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Sorting it All Out: Making Sense of Household Recycling

We hear you; recycling can be a real pain. Rife with complex and ever-changing rules, looking up current information is often vexing and time-consuming. Nevertheless, recycling is an important part of waste management, and a significant part of conserving valuable – and finite – natural resources. 
In this article, we’ll look at the environmental significance of recycling, outline fundamental industry problems, and then discuss how you, as a Ridgewood resident, can increase genuine recycling rates of the waste coming out of your home.   

Situating Recycling within Sustainability  

The Waste Hierarchy 
Peer-reviewed model from ZWIA (planet scale added by author) 
Recycling is a fundamental component of the waste hierarchy, widely adopted within sustainable waste management. You’ll notice that recycling sits comfortably in the middle of it: yes, it’s green, but it’s not super green. While recycling is far better than waste disposal, it’s still inferior to reusing materials or reducing the production of waste altogether.  
Not all recycling is created equally. Recycling is a business that sorts and resells old packaging materials. Some materials, such as glass, and aluminium are far more valuable than plastic. This is because glass and metals (e.g. aluminium, steel) can pretty much be recycled indefinitely, without a loss in quality. This gives them a high relative resale value. Many plastics, on the other hand, have little to no resale value and drastically lose their value after a few rounds of recycling. You can read more about metal recycling and its benefits in this fantastic fact sheet about steel and aluminium cans.  
 Rethink and redesign are the best options on the waste hierarchy but don’t really apply to household recycling. Instead, these terms refer to a rethink or redesign of the entire product lifecycle, from design to recovery and then disposal. This concept is also known as the circular economy, which will be elaborated upon in a later article.   
Connecting Climate Change and Recycling  
From the perspective of global warming and climate change, sustainable waste-management practices seek to maximize the useful life of limited natural resources. When any product is disposed of or sent to landfills, there’s no longer a chance of recovering materials or parts, each of which have embodied GHG emissions. Recovering and reusing materials prevents the need to source them new every time.  
Effective recycling is therefore emission-reducing because it lessens the number of products made from virgin materials and supports resource consumption within planetary boundaries, or the amount of resource consumption the Earth’s systems can support without collapse.  
For example, cardboard, like all tree-based products, must be harvested from a forest – or monoculture plantation of trees – somewhere on our planet. Each harvest of lumber and its production into cardboard generates emissions and eliminates animal habitats as well as one of the world’s most effective carbon sinks. By reducing the number of trees cut down for cardboard, recycling has a much broader positive impact than is immediately visible.  
Sorting Challenges  
The efficacy of the recycling industry is compromised when it becomes overwhelmed with poor quality, contaminated, and inadequately sorted materials. Contamination of recycling can occur more easily than you might think (e.g. unwashed or difficult to clean containers). 
After recycling is collected from the home, the local recycling depot will sort material by type and then ready it for resale, compressing stacks of the same material into cubes, known as bales. If the type of material can’t be identified, it’s too small, worthless, non-recyclable, or contaminated the material will be discarded and sent to landfill. If contamination is bad enough the entire batch of recycling, often tonnes, will be discarded along with it. Thus, a bunch of what’s collected is not actually recycled and is instead sent to landfill.  
There are more than 1100 recycling systems in the US. It’s no wonder that confusion abounds over what can be recycled where. Unfortunately, the disconnect between product manufacturers and publicly-run or sub-contracted waste-management systems means that we depend on people in the home to be informed waste sorters. 
As a homeowner or renter, you influence both these factors by reducing the number of low-quality plastics inundating the recycling system and endeavouring to correctly sort your recyclables.  
Recycling in Ridgewood  
Recycling: Curbside vs. Special Facility   
