Common recycling mistakes can cause big problems

BOSTON — Some of us remember a time long ago when everything went out in the trash.

But for the past 30 years, recycling has been part of our daily routine. It helps cut down on overall trash, eases the burden on landfills, and encourages sustainability.

“If you’re making paper out of paper instead of paper out of trees, we can all agree it’s a smart call”, said Gretchen Carey, the Sustainability Director for Republic Services.

The company has several recycling transfer stations, including in Peabody. It’s where 300 tons of curbside recycling from twenty different towns is processed. It is where the recycling goes to be separated, stacked, and shipped to be reused.

Carey said they are looking for, “bottles, cans, cardboard and paper”.

Those items are easy, and in Massachusetts, the state is doing pretty well overall. A recent study shows the Bay State ranks as the third-best recycling state in the country, even if the overall total is just 55 percent.

While residents’ hearts are in the right place, it appears their heads are somewhere else as they are doing a lot of recycling wrong.

“Wish cycling is this phenomenon that we are all guilty of”, said Waneta Trabert. Trabert is the Sustainable Materials Director for the City of Newton and said wish cycling is leading to contamination of recycling. “It’s this notion that what I have in my hand, I want to be able to recycle as much as possible, so I am hopeful and wishing that it is recyclable and I’m going to put it in my bin with this thought they’ll sort it out, they’ll figure it out”.

The biggest source of the problem is the flimsy plastic wrap, used in packaging for things like water and sports drinks. Bubble wrap is also another major problem, according to Trabert. She also said the plastic envelopes, often used as shipping material by Amazon for example, should not be put into your recycling bin.

Those items are what are known as tanglers. Workers at the transfer station have to shut down operations in order to remove those items by hand, as they continually get tangled in the machinery. “I think it’s important to know there are actual people working in these facilities when you throw things in that don’t belong”, said Carey.

Trabert said the plastic wrap can be returned to most local supermarkets where there are collection bins for those materials.

There are solutions to become better at recycling. Officials want everyone to remember, just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it goes into your curbside bin. Most towns in Massachusetts have a recycling website where if a resident is unsure of what goes into the bin, they can search to find out where the item goes, in the recycling bin, or in the trash. “Instead of recycling as much as possible and letting us sort it out, we actually want you to focus on things that you know are recyclable, things you know with 100 percent certainty”, said Trabert. “We came up with this phrase, when it doubt, throw it out. If you’re not 100 percent certain, throw it in the trash”, she said.

Recycling has evolved over the years. For example, Trabert points out that a greasy pizza box can now be recycled and put in your curbside bin. For years, the guidance was to throw it out in the trash.

The new effort to raise awareness is a plan to help divert trash out of landfills here in Massachusetts, It’s become a critical issue in the Commonwealth. The State Department of Environmental Protection said only six landfills are still in operation across the state. Many of those landfills will be reaching capacity as early as 2030.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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