CHATHAM – “Do Your Part – Recycle Smart!” is the mantra adopted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to promote recycling as part of its overall strategy for addressing solid waste management issues facing the Commonwealth. Others include the 3Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—and the unabridged 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle.
Many Cape Cod residents recycle a portion of their solid waste, often by separating plastic, metal, and glass containers, newspapers, catalogs and junk mail, cardboard and other accepted items, bringing them to their town’s recycling center, and distributing them into their appropriate receptacles.
But sometimes, especially when the process proves inconvenient, complicated, or tedious, some ask why recycle? How did the practice of recycling come to be an expectation for living on the Cape? Why should its residents do it, and what does it mean in practical terms for the welfare of the environment? These questions were addressed, at least in part, in a program held last Thursday evening at the annex.
Entitled “Chatham Recycling 101” and sponsored by ChathamRecycles, the Chatham DPW, and MassDEP, the event, subtitled “Everything you ever wanted to know, and maybe never thought to ask, about recycling in Chatham,” featured a presentation by Kari Parcell, Barnstable County’s regional waste reduction coordinator, supported by Josh Pelletier, Chatham Transfer Station foreman. Attended by approximately 25 people, the program consisted of an informative PowerPoint Presentation followed by an open Q&A session.
At the outset Parcell described her responsibilities that go beyond the job title listed in the event’s flyer. In essence she is responsible for maintaining a network connecting the several Cape towns, Barnstable County, and the MassDEP for information distribution, regulation education, and coordination of efforts around solid waste. Since each town has its individual approach to waste management and recycling, her job is to support these efforts to address common issues. She said that most Cape towns have banned non-recyclable plastics (grocery, trash, and newspaper bags as well as plastic wrap) because they can “gum up” the recycle machines, while several others are considering that move. Provision for their disposal are often made other than at recycling centers.
As is true of other towns, Chatham has developed within its transfer station a recycling center which is divided according to the type of item being disposed of, so as to allow each to be collected and processed separately (called “multi-streaming”).
Recycling addresses three goals: disposal of unwanted or unneeded items; providing revenue; protecting the environment. In an effort to supply alternatives to dumps, landfills and waste processing facilities world-wide, agreements were made to ship recyclable items to China for recycling and resale in foreign markets. However, the Chinese determined that rather than shipping recyclable materials mixed with some trash, many countries were shipping trash mixed with some recyclables. As a result, the amount of materials imported into China for processing far exceeded the volume of recycled items it exported, thus eliminating the economic incentive for the program. Discussions and initiatives by the Chinese to address this imbalance began in 2013, sparking an international recycle market crash before being resolved by China in what became known as the National Sword program that placed restrictions on the import of “foreign waste” including plastics, industrial waste, electronics, and other household waste materials. As a result, countries agreed to improve their practices to ensure that recyclables would be separated from non-recyclables before being shipped to China.
In the meantime, in 2013 MassDEP developed a “2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan” which focused on three goals: reducing the disposal of banned waste products (non-recyclables), increasing the ability to capture valuable resources (improve recycling’s economic benefit), and reduce greenhouse gases produced by waste management processes, including from recycling. The plan not only encouraged local recycling programs to ensure that a given type of recyclable was kept separate from any other recyclables or waste, but also led to the creation of a materials recovery facility to “receive, separate, and prepare recyclable materials for marketing to end-user manufacturers.”
The mantra for recycling now became “quality, not quantity,” with the goal of creating multiple streams, rather than single streams, in which any given recyclable item is kept separate from disposal at a recycling center to the processing facility to reuse. This had the tangible result of Cape towns creating such centers within their transfer stations where residents could self-separate their recyclables from waste and from each other. While this did not resolve the issue of how to dispose of non-recyclable waste in environmentally friendly ways, it helped ensure recyclable items were kept separate from each other, trash, and other solid waste.
When recycling first became popular it was expected to be economically self-supporting, with the income from the sale of recycled materials paying for the process. As a result, many recycling centers were initially free though now most involve a small fee. When the income received from these charges or the sale of reprocessed items does not match the cost of recycling, local or state funds can be required to sustain the program. Therefore, the key to achieving the economic benefits of recycling remains reducing the cost to recycle the disposed of items and the expense of the end-user manufacture to create resalable products. So far, globally, those latter expenses remain high and the financial benefit from recycling low, according to Parcell.
What of the third motivation, the one most frequently mentioned as the reason everyone should recycle, the benefit to the environment?
Parcell said that the process by which items are recycled can actually have a negative impact on the environment by produce its own greenhouse gasses. Plus, she noted, recycling plastic does not mean no new plastic will be produced. Nevertheless, recycling can have a potentially positive impact on the environment by creating quantities of resalable products sufficient to reduce the market demand for totally new items, the manufacture of which has a larger carbon footprint.
In response to a question after the program, Parcell added that assessing the environmental benefit of recycling is difficult. For instance, the goal of recycling aluminum is to create usable aluminum without putting as many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as would result from producing totally new aluminum. But since the current demand for aluminum is higher than is being met by