As Chinese government restrictions on the import of recycled paper and plastics drive up recycling processing costs in America, a new state effort is attempting to increase recycling while also educating people about what can and cannot be recycled.
Almost 250 municipalities will get a chunk of $2.6 million in state grant funding for programs that reduce waste and maximize reuse and recycling, part of the new “Recycle Smart” initiative launched this week by the Department of Environment Protection in partnership with recycling facilities around the state.
The program aims to teach consumers to recycle only those materials that recycling processing plants can handle and to keep contaminants out of the recycling stream to limit costs for cities and towns.
“Recycling the right materials while reducing how much we throw away is a priority for the Commonwealth as we update our solid waste master plan for the next decade,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said. “The Sustainable Materials Recovery Program grants will help communities build stronger recycling programs, encourage residents to keep trash out of recycling bins, and ultimately reduce waste management costs.”
Massachusetts produces more than 15,000 tons of recycling and trash each year and the roughly 2,000 recycling businesses in the state employ more than 13,000 people, MassDEP said.
MassDEP said two issues are “having a major effect on recycling in Massachusetts” -- too many people are putting things in recycling bins that cause problems at recycling facilities, like plastic bags, diapers, food waste and clothes, and that China has begun to refuse to import our recyclables because the recyclables are not clean enough.
“Not every item with the recycling triangle can be recycled with the rest of your household items,” MassDEP wrote in a consumer Q&A document. “In fact, some items with the recycling logo, like plastic bags, create real problems at the recycling facility because they get caught in machine gears, causing work shutdowns, worker injuries and increased recycling costs.”
“Treated as Trash”
Plastic bags are of particular concern to Massachusetts officials. MassDEP said almost 95 percent of Massachusetts residents say they recycle on a regular basis, but about half mistakenly believe that plastic bags can be recycled along with paper, cans and bottles.
“Maybe you’ve been putting your recyclables in plastic bags for years, but plastic bags, plastic wrap and other stretchable plastic cannot be recycled along with paper, cans, and bottles,” the consumer Q&A said. “In fact, plastic bags are the #1 cause of ruined recyclables. If you use them to bag your recyclables, all your recyclables are treated as trash.”
Edward Hsieh, the executive director of MassRecycle, said many people “don’t realize that when they throw items that are not accepted for recycling in their recycling bins and simply hope that they get recycled, they are causing more harm than good.”
MassDEP said many grocery stores collect plastic bags and wrap to be recycled properly. The department said bottles, cans, jars, jugs and paper can be disposed of in normal household recycling. The department’s list of things that cannot be recycled included plastic shopping bags, clothing, food waste, household trash, diapers, garden hoses, bowling balls and pizza slices.
“It is up to us to ensure that residents across the Commonwealth are being accurately educated on proper recycling practices and standards,” Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, co-chair of the Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, said. “The consequences of incorrect recycling practices are significant and harmful to our cities and towns.”
As part of the Recycle Smart initiative, MassDEP developed the Recyclopedia, an app and website search function intended to help people determine whether a particular item or material can be recycled.
The grant funding tied to the recycling education initiative will be doled out in two ways. First, 194 towns and cities will each receive between $2,800 to $97,500 -- total funding from the Sustainable Materials Recovery Program is $2.56 million -- to pay for new recycling bins or carts, public education and outreach, the collection of difficult-to-recycle items, and recycling in municipal buildings, schools and public spaces.
Another 53 municipalities will each be awarded between $500 and $2,000 -- total funding from the SMRP Small-Scale Initiatives grant program is $51,000 -- to help the communities make “modest but critical investments” in existing recycling programs or new, low-cost initiatives, MassDEP said.