To make recycling simpler and more cost-effective, household recycling is required to be sorted along with municipal guidelines. Generally, this is separated into two collection categories: curbside and special facility. Each of these will have different rules as to what is accepted and any requirements on the condition of material.  
Some items, such as construction-waste, e-waste, furniture, textiles, and batteries require a special facility or collection point in order to be accepted as recycling. An item that is collected as curbside recycling, will not be transferred to the correct recycling facility if it is identified as incompatible with the local system. Instead, it will be processed as garbage and sent to landfill.  
A particularly important non-curbside recyclable is e-waste, which contains rare earth minerals and toxic chemicals that can be very damaging to the environment. Improper disposal has long term consequences. Throwing out batteries has long-term consequences, for example, as the plastic liners in landfills will eventually rupture and release the highly toxic chemicals found in batteries into the environment, potentially contaminating soil that supports plant growth and fresh drinking water.  
To learn more about how to deal with difficult recyclables in Ridgewood, you can find current information on the Ridgewood Village website here
On Plastics  
There is significant variation within plastics; while plastics #1 PET and #2 HSPE are regularly recycled, #3-7 are not (see above image). A 2020 Greenpeace USA report 
tells us that of all #1 PET plastic collected in the US, only 22.5% could be actually reprocessed (i.e. recycled and resold) while the rest either ended up in landfill or exported to countries with suboptimal waste-management resulting in increased GHG emissions and pollution of local environments (e.g. plastic in the ocean).  
The second most commonly recycled plastic, #2HSPE, is worse: of the total collected, only 12% is actually reprocessed from a recycling facility. The discrepancy is due to contaminated plastic, or incapable recycling technologies.  
This fabulous sliding NPR infographic takes you through the major plastics you’ll find in everyday life and the likelihood that they’ll be accepted in American curbside recycling systems. Here’s the summary (edited for relevance to Ridgewood):  
Type of Plastic  Is it Recycled? 
Small Plastics bottle caps, hotel minis  Rarely  –Too small for most recycling technology 
Flexible Plastics wrappers, bag for nuts   No –Hard to resell –1+ kind plastic – complex to separate 
Deodorant  like-containers  No –1+ kind plastic – complex to separate 
Beverage Bottles soft drinks, water bottle   Yes –Enough of a resale value –Sturdy: easier for recycling technology 
Other Bottles cleaning, shampoo/soap  Yes 
CLAMSHELLS  clear food containers   No in Ridgewood Curbside 
YOGURT/BUTTER TUBS  Yes, in Ridgewood Curbside 
POLYSTYRENE FOAM   Not Curbside; Some Special Depots 
PLASTIC BAGS; SOME WRAPPERS  Not Curbside; Some Grocery Drop-off:  Stop & Shop and Whole Foods Market (by store entrances) 
Avoid These Common Curbside Recycling Mistakes  
  1. Recycling paper saturated with grease or other contaminants (pizza box bottom)  
  1. Recycling plastic containers with hard-to -remove food waste  
  1. Putting out non-curbside recyclables (plastic bags, polystyrene/Styrofoam, plastic food trays from take-out etc.)  
  1. Putting e-waste (any electronic waste) in curbside – must be taken to special facility  
  1. Items with multiple materials in the packaging: for example, toothpaste (metal and plastic); plasticized paper 
Local Resources 
For local information on recycling schedules, questions, and accepted items, we recommend the state of New Jersey’s Recycle Coach, that has information on Ridgewood, specifically. Recycle coach is also available as a mobile app, available for download on the  App Store or Google Play. We especially like the recyclepedia feature, for residents, which makes it easy for residents to access local information about what is accepted, and where. You can also find information on the Ridgewood Village website, as well as the Ridgewood Recycling Facebook page.   
Recycling matters. We can all hope that improvements in recycling systems and technology will improve the rate of recycling and the utility of the process as a whole. For now, residents have a critical role in educating themselves and implementing recycling best practices where they can.  
Here’s the sum:  
  1. Properly Sort & Clean Household Recyclables: reduce what ends up in landfill 
  1. Practice Informed Consumption: try to avoid hard-to-recycle plastics (#3-7) 

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