In response to a global emergency in recycling, Cape Cod is working to find destinations for its recycling closer to home, eliminate contamination, and reduce plastic use overall.
Do you consider yourself a good recycler when it comes to household or business waste? Have your habits produced more volume of recyclables as time has passed, while producing a significant decrease in your total output of trash? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you might feel good about yourself and the contribution you are making to help the environment through recycling. Unfortunately, despite what we all may think, there was a time a few years ago when we weren’t doing a good job at all. Sure, our habits were evolving and recycling volume was quickly increasing, but the quality of the recycling loads—judged by how much non-recyclable material were contaminating them—was very poor…by Chinese standards.
Wait, why should Chinese standards matter? Because at one point the U.S. was exporting nearly 70 percent of our recyclable plastics across the ocean to be processed in Chinese facilities. The market for this, including the cost of the trans-ocean trip, existed. After all, if the recyclable plastic is likely going to be a component in Chinese-made products anyway, it would need to make the trip, processed or not, anyway, wouldn’t it? Container ships had been routinely traveling to China and a few other Asian countries with thousands of tons of recyclable materials for years. But in the 2010s the Chinese especially were noticing that the loads had significant amounts of non-recyclables in them. In Americans’ rush to recycle—and the increasing reliance on single stream recycling—everyone along the chain began neglecting their responsible practices. Consumers were putting too many non-recyclables into the streams. Haulers and processing facilities were accepting them but not doing their part to sort out the contaminating trash.
At first, they warned us: Clean up your recycling, or we will turn it away. But the cleanup didn’t happen as the process was failing in too many links along the chain, and China started turning loads away, at a significant cost to the shippers, and prices started rising. In some cases here on Cape Cod, it went from “towns were paid (or given rebates) for their recyclables” to “towns were charged to haul it away.” Believe it or not, recycling for a time was actually more expensive than trash to haul away, making it economically smarter to actually throw recyclables out. Then in 2017, Chinese facilities—which handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste—announced under the National Sword policy that in 2018 they would no longer import plastic recyclables. Haulers began hoarding plastic as they searched for new destinations, even as domestic facilities expanded their capacity. Stories abounded that some municipalities simply shipped off recyclables to be incinerated. Recycling was at a crossroads, and everybody had to step up.
“Domestic markets have picked up,” says Kari Purcell, the County of Barnstable’s Municipal Reduction Coordinator. “But not as much as they need to in order to meet demand.” The National Sword policy was a real wake-up call, she explains. While educating people on how to better recycle had always been a feel-good practice, now it was now changing behavior that has direct economic ramifications.
Purcell works with town solid waste committees to help them understand their options and educate their residents on how to recycle better. She estimates that 20 percent of her work week is giving presentations on waste reduction in meetings with concerned municipal officials and/or residents. “I am here to educate,” says Purcell. “But not to tell people what to do.” She has also been involved in helping towns find destinations for the recyclables that aren’t accepted by the state’s nine materials recovery facilities (or MERFs).
Take for instance boat shrink-wrap. The Woods Hole Sea Grant, a joint effort by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, AmeriCorps and Covanta, accepted and recycled 3.6 tons of shrink-wrap last spring in containers placed in the Bourne, Dennis, and Eastham transfer stations. A domestic manufacturer uses the wrap to make one of the materials in weather-resistant decking, which is also widely used on Cape Cod. Purcell explains that one of the biggest problems is that 15 contiguous towns and their respective transfer stations have slightly different policies when in comes to recycling, leaving some confusion as to who accepts what. Purcell often serves as a liaison between municipalities so they align more closely with their policies.
What’s more, only a few Cape Cod towns offer curbside pickup. Some Departments of Public Works do it themselves; other towns contract with larger companies.
Alan Robinson is a member of the solid waste advisory committee (or SWAC) in Falmouth, where the town had negotiated a five-year contract with Republic Services, a $10 billion company that operates across 41 states in the U.S., shortly before the National Sword policy went into effect. Falmouth has tried to educate its residents of the items that contaminate the recyclable loads and jam up Republic’s sorting machines. “We’re obligated to generate as clean a recycling stream as we can,” says Robinson.
