recycling audit 4

Materials are weighed on a scale. Workers conducting audit by counting contaminants in recycling stream at Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority in Lancaster. Wednesday, August 14, 2019

THE ISSUE

Failure to recycle properly continues to be a problem in Lancaster County. “Contaminants comprised 30% of the county’s recycling bin contents last year,” LNP’s Jeff Hawkes reported Wednesday. Also last year, the market for recyclables became severely depressed when China stopped importing America’s waste paper and plastic. In response to these conditions, the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority last year limited curbside collection to just a few of the most marketable items. Officials are now assessing the impact of that change on the local recycling stream.

How are we doing at recycling?

Slightly better, but not great.

The solid waste authority’s back-to-basics approach is simple: Curbside recycling is limited to plastic bottles with necks (but not their caps), metal food and beverage cans, glass bottles and jars, and clean corrugated cardboard.

That’s it. If it’s not on that list, it doesn’t go in the recycling bin.

Kathryn Sandoe, the authority’s chief commercial officer, told Hawkes she believes “it’s going to take three to five years until this (shift) becomes the new normal for people.”

We hope Lancaster County can get on board with simplified recycling rules in a shorter period of time, but understand, as Sandoe notes, that building new habits can be difficult. It will take time.

Still, these anecdotes from Hawkes’ article are discouraging:

— A crew of outside consultants recently did a hands-on, three-day audit to examine the contamination in the local recycling stream. They found “corn cobs, a diaper, plastic bags, sodden newspapers, even a perfectly good cat scratching post,” Hawkes reported.

— A spokeswoman at Penn Waste, which separates and bales our county’s curbside recyclables at a facility in York County, says the overall contamination percentage has declined slightly, “but it has not been significant. We have a long way to go.”

— This summer, volunteers spent five weeks in a 127-home neighborhood in West Lampeter Township to assess recycling compliance. “The volunteers found that 47% of the bins contained things that shouldn’t have been there,” Hawkes wrote. “Oops” tags were left at bins with contaminated recycling, but most residents didn’t start recycling properly until they received two “oops” tags in a row, and 30% continued to place contaminants in the bin after receiving multiple tags.

The solid waste authority has spent $200,000 on a public education campaign to reduce contamination, but the transition remains slow.

There’s much at stake. And we’re not even talking about the environment. (We’ll circle back to that another day.)

What else is at stake? The hit on our wallets, for one thing.

With China out of the picture for now, the market for recyclables consists primarily of domestic manufacturers who expect low contamination in the materials they buy. If a supplier’s materials are too contaminated, they’ll seek a different supplier. “Penn Waste has had to add more workers, invest in equipment and slow down the recycling line to meet the manufacturers’ quality standards,” Hawkes wrote.

And thus the cost of our overcontaminated recycling gets passed back to us. The average household may see its trash bill go up about $12 a year, the authority’s Sandoe said.

If we improve our recycling habits and reduce our contaminants to 10% or less, the entire system can become more cost-efficient, and the hit to our wallets would likely not be as great.

That should be a motivator.

“For so long, we’ve said you’re a good citizen if you recycle,” Sandoe said. “Now we’re asking, ‘Are you putting the right things in your bin?’ Only then can you be certain that those materials are being turned into new products.”

And, again, the right things are:

— clean corrugated cardboard,

— plastic bottles and jugs with necks (but not their caps),

— metal food and beverage cans,

— and glass jars and bottles.

That’s it. Put a sign near the recycling bin. Educate family members. Spread the word.

And there are still ways to recycle other household waste. Most grocery stores take plastic bags. We can take newspapers, magazines, office paper, phone books and thin cardboard to recycling spots such as Lancaster city’s drop-off center at 850 New Holland Ave. As we wrote in December, “it’s great to see so many residents from across Lancaster County diligently collecting items and then taking time out of their day to drive to the city facility.”

Another aspect to this issue was noted by Thomas George Simpson, commenting on LancasterOnline: “We really should be reducing the vast amounts of single-use throwaway stuff we use rather than concentrating efforts on recycling.” That’s part of the equation, for sure. As consumers, we can try to avoid overpackaged items and single-use containers. And we can buy more products made from recyclables, which will help that burgeoning sector of American industry thrive and ultimately bolster the price Lancaster County can get for selling our materials.

We believe that, for most, the impulse to recycle and help our environment is strong. But we must do it properly, or it might go for naught.

Let’s show everyone that we can make this recycling shift sooner than officials think.