Don’t Be Trashy: More Recycling Facts & Information

We’re all familiar with the importance of recycling—it’s been ingrained in our brains from an early age. But despite knowing the importance of recycling, it’s something Americans still struggle with. Due to lack of infrastructure, widely varying municipal recycling programs and low awareness of recycling best practices, more than half of recyclable materials are lost to landfills or incinerators, according to the Recycling Partnership.

Americans generate a lot of trash and recycling helps increase economic stability as domestic sources for materials are tapped. By simply throwing that plastic bottle in a recycling bin, you’re helping conserve natural resources like timer, water and minerals. 

Recycling is a big deal. In the January 2019 edition of School Nutrition magazine, the article “Don’t be Trashy: Recycle” written by Senior Editor Beth Roessner, explores the importance of recycling and why it’s vital to the country’s sustainability. Although it may be an annoyance to constantly separate recycling items from trash and to manage separate receptacles, we may not fully realize the impact recycling has.

In 2015, 262 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was generated and was composed of a variety of materials including food waste. Below is a snapshot of what trash and recyclables looked like. (In millions of tons; statistics from the Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2015 Fact Sheet)

Material  Weight Generated  Weight Recycled 
Durable goods (Include things like furniture, and are used for three or more years)     
Steel 15.95   4.44
Aluminum 1.55   --
Glass   2.35 Negligible 
Plastics   12.5  .83
Nondurable Goods (Include things like newspaper
and clothing are used for less than three years) 
Paper/paperboard   28.12 14.12 
Plastics  7.32   .16
Containers & Packaging (Include things like plastic
wrap and milk cartons are assumed to be used for
less than a year) 
Steel 2.22   1.62
Aluminum  1.84  .67 
Paper/paperboard   39.92 31.2 
Plastics  14.68  2.15

Non-Acceptable Materials for Recycling

Unacceptable recycling materials include, hazardous waste, yard waste, animal waste, diapers, mirrors, ceramics, clothing, napkins, carpet, greasy pizza boxes, tissue paper, light bulbs and electronic waste. If you have a question about what materials are accepted by your curbside recycling program, be sure to ask. 

Hot Commodities

Think of recyclables as commodities and just like other commodities, their value ebbs and flows. Right now, the value of these commodities is low, and the U.S., as a leading generator of recyclable waste, has more supply than demand. New facilities are being developed and opened throughout the country to help ease this burden, adds Hartmann. While the markets are not as robust as they were several years ago, things are slowly improving.

“Any commodity has a changing price,” describes Randy Hartmann, senior director of affiliate operations at Keep America Beautiful. “Those prices change based on demand, and for recycling demand has changed. It will go back up again.”

Because recycling is needed to make so many raw materials, it is too valuable to simply discard to a landfill. Domestic and international buyers are continually buying these bales.

“We have strong U.S. markets—manufacturers—that need those materials to make their products,” explains Hartmann.

What the Foam?

Although hard to recycle, plastic foam is cheap, and that is why it’s still used in schools, restaurants and other applications. However, the long-term environmental and health impacts of manufacturing, using and disposing of plastic foam trays is not reflected in that initial, cheap cost. American schools use approximately 5.76 billion foam food trays each school year. Foam #6 (polystyrene) is what most food trays, disposable coffee cups and other to-go containers are made of. 

Recycling programs specifically for foam trays do exist—either in curbside or drop-off formats—and can be implemented at a school. A recycling plant in your area may accept foam trays, so be sure to check. While collecting and transporting trays to a MRF is not a viable option for all, there have been technological advances to make foam recycling possible.

A unique appliance available to schools makes foam recycling possible by reversing the manufacturing process. Since foam products are 90% air, thermal densification (or practically magic), is used to remove the air, and return the product to liquid resin. The resin is then cooled and formed into small bricks which then can be easily recycled into items like picture frames or paving bricks.

The contraptions can cost upwards of $20,000—a burden for cash-strapped school nutrition departments. Direct access to MRF facilities is another huge barrier to recycling foam products—not all communities are able to easily collect or transport foam to MRFs. Recycling centers that do accept foam #6 are scattered throughout the country, with many located on the eastern half of the country. Several states, in fact, do not have any. (To locate your closest foam recycling center, check out this map:

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