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Not all recycled items deserve to be in there

January 9, 2019

When you don’t remove the pizza crust from a recycled cardboard box or fail to clean your peanut butter jar, there’s a good chance Bryan Eberhardt is the one fishing it out to send it to the landfill.

“Mayonnaise, salad dressing, barbecue sauce, peanut butter, laundry soap ... ”

Eberhardt rattled off a list of the dirty items he has had to pluck most often from recycling.

“If it’s not rinsed, if it’s got food contamination in it, it’s got to be thrown away,” he said.

Every recycling bin scattered across Teton County is checked every day, hauled to the recycling center in Adams Canyon and scrutinized by a three-man team of recycling operators.

The bins’ contents are dumped onto the concrete floors and swept onto a humming conveyor belt. A recycling operator stands on either side of the belt, armed with gloves and a long hook, grabbing nonrecyclable items as they flow by.

“Everything’s done by hand,” Eberhardt said.

The conveyor belt leads to a “baler,” which smashes the material into “easily stackable, storable bales” to be sold. It takes about two hours to sort through a single bale.

In fiscal year 2018, 144,520 pounds of garbage was pulled from material recycled by Teton County residents, according to Carrie Bell, Teton County Integrated Waste and Recycling’s waste diversion and outreach coordinator. That’s not so bad when you consider that Teton County recycled 8,436,000 pounds of material that year, for a contamination rate of under 2 percent.

But it still means recycling center staffers have to work through a lot of trash to ensure a clean product.

“It can be back-breaking, time-consuming work,” Eberhardt said.

Common culprits

A few common culprits are responsible for most of the contamination.

Although soda and water bottles are “No. 1” plastics and are recyclable, not all No. 1 plastics are created equal.

Many food containers that are made from plastic that the industry labels No. 1 are not recyclable. Those flimsy, light plastic containers, which often contain takeout, salad greens or berries, belong in the trash. Sometimes the material is called “clamshell” plastic.

“This stuff is really thin and brittle; it’s just trash,” Eberhardt said.

It’s best to stick to translucent bottles and jars for No. 1 plastic.

Even more food is packaged in No. 3 through 7 plastics, none of which are recyclable in Teton County. Those thicker plastics often contain foods like sour cream, yogurt, hummus or deli items. That category also includes prescription pill bottles, marijuana containers — “We find ’em all the time,” Eberhardt said — and the waxy plastic of Pedialyte bottles.

What is and isn’t recyclable depends on what materials the market is willing to buy and repurpose. If no one wants it, it can’t be recycled.

In Teton County, if you try to recycle materials not on the acceptable list the items will be plucked from the conveyor belt and sent to the landfill. Recycling center staffers suggest people hang onto nonrecyclable items and find their own ways to repurpose them.

Recyclable No. 1 plastics are jars and water and soda bottles, and recyclable No. 2 plastics are milk jugs or laundry detergents. When a plastic is recyclable the most important thing is to make sure it’s clean.

“If we were to send a load of plastic and they were to visually inspect the load before they actually unloaded it and found food-contaminated items in any of the bales, they could just reject the entire bale,” Eberhardt said. “One dirty jar is all it takes.”

Bell said that’s important for the health and safety of workers separating the recyclables. It could be dangerous to be spattered with rotten food or chemicals.

“Nobody wants to get splashed in the face with anything,” she said.

Cardboard contamination

Cardboard also sees a fair amount of contamination. Common culprits are dirty pizza boxes (grease stains? OK. Crust and sauce residue? Not so much), garbage that’s accidentally thrown into cardboard dumpsters in alleys in town, and paperboard.

Paperboard is thin cardboard, like that used in cereal boxes or 12-pack containers of soda or beer.

“We have to throw it out,” Eberhardt said.

Contamination isn’t usually as much of a problem with other types of recyclables, like paper, glass or aluminum. Just be courteous and keep plastic bags and trash out of those bins, and learn your aluminum vs. steel.

Unique recycling

While the Recycling Center staff pick out plenty of contaminants, on the whole Teton County is a top recycler.

Teton County residents must take the extra step of schlepping and sorting recycled items at the bins, and that extra step boosts the strength and efficiency of Jackson Hole’s program in a global recycling market. It means fewer contaminated loads of recyclables, which are then more valuable to recyclable purchasers.

“We have a pretty good reputation with the people we deal with,” Eberhardt said. “They want our stuff because it’s clean.”

Though a bit of contamination is inevitable, he said, he’s never seen a bale rejected on his watch.

Contamination poses a challenge as more and more foods are packaged in rigid, unrecyclable plastic — and as more and more tourists and transplants hail from places that allow for “single-stream” recycling, where all recycled items are tossed in the same bin. Those recyclers may be out of the sorting habit. But a single stream generates a low-value product.

“Generally it’s almost all being landfilled when it’s being single-streamed,” Bell said.

Here, Bell said, “contamination levels are so low that we are still able to sell our plastics where many communities can’t because their contamination levels are too high.”

Teton County has a goal to divert 60 percent of waste from the landfill by 2030. The latest rate was about 34 percent diversion, according to a recent report.

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