated not for the environment originally but more so for economics. And because of this, the focus on recycling has centered around economic issues. What this has done is create a Frankenstein that cannot succeed. For instance, styrofoam can be recycled, but it is not recycled because it is often thought that it is not profitable to do so. Styrofoam takes up a great deal of space for its little bit of weight.
And how would you store such? Of course, the solution is simple. There should not necessarily need to be storage; rather, there would be a chemical agent to simply break down styrofoam so you could resynthesize it and reuse it. And by doing this, the storage issue would become a moot point. But this goes to another issue of recycling, for you have light plastics also falling into this same area where weight is an issue. So they are collected separately if collected at all. What does this create? This creates a divided system when the system needs to be unified.
And there are also issues of how you actually ship and store things and how you market and package items. For instance, the beer industry has realized that it can use the plant fibers to create the very cartons or containers that the beer will be placed in to hold the bottles or the cans. And this does away with the plastic that has created so much problem in the ocean. But this has not been applied across the board to other things such as sodas or to other things that you would buy and carry in plastic cartons. But many of these things can be placed in paper or plant materials. And plant materials can be dissolvable. Now, you are using plant materials, some for forks and knives and disposable utensils, but there many of these things, when you do them properly, that can be economical.
But that only does away with part of your recycling problem. You still have this whole area of what will you do to recycle it. Of course, glass is simple, but plastics and the fact that they are mixed and recycle centers … oh, what did they do? They want you to separate things. But by the time you do, you have spent more energy separating different things, one at a time, and then more environmental damage possibly with the usage of other agents removing papers and removing stickers, when this should be done at a point of collection where everything would be allowed to go through; where your different things may be sorted before they get there. When they are picked up even, you may have your papers and your plastic separated, but then your plastics, your glass would each go through a bath or an appropriate assembly line, so to speak, where the issues that are expensive, tiresome and troublesome to the environment when done individually, can be addressed as part of the actual processing of these items.
So, since you have chosen to make recycling a for-profit venture, then this would be more profitable. But you still run into the issue when you are looking at a for-profit venture, “oh, this clump of recyclables isn’t worth as much as this clump. So we will recycle this clump and put this clump in the trash heap because it’s less expensive, and we make money.
But this is not the point of recycling. Recycling is about the environment. It is not about the money made individually but about the value that is gained collectively as a people. This means that, since you are actually investing in saving your environment, which will ultimately create better health and will ultimately create a more sound economy, that it is in the best interest of the peoples of the world and of the governments to actually partake in, and even subsidize recycling if need be, to make it individually profitable for a company here or there. Or perhaps you may wish to forget profit and simply do it as a government agency because the recycling is ultimately beneficial and cost effective for the world and environment as a whole. And you must look at this as a part of your holistic investment in your Earth.
Now, it is important when you think of this, that you would also—whether of conscience, for financial reason, or by governmental regulations, rules, and laws—eliminate or cut back on excessive packaging, to cut back on unnecessary shipping materials, use natural shipping materials where such can be used. It is possible, for instance, to use at times a bamboo or corrugated sawdust rather than other packing materials. The whole point is that if you use something that is part of the natural environment, it may have a quicker expiration, but if you’re using it to ship items that only last a limited time anyway, then what is the difference? You do not need to ship an egg that you can store for a year, a little longer if you know how, in a styrofoam carton that will last 10,000 years. You do not need to put a candy bar that will last a month, maybe six if you do not mind eating stale chocolate, in a plastic wrapper that will last 10 years, even if it is biodegradable.
There has to be some common sense applied in order to cut back on the necessity of recycling. It also is most beneficial if those who are simply filling landfills would think about what they do with their scraps. Their edible scraps may not be something that as individuals they wish to eat, but they may be something that can still be composted for a vegetable garden, a flower garden, or even for a few flowerpots on the terrace.
The whole issue then becomes not just what the individual does, but what the collective does. And what you do then is reflected in what businesses will do. Because as an individual, if you say you will buy that which is packaged in a way that creates less waste, companies will sell in a way that creates less waste. Ultimately, this will save the company money as well. There may be an upfront investment, as changes are made to allow these new forms of packaging and shipping to take hold. But once they are implemented, in the long term they are just as effective and efficient and in many ways more so.
So, when you think about saving the environment, but you stand in front of a trash can and you are holding several items and you go, “part of this item is trash and it has been made where I can’t separate it; and part of this item is marked recycling, but I can’t get the trash part away from it, what do I do with it? If I put it in the trash can, I am throwing away recyclable goods. If I put it in the recycle bin, I have just made a whole bundle of recycle worth less value, and it will be sent off to a dump site.”
So where is it possible? How is it possible?
Well, it is certainly possible, but it has to be done each step of the way.
Where is it possible?
It is possible everywhere.
How is it possible?
By regulations from the top down and concern from the bottom up?
This is how you achieve.
We leave you with blessings and with peace.
Take care of your world, for it is the only one you will get.
Daniel Clay—Solutions for a World in Crisis: All Episodes, Incl. Transcripts
Thanks for posting such an awesome article on Recycling 2021! I’ve been following the progress of our recycling industry and it’s so good to hear your perspective.