Using volunteers who analyzed residents’ curbside recycling before pickup, Falmouth’s SWAC led a survey of residents to understand how contamination was originating. Of the more than 300 homes observed, “65 percent had it perfect,” explains Robinson. 18 percent of the failures were caused by a plastic bag. “People like to bag their recyclables, and that single plastic bag is not recyclable itself in our collected household recycling,” says Robinson. “Other frequent inappropriate plastics were plastic wraps and plastic packing pillows. Stop and Shop will take them as long as they are clean, along with their plastic bags. Otherwise, throw them away.”
Falmouth SWAC has a monthly column in the Falmouth Enterprise newspaper sharing recycling tips with the readership, and it has produced poster boards with information that are on display at the Falmouth Transfer Station. “The town is preparing to send out its first mailer in 20 years on recycling,” says Robinson. “It will go out with a water or tax bill.”
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection started an initiative in 2018 in response to National Sword called Recycle Smart, which is spreading awareness as to what can be recycled in household pickup and at transfer stations. On their website, they have a Recyclopedia where you can enter the name of an item to see if it is recyclable as well as videos, guides, and FAQs. While better education is vital, the going mantra nowadays is “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Robinson foresees some way of coming up with a visually clear and prominent display showing how much the town is improving its recycling efforts. He points to how hospitals might make a chart with thermometers to show what levels of money they have raised. “We’re in a good position to start correcting ourselves,” he says. “Not only will it make us feel better as a community—as residents of a town and citizens of our country—but it will help us when we renew our contract with Republic to show how much we have improved.”
Wellfleet, on the other hand, is not a single stream town. It makes residents sort their recyclables into soft plastic, tin, and paper/cardboard. Capital Paper Recycling of Weymouth takes Wellfleet’s household recyclables, but there is no program for glass or rigid plastics.
In June of 2019, the Town of Dennis opened its own glass recycling depot. Now Cape communities can bring in their glass for $60 per ton. Recycling glass used to cost between $20 to $35 per ton and is now as high as $100 per ton. It is crushed and processed to create glass aggregates that can be used in road projects and in pipe bedding. The hook: “For each ton of glass they bring to our facility, they must commit to take one ton of processed glass back to their municipality to use in construction projects,” says Dave Johansen, Director of Dennis Public Works, during the ribbon cutting. The rigid plastics that Capital cannot accept are now taken to a MERF off-Cape by another vendor.
Christine Shreves, co-chair of the Wellfleet Recycling Committee, recognizes the problem of contamination. “I was throwing out every little piece of plastic that I could, only to find out that anything less than two inches would fall through and jam up the machines,” she says. “Overall, recycling alone is not the answer,” she notes. “Reusing or reducing is the answer. And we put a lot of resources into those strategies.”
Shreves’ co-chair, Lydia Vivante, resurrected the Wellfleet recycling committee (started the 1970s) a year after she moved to Wellfleet in 2008, after it had been disbanded and Shreves spearheaded the effort to make the town’s popular Oysterfest plastic-free. They have also worked with the local library to make “A Library of Things,” where lendable items such as cloth napkins and swap shop silverware can be utilized for local events that would have otherwise used disposable items.
What is next? The committee has met with the Wellfleet Shellfish Advisory Board to discuss plastic alternatives for the growing local industry. “Our shellfishermen use a lot of plastic bags and ties, which unfortunately come loose and wash up on our beaches,” says Vivante. They are planning a fair where vendors can show the shellfishermen what products they can use as alternatives to plastic.
Town recycling committees are hoping their efforts lead to better recycling habits and ultimately viable markets for their waste. Improved coordination throughout the towns as well as assistance from Barnstable County and the state should help, all with a goal to make Cape Cod as environmentally efficient as it can be.