Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

The Full Story Behind Recycling

Nov 18, 2017 by Julia L F Goldstein , in Recycling

Did you know that store receipts made from thermal paper aren’t recyclable? They are apparently coated with bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS), the same toxic additives that caused health alerts for reusable plastic water bottles. I want to do the right thing by recycling all the paper that I’m done using, but I’ve been unknowingly contaminating my recycling bin. If I, someone who’s been studying recycling, didn’t know this, I bet a lot of people are equally ignorant.

Now you know. Don’t recycle your receipts. Just throw them away, or, better yet, opt out of paper receipts in the first place. Some stores ask if you want a receipt or offer the option of electronic receipts. For purchases that require a receipt for tax purposes or if you might want to return an item, get a receipt emailed. I have a folder called “receipts” in my email.

Last week, in advance of America Recycles Day on November 15, I attended a webinar called “What’s the Full Story Behind Your Recycling Bin?” run by Green America. That’s how I learned about the problem with recycling receipts. I also got the scoop on single-stream versus dual-stream recycling. Single-stream, where people dump all their recyclables into one bin, promotes increased recycling rates, but at the expense of a less efficient process once the materials reach a recycling facility.

When I first moved to San Jose, CA in the mid-1990s, homeowners were given three plastic recycling bins. In this triple-stream process, one bin was for paper, one for plastic, and one for metal. Local hardware stores sold convenient carts on wheels that could hold all three bins, making it easier to get all that recycled material to the curbside. At some point in the early 2000s, the region transitioned to a single large bin for all recyclables, a huge garbage can on wheels. It made recycling easier.

But I recall hearing rumblings about recycling not being as environmentally friendly as promised, and the single bins may have been part of the problem. More varied contents on the trucks that transport recyclables to recycling facilities for sorting and processing translates to a greater number of machines required to separate out the various materials. It takes energy to run these machines, reducing the energy savings of producing products from recycled materials rather than virgin materials. It also takes time, both to run the machines and to hand-sort to remove items that don’t belong in the recycling stream. All this reduces the value of the recyclables.

Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Self-Reliance and speaker at the webinar, is a proponent of a dual-stream recycling system, with one bin for paper and another for plastic and metal. Metal isn’t terribly difficult to separate from the rest of the recycling stream. Magnets can easily pull out steel, and an Eddy current separator can separate out other metals after the steel is out of the way. The Eddy current separator is a machine with a magnetic rotor that spins at high speed. The rotor induces an electric current in anything conductive, such as aluminum cans or scrap pieces of metal, that passes over the rotor. This current produces a magnetic field that is opposite the field of the rotor. Much like two magnets with opposite poles repel each other, the force pushes the metal bits away from the rotor and into a bin. Materials that aren’t conductive, such as plastic, simply pass over the rotor and drop, via gravity, into a separate bin.

Seldman believes that single-stream recycling can work well, but that reducing contamination to desirable levels, 5 percent or less, requires an investment in more staff to hand-sort materials and a willingness to run conveyor belts at a slower speed. This makes the process more effective, but also more expensive. A dual-stream system can achieve similar contamination levels at a lower cost.

Whether your city has single-stream or dual-stream recycling, it can still be difficult to understand what is recyclable and what isn’t. Policies vary from city to city within the same metropolitan area. For example, residents in Redmond, WA are supposed to remove caps from plastic water bottles before tossing them into the recycling bin, but in adjoining Bellevue, the caps are to stay on, firmly attached to the bottles. Complicating matters, residential and commercial recycling in the same city may follow different rules. Items that are recyclable at home may not be recyclable at work, and vice versa.

For information on what is and is not recyclable, go to http://search.earth911.com/ to search by item and ZIP code. The website includes an important warning: “The number on your plastic indicates what it's made of, but does not guarantee recyclability. Please explore these listings further before you recycle.” Want to learn more about plastics, including an explanation of those recycling numbers? Download my white paper, Plastics: Wonder Materials or Global Problem?

I know I didn’t really provide the full story about recycling, but it is far too complicated a topic for a single blog post. The book I’m writing, which devotes several chapters to recycling-related topics, will give a much more complete picture. Subscribers to my blog will be the first to get notice when review copies are available.