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How much of my recycling actually gets recycled?

A person walks by a tractor sorting plastic
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Employees work on recycling on Monday, September 25, 2023 at TFC Recycling in Chester, Virginia.

And where does the rest of it go?

Every other Tuesday in our Chesterfield County neighborhood, my son Emmett dumps our recyclables into a big blue bin and drags it down to the curb ahead of the next day's pickup. It’s filled with all sorts of cardboard, glass and plastic bottles.

I’d like to think that everything in the can gets recycled — but like VPM News listener George Walker, I wasn’t too sure.

The same idea occurred to journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis. He published a book over the summer: Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, And Why It Matters. This same book, Walker said in an email, is what prompted his question.

VPM News reached out to Franklin-Wallis about it, too.

“You know, you put something in the trash can, and it kind of disappears like a magic trick,” Franklin-Wallis said. “I think we all spend a lot of time thinking about where our stuff comes from, whether things are organic, whether it's free trade, whether it's this or that.”

But, he said, people don’t spend much time considering where recycling ends up.

“The result of that, over the last couple of decades, is we have an ocean full of plastic and sewage in our rivers, and various kinds of ecological crises going on,” Franklin-Wallis said. You throw away a plastic bottle and it could end up thousands of miles across the ocean in a ditch somewhere in Southeast Asia.”

At the Tidewater Fibre Corporation’s 60,000-square-foot facility in Chester, Senior Vice President Matt Terrell explained how the recycling process works. Better known as TFC Recycling, it’s one of the largest recycling companies in Virginia — serving about 600,000 homes.

“Typically, we have about 200 or so tons that come into the facility,” Terrell said. “It's about 80 to 85 truck trips a day.”

At a spot called the tipping floor, trucks come in and dump their loads. Then, everything is separated into piles: cardboard in one spot, plastic and glass in another.

But not everything that arrives can be recycled.

“As crazy as it may sound, we see about 300 bowling balls a year here at this facility,” Terrell said. "Don't know why. It's kind of one of those weird little niche things that we have.” He added the facility also receives garden hoses, extension cords, holiday lights — “items that we call tanglers.”

The machines can’t handle sorting and baling the tanglers. Terrell said if they see any obvious non-recyclables, like furniture or bowling balls, they get pulled from the tipping floor.

“There's a visual sort and evaluation of the material,” said Terrell. “To make sure that there isn't anything that's hazardous, anything that really shouldn't be coming into [the] facility. It’s a very manual process.”

Lately, Terrell has been seeing more lithium batteries.

“Lithium batteries are our largest concern,” he said. “They are highly volatile, and they cause fires across the industry every day.”

There are places to recycle those, said Kim Hynes, executive director for Central Virginia Waste Management Authority. The government agency coordinates curbside recycling for about 200,000 households in eight Richmond-region localities. It contracts with TFC to take all that recycling.

“We encourage people to use more of an electronics recycling outlet, [or go to] an event where they can handle that type of material,” she said, “versus putting it either in their recycling or in their garbage.”

CVWMA has a monthly calendar, as well as permanent drop-off locations for people to bring in used electronic items, like cellphones and tablets.

After items are sorted, the piles get put on to conveyor belts, where workers sift through them by hand and pull out anything that can contaminate the machines. That includes plastic bags (which can gunk up a machine’s ability to process the material) and food-stained boxes (which cardboard buyers won’t buy).

The machines at TFC that process cardboard, glass and certain plastics are built to only handle those materials, Terrell said.

"On a facility average basis, between 82% and 85% of everything that's brought to us is recycled,” said Terrell. “That other 15%, depend[ing] on what exactly the type is, goes to a landfill. It's unrecyclable.”

Recycled materials are then put into bales and sold by the ton to companies that will turn them back into cardboard boxes, aluminum cans or plastic bottles. After that, the boxes, cans and bottles are sold to manufacturers to use for products that can be bought: packaged electronics, nonperishable foods, soda. According to Terrell, that all takes place in under a year.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency uses a familiar line to explain this process: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality does mandate a minimum rate of recycling by location; in the Richmond region, it's 25%.

But recycling is a for-profit business

The keywords Terrell uses are “marketplace for reuse.” Cardboard and aluminum can be recycled endlessly, and there’s ample infrastructure already in place for processing those materials.

On average, the price manufacturers pay for bales of cardboard fluctuates from $20 to $210 for a metric ton (1,000 kg or 2,205 lbs.), according to Aluminum cans can cost at least $650, according to prices at Alibaba, a multinational technology company that specializes in e-commerce.

A headshot of Hynes
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Kim Hynes is the executive director of Central Virginia Waste Management Authority.

However, plastics are a different story.

Generally, many of the plastics found in the kitchen, laundry room or bathroom can be recycled — as long as the numbers "1" or "2" are stamped inside the recycling symbol, said Hynes.

“Hopefully, they'll get away from the numbers, because that's confusing,” she said. “If you follow the rules, everything that you put in your recycling container is recycled.”

As Terrell said, though, about 15% of what ends up at a recycling facility is not actually recyclable.

The numbered recycling symbols are on most plastics, but numbers greater than 2 are usually not recyclable. That can be tricky for consumers.

“Once you get down that scale — you know, four, five, six or seven — the actual amount that's being recycled tends to be very low,” said Franklin-Wallis. “That's not because it can't be recycled. But it's normally because it doesn't make much economic sense to, because the value of the recycled product is not very high.”

Also, what can be recycled depends on the local recycling center’s ability to process and resell certain materials. So, the program in the Richmond region may differ from one in Northern Virginia or Fredericksburg. The challenge, according to Franklin-Wallis, is plastics — plural.

“We talk about plastic as if it's one thing, but plastics are actually a class of materials,” he said. “And if you think about the plastic that goes into your soda bottle, versus what comes in your Saran Wrap, those are two very different types of material.”

Recycle right at home or a drop-off: aluminum and steel cans; food and beverage cartons; bottles and jars; office paper, mixed paper, newspaper, magazines, flattened cardboard; kitchen, laundry, bath: plastic bottles and containers
This Central Virginia Waste Management graphic provides simple steps on what materials can be recycled in the region.

What can companies do to make their products more recyclable?

Some states are trying to make it easier for things to be recycled thanks, in part, to a nationwide push called Extended Producer Responsibility.

Basically, statewide legislation requires companies to either pay to help recycle their products or pay for the infrastructure to get them recycled. Four states have passed EPR bills, according to the Charlottesville-based environmental group Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Virginia isn’t one of them.

One company that buys cardboard from TFC and is trying to work under the EPR umbrella is Sunoco. Based in Hartsville, South Carolina, Sunoco has over 300 locations globally.

“It’s an evolving subject,” said Scott Byrne, director of Global Sustainability Services. “For packaging and printed paper, Extended Producer Responsibility laws have been our reality in a lot of the markets that we operate in, in Europe, in Canada. But it hadn't been the case in the U.S. until very recently.”

Byrne said he’s seen tremendous momentum in the industry — from package producers to brand owners — to make more recyclable packing or packaging with lower environmental impacts. Though a few states have passed EPR bills, it’ll be a few years before those programs are up and running.

“Basically, everyone will have to be a part of it,” he said. “If you make consumer packaging, if you're a recycler, if you're a raw material user that uses recycled content, it's going to have an impact.”

The next hurdle, according to Franklin-Wallis, is to create more transparency for consumers about the entire world of recycling. For him, it’s the first step in ensuring everything that can be recycled will be recycled.

“We need legislators and lawmakers and the industry to kind of be honest and upfront about how much recycling is actually happening,” he said.

This story was produced as part of the VPM News series Curious Commonwealth.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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