Realignment of recycling puts onus on reduce and reuse

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.


By Gregory DL Morris

ORANGE COUNTY—When Orange County Solid Waste (OCSW) assumed direct collection of all recycling in the county on July 1, the only immediate change that residents in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and other urban areas may have noticed was the color of the trucks. However, the shift is just one small step in realigning and reassessing recycling as both a business and a service, in which this area is near the forefront.

As reported in the first part of this story, OCSW has become more selective about what is acceptable in the blue curbside carts.  OCSW is recognizing “Recycling Stars” to keep current with the new rules and cautioning residents whose cart contents are not compliant. Repeat offenders risk having their curbside collection privileges suspended. People who put recyclables into the trash may also face enforcement measures.

Those extremes are rarely necessary because this community has a track record of supporting recycling. Frustrations arise when collection practices change, but ironically, those changes are the direct result of recycling’s success. There is now a thriving secondary market in post-consumer materials.

When material is excluded from the recycling stream, people throw up their hands and ask, ‘well, what are we supposed to do with it?’ In that situation, recall that recycling is only the third ‘R’ in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Decades of consumer marketing have trained people to buy without thinking about the lifecycle of the materials. Then, mixed-stream single-bin recycling made it seem easy. Except for a few materials, most of that ended up in the landfill anyway.

The challenge and the driver for the end of that era of ‘wish-cycling’ are that the value of the post-consumer materials is determined by volume and also by how pure or clean the streams are. Sorting mixed waste into reliable raw materials for reprocessing is the major cost in recycling.

The post-consumer market has coalesced around certain materials that can be sorted most efficiently, notably aluminum cans and any form of steel. Aluminum food trays and pie plates are the same material, but because they are flat the get commingled with paper and cardboard. So valuable aluminum becomes a contaminant in paper.

Broken glass can also contaminate paper, which is why OCSW and other collectors urge consumers to separate their glass and bring it to recycling centers a few times a year.


Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Plastic is the biggest challenge. Most are not economically recyclable, despite the triangular chasing arrows symbol stamped on it with a number designating the resin type. The only materials with a small post-consumer market are high-density polyethylene (HDPE; milk jugs) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET; soda bottles). And then not even all of that.

“Different forms of those resins melt at different temperatures, so they need separate processing,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council (NSAC). “PET is the highest value resin, but the basket or clamshell forms must be separated from bottles, even though it’s essentially the same material.”

Holistically, the answer is to make producers responsible for the lifecycle of their materials, which is why NSAC supports a national bottle bill. “When producers have consequences, they fix the problem. They figure it out,” said Sanborn.

Not surprisingly, the Pacific Northwest is setting the pace in recycling. David Allaway, senior policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has published papers and made presentations on the multiple objectives of recycling. He describes the varying interests as a spider-web diagram.

“There are always trade-offs,” he said. “You are trying to balance five different variables:”

  • convenience to the public;
  • reducing contamination, not just by non-recyclables but cross-contamination among valuable materials;
  • veracity, can collection agencies and processors be honest with voters and taxpayers about where materials are actually going;
  • environmental benefit;
  • cost.

As contamination and costs have increased throughout the materials value chain, “processors are pushing back on collectors, and collectors are pushing back on the public,” said Allaway.

Clarity and uniformity will help. Oregon has established administrative rules for a uniform state list of recyclable materials that will take effect in 2025. Until something like that is developed in North Carolina, the best approach is to reduce and reuse, starting with choices at the store so there is less material to dispose of in any way. Then, check the OCSW website or app for detailed instructions.

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

This reporter can be reached at

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "Realignment of recycling puts onus on reduce and reuse"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.