In 2012, the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority (HRRA), which represents eleven towns in western Connecticut, made the switch to single-stream recycling. That allows all recyclable materials to be mixed together in a single bin that is collected curbside or brought to a recycling center. Thus, instead of the homeowner sorting their recyclable waste prior to collection or drop-off, everything is sent as-is to a materials recovery facility (MRF), where machinery, cameras, and humans handle the onus of separation: they sort paper, cardboard, cans, plastics #1 through #7, glass, metal, e-waste (where accepted) and other materials so that a more-or-less pure pile of raw material can be shipped to its final destination.
Problems with Material Collections
Single-stream recycling, however, has a downside. Its convenience leads many people to
try to be “green knights” and recycle dirty, mixed, or other items that may
contaminate an MRF’s final products; for example, even a lone greasy pizza box or dirty
glass jar could sully an otherwise acceptable pallet of the collected product.
Susan V. Collins, director of the
Container Recycling Institute, said in a
interview with NPR, what single-stream wins
in volume, it sacrifices in quality.
we often say, you can't unscramble an egg. One-fourth of material collected by
recycling facilities has to be trashed.
Under China’s Green Fence and National Sword policies, the once-bountiful import of
recycled materials has been severely curtailed, and those materials that do pass their
customs must be more pure than before; minutes from the meeting of the HRRA say that recycled glass exported to China must be
at least 99.5% pure. That leaves little room for labels, glue, caps and lids, and those little
bits of ketchup that would have been rinsed out of the bottle if the consumer hadn't been
in such a rush to get the kids off to school that morning. John Decker of Oak Ridge
Waste and Recycling said succinctly during the HRRA’s
ability to sell glass is gone. […] Most of the glass today, unfortunately,
because it is so dirty and contaminated, has to be disposed of.
Preparing your Glass for Recycling
Before you try to recycle glass (or anything), do your best to make sure that it’s clean, the label has been removed, and the plastic or metal cap or lid has been separated. Afterwards, place borosilicate glass (Pyrex) in the trash: the changes it’s undergone to withstand high temperatures remain after being melted, making it non-recyclable by most facilities. Glass tends to retain its color after recycling, so sort by color if asked.
Once separated and finely crushed, the resulting cullet can be used to make fiberglass, flux for brick manufacture, Astroturf, artificial sand, countertops, water filtration media, abrasives, a substitute for pea gravel or crushed rock, landscaping or construction fill, or — of course — new glass.
Humans have been using glass for over six millennia. Let’s work together and make sure the same molecules are used for another six.
- Originally published in The Quinnehtukqut, November 2018 issue
- NPR: With 'Single-Stream' Recycling, Convenience Comes At A Cost
- HRRA September 24, 2018 meeting notes