Dealing with the challenge of recycling in the modern world is a monumental undertaking.

What’s more, the fact that recycling processing companies such as Waste Management have seen significant increases in contaminants among recyclables — including plastic bags, bulky items, and wire and food products, which can cause facility shutdowns and harm employees in addition to affecting the quality of recycled materials — points to the undeniable conclusion that more public education is necessary to reduce these contaminants.

From the start, recycling has been a partnership between Waste Management, municipalities and the citizens who rely on these services. Recycling’s future success depends on the cooperation of the consumers who derive the most benefit from it.

A History of Innovation

Waste Management has always been on the leading edge of innovation. Started by a Dutch immigrant named Harm Huizenga in 1893, Waste Management was launched in Chicago (with little more than a strong work ethic and a horse-drawn wagon) to address the haphazard way that trash was being disposed of. Decades later, company history was solidified when it changed the paradigm from waste disposal to waste management.

Following WWII, as disposable products became the norm and the task mushroomed, the company experienced successive growth. In 1968, Wayne Huizenga (Harm’s grandson) and two other investors, Dean Buntrock and Larry Beck, launched their vision to serve communities by properly managing the waste of America’s rapidly growing population.

By 1982, after several mergers, the publicly traded company become the largest waste disposal company in the world and was developing new technologies for collection, disposal and recycling that continues to evolve to meet consumer needs and global demands. Regardless of how innovative company technologies may be, the only way forward is to ensure the cooperation of the consuming public.

The China Factor

Until 2017, almost 25% of the world’s recycled materials and over 50% of paper and plastics were purchased by China for recycling. That changed abruptly in 2018, when the government instituted a new policy that banned the importation of contaminated recyclables to .05%. This includes things like a pizza box with grease on the cardboard, rendering it unsuitable for recycling. China has continued to restrict their importation of recyclable materials, forcing global markets to adapt.

What does this mean for us? Most residents here have two different refuse disposal options provided by their governing municipality. One container is for unrecyclable materials and the other is for single-stream recycling. Single stream recycling removes the task from having to separate materials into different bins, i.e. paper, aluminum and steel. Instead, all of these are deposited in one bin and separated at Waste Management plants.

The Economics of Ecology

With recycling, there are two important factors to consider. First, recycling operates on a supply and demand equation, just like any other raw material. Recycled waste is a raw material. Plastics, aluminum and paper can be made into new products, if, like iron ore or crude oil, it meets certain specifications. Today, more and more of America’s recycled materials are being reused.

The second factor is that the success of this vital resource use, ecologically and economically, depends on the thoughtful cooperation of the people who use it. “Plastic bags, and other tanglers such as ropes, hoses, clothes and Christmas lights, cause issues at our recycling facility,” said Amy Boyson, Community Affairs Manager for Waste Management.

“These items get wrapped around our star screen equipment, which is used to sort material, and we must shut down the entire facility to manually cut and remove the non-recyclable items. Loose plastic bags and bagged recycling are not accepted in a curbside (or commercial) recycling program. Instead, plastic bags can be properly disposed of at most grocery stores.” Additionally, dangerous items should be kept out of curbside recycling carts, such as “propane tanks, needles and electronics. These items can injure our employees who work in your community or even create a fire capable of impacting the entire operation of a recycling facility,” she said.

In order to make recycling more efficient and cost effective, Waste Management has locally invested more than $1 billion in processing infrastructure, including almost $22 million in 2017, an investment of more than $13 million over the previous year. This change resulted in the processing of 15.3 million tons of recycled goods in 2017, representing a 91.25 percent increase in recycling ability over the past decade.

Making recycling operations effective at keeping materials out of landfills as well as keeping recycling costs economically viable — so our personal cost for services doesn’t become too burdensome — depends on consumer knowledge and cooperation.

We all must understand the market for recyclable materials, which is why Waste Management provides a list of items acceptable for recycling. Learning what’s acceptable is the first step for every person to be part of the recycling solution, rather than the recycling problem.