Is Recycling Really “Wish-cycling?”
By Palmer White
— What happens to an empty plastic water bottle or old newspaper once it is tossed into a 65-gallon blue Somerset County recycling bin and wheeled to the curbside?
Each year, Somerset County recycles 430,000 tons of materials. Montgomery Township alone accounted for 32,010 tons in 2017. Recycled materials — ranging from plastic bottles to tree stumps — make up about 54 percent of all waste.
Somerset County collects recyclable materials from households, public schools, and government offices. The recyclables are then “processed into marketable post-consumer commodities.”
It is nearly impossible to determine what happens to an item that is tossed in one’s Somerset County recycling bin. It would be interesting to know what our own recycled materials will be converted into.
Soon after being collected from residences, all materials go to Bayshore Recycling Corp’s eco-complex and energy campus, headquartered in the Keasbey section of Woodbridge Township, along the Raritan River with convenient access via road, barge, or rail.
The items are then sorted and bought, and shipped to the companies that purchase the used plastics, paper, glass, wood and other recyclable stuff.
Once the materials leave the site, the company most likely loses track of them — or at least of their next life.
“It’s a very complicated industry. I think that’s one thing that majority of people don’t realize: just how complicated it is,” environmentalist Steve Tuorto said. Once one loses sight of their recycled materials, it is extremely difficult to obtain concrete information about them.
Tuorto is the director of science and stewardship for the Watershed Institute. He has a background in lab and field research, data analysis, and ecological research. He has also worked as the senior R&D scientist at TerraCycle, an innovative recycling company based in Trenton that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle materials.
All private sector recycling companies across the country have different policies, Tuorto says. This leads to variation in the degree of sorting that is completed and the amount concern with contamination, which both ultimately determine the materials’ finals destinations.
Recyclable materials have the potential to be converted into semi-permanent goods, like park benches or playground equipment; though they can also be made into things like clothing or carpeting, which are temporary. Despite the impermanence of the goods, Tuorto says it is still beneficial to recycle these materials.
It is crucial to know where the used cans, bottles, and paper will end up, but, it is near impossible right now, Tuorto confirmed.
People throw all kinds of things into recycling bins, which leads to contamination. This means that instead of being recycled, the materials will be brought to a landfill — even the items that are truly recyclable. Even worse: A landfill may not be their final destination. Recyclable items could end up in an ocean or other water way.
“The stuff we get is unbelievable. We could open a sports store with all the equipment we get,” Gary Sondermeyer, VP of Operations at Gary Sondermeyer, says. If people would follow the recycling rules, it would make it more likely that their items would actually be recycled.
The concept of recycling has been practiced by Americans for centuries — in re-styling clothing and making fertilizer from animal bones. It was re-introduced in 1972 as a way to manage the excess waste created as a result of the post-war surge in consumerism. Recycling became mandatory in the state of New Jersey in 1987.
The recycling industry has experienced major technological advancements: all recyclable materials can be processed and sorted by mechanical equipment. This allows for single-stream recycling, which is essentially lazy man’s recycling as all materials can be placed in one bin.
As could be expected, recycling has gotten more popular as it has gotten simpler.
Somerset County recently implemented single-stream recycling, with the hope of encouraging more residents to participate. County by county, they issued recycling bins that are roughly two times bigger than the previous ones. Recycling quantities have increased and even additional bins have been requested.
There is just one issue with being able to throw so many different materials into one bin—and feeling like a superhero when doing so: it promotes wish-cycling. Wish-cycling, or aspiration-cycling or hope-cycling, is when non-recyclable materials are recycled with the hope that they truly are recyclable.
People tend to over-recycle; although, this may not be true if the recycling industry was less of a labyrinth. At one point in time all materials were brought to landfills, but once a solution—recycling—was found, it was put in place. Now that materials are recycled too wishfully. Another solution must be found.
The solution is elimination. In order to stop the harmful effects of recycling, we must eliminate our need to recycle. We must stop buying materials that need to be recycled.
Don’t get plastic bags when you go shopping, bring your own. Don’t buy plastic utensils. Don’t buy plastic straws. Don’t buy plastic cups. Because these things can’t get recycled, they won’t get recycled, and they’ll go to the [landfill] anyway.
The future must be a sustainable circular economy—we must use products that can be consistently used and reused, not just used. ■