Evolution of recycling at the fore as county takes over collection

Blues Clues: Do not use plastic bags or film, tanglers like wire and hose, or plastic cups. Instead, take glass and aluminum food trays to the recycling center. Photo GDLM.


By Gregory DL Morris

As of July 1, Orange County Solid Waste will begin handling curbside collections in the county’s urban areas that had been contracted to GFI. The move is intended to save money on a long-term basis and better to track data in the rapidly evolving post-consumer waste-processing business.

The most immediate visible change will be the color of the trucks handling the blue recycling carts in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough. But it comes at a time of structural shift in the recycling industry regionally, nationally, and globally. In an effort to balance environmental stewardship, practical effectiveness and verifiable benefits, collection agencies and processors are limiting types and shapes of materials in the co-mingled curbside bins.

In some cases, that has caused consumers to be confused or frustrated. But in the long run, refining and clarifying what recycling really is—and is not—benefits everyone.

Keys to Curbside Recycling

– No plastic bags or film of any kind in the blue cart. Grocery bags, food wrap, and other packaging have long been excluded. There is no post-consumer value and the film tangles sorting equipment.
– No cords, cables, hoses, wire, hangers, rope or other tanglers. A worthless cord or hose can disable an expensive machine. Metal wire, cable and cord should be taken to a recycling center.
– Pie plates and food trays no longer go in the blue carts. They are happily taken with other metals at recycling centers. Large amounts of foil can be formed into a ball and taken to the recycling center, while smaller amounts can go in the trash.
– Plastic food clamshell containers. Even though many of them are PET—the same material as soda bottles—their form makes them uneconomic to recycle. They go into the trash.
– Glass is accepted in the blue cart, but best to collect it separately and take it to the recycling center every few months.

Pro Tip: Store metal, glass, electronics, and batteries at home and make a big haul to the recycling center a few times a year.

“Anything you can do to help the system and help the community is helping yourself, too,” said Cheryl Young, research and data manager for OCSW. “The goal of this department is transparency. We have to be able to say truthfully that if it is going into the co-mingled collection bin, then we have a place for it to go.”

OCSW’s Recycling Stars program has provided important data and insight. Inspectors, many of whom are UNC undergraduates, check the contents of the bins on the curb. Those that are in line with collection guidelines get a star sticker. Those that have only a few excluded items get a note detailing best practices. Those that are way off are not collected and get a warning.

The guidelines are updated, and residents may not always be alert to the changes, so Young urges residents to download the Orange County NC Recycles app, and to register for OCSW’s e-newsletter.
The app has an A-to-Z index of materials with guidance on what to put in the blue bin, what to take to a recycling center, and what to put in the trash. The same index is on the website.

“When we started the Recycling Stars program more than a third of [curbside] carts had plastic bags in them,” said Young. “Those have never been accepted. Since the evaluations have started we’ve seen a 60% improvement. This community is very supportive of recycling. Still, it’s clear individual education is still needed.”

Aluminum is the most valuable material in the waste stream. Not only is the metal endlessly recyclable, it takes significantly less energy to make new cans from old ones than it does to make new aluminum from ore. However, pie plates, food trays and other flat forms get mixed with paper, so they are excluded from the curbside carts.

Glass is a swing. When collected by residents or businesses and dropped at the recycling center, it is worth about $20/ton. When put into the curbside carts, broken shards contaminate paper, so OCSW loses about $35/ton as a debit from the value of the paper. But glass is still accepted in the carts because it is heavy, and if tossed into the trash it costs about $60/ton in landfill fees.

Pernicious Plastic – Photo by Megan Ponder, co-director of Peak Plastic Foundation. “I took these images in East Java in 2017 and 2018 while on production for our documentary film, The Story of Plastic. The photos are of dumped plastic contamination from imported paper bales. The piles of imported plastic contamination were picked through for any high-value materials – metal or flattened PET or HDPE – but the majority of these piles were burned or washed into nearby rivers.”

Gregory DL Morris is a business journalist and historian who reports regularly for TLR.

This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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1 Comment on "Evolution of recycling at the fore as county takes over collection"

  1. Muki Fairchild | June 20, 2024 at 5:38 pm | Reply

    The recycling guidelines are confusing! Please send out CLEAR ones with pictures of what can go into the recycling bins. Blair Pollock did this ages ago. Not everyone has access to email. I will personally print out and circulate in my neighborhood. Thank you.

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