The City of Guntersville Recycling Program marks its 25th anniversary this month. As we achieve this milestone, it seems a natural time to reflect upon current recycling practices and the future of recycling. Our municipal program began in April 1994 as a possible solution to the challenge of solid waste disposal. There have been many changes in the recycling world over the last quarter of