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Some Surprising (and Disappointing) Truths About Recycling: A Word from Pat Herrity, Springfield District Supervisor

Pat Herrity, Springfield District Supervisor, recently relayed the message below regarding recycling in Fairfax County. Please read and adjust your recycling habits if necessary. Some of these facts were quite surprising to us!

Some Surprising (and disappointing) Truths About Recycling

Most residents are trying to do the right thing by recycling. Below are a few facts about what gets recycled, why, and how to correctly recycle certain items based on my visits to the facilities where much of the region’s recycled materials go.

Glass – The surprising truth is that all of the glass you have put in the curbside single stream recycling bins has been going to the landfill for many years. Worse than that – this glass also contaminates many of the other items in the bins that are otherwise recyclable. The best way to recycle glass is to collect it separately and take it to the I-95 landfill site or the I-66 transfer station where you will find purple collection bins for glass-only deposits. In the next month you will be able to take glass to a purple bin at my West Springfield office and other sites around the county. If that is too much trouble, you are better off throwing it in your regular trash where it won’t contaminate other recyclables. Fairfax County is taking the lead in trying to create a market for recycled glass in our region – see “More on Glass” below.

Plastic Bags and Film – The truth is that all the plastic bags and film (bubble wrap, for example) that you have put in the curbside single stream recycling bins are going to the landfill. Worse than that – the plastic bags and film clog the recycling machinery and increase the cost of recycling. The best way to recycle plastic bags and film is to take them to the grocery stores where they get recycled, often into composite decking. If that is too much trouble, you are better off throwing them in your regular trash where they will be converted to energy.

Regular Trash – The truth is that most of your regular trash in Fairfax County is recycled into energy at the Covanta Waste-to-Energy facility in Lorton by the I-95 landfill. The plant produces 80 megawatts of electric power. Burning our garbage reduces the volume of trash by over 90%. The remaining ash is landfilled, although the County is exploring options for other uses of the ash.

Aspirational Recycling – This is how many people in the industry describe the non-recyclable items that end up in the curbside single stream recycling bins. Things like diapers, garden hoses, coolers, Styrofoam, food, car seats, batteries and an incredible list of other items are often put into the bin by people hoping it will be recycled. The truth about aspirational recycling is that these items all end up in the landfill rather than being converted to energy at the Covanta Waste-to-Energy Plant. These non-recyclable items also increase the cost of recycling. The best thing to do is (as the current Go Recycle campaign says) “when in doubt, throw it out.” Don’t trash your recycling efforts–recycle better. For a list of what to recycle click here.

Economics and China – Because of the significant contamination of our recycled materials (for example – glass fragments in paper or cardboard) China, formerly a major market, has stopped accepting some recycled materials from the US. The truth is that the value of recycled materials is not what it used to be, and recycling has become more expensive. Many jurisdictions across Virginia and the US have completely abandoned curbside recycling. I believe we need to continue a robust recycling program but do a better job educating our residents and work to clean up the contents in our single stream curbside bins.

More on Glass – Fairfax County is taking the lead in trying to establish a market for glass. Big Blue, the county’s glass crushing machine, takes glass bottles and jars and turns them into sand and gravel and is using them for construction, paving and landscaping. In order to grow true glass recycling in our County and the region, our focus should be on glass only recycling, educating our citizens, and focusing efforts on large consumers of glass. On the last note, the county is working with wineries to collect the many empty bottles they generate every week.

Material Recovery Facilities (MRF) – Last week I had the opportunity to visit the MRF where most of the county’s curbside single stream recycling goes to be sorted and recovered. The plant is amazing in what it is able to accomplish with both the recyclable and non-recyclable materials it receives. Using a combination of about 30 employees, magnets, reverse magnetic eddies, computer sensor controlled air bursts, and a bailer the MRF separates the items into separate bales of product – cardboard, paper, metal, aluminum, and plastics. I also saw firsthand the impact of glass and plastic bags and film on the operation as they had to shut down to literally cut out the plastic bags clogging the machinery. I also had a chance to discuss taking the non-recyclables to the Covanta incinerator instead of a landfill.

The Future of Recycling – The future of recycling is changing and will depend on a number of factors including the markets for recycled materials and the resulting economics. Today I believe it starts with improving the quality of our curbside recycling and increased communication efforts on what to recycle, how to recycle it, and the harm of improper recycling. It also starts with investigating new technologies. Across the US, including in Chesapeake, Virginia, plants are being built that will take a single municipal waste stream, pull out valuable materials and convert the remaining waste to non-fossil bio-fuel and other useful materials. This eliminates the need for any communication efforts on what needs to be recycled. The environmental benefits associated with reducing the three or four trips trash trucks take in our neighborhoods to one or two would be significant while more than doubling our recycle rate and reducing residual waste (not to mention traffic congestion). I plan to visit a plant in Durham, NC to observe the process sometime this summer. I believe Fairfax should investigate some of these new options. One day, technology may be able to get us to the days of the Jetsons where our trash stays at home and is recycled into what we need.

I hope that the above helps you recycle better. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.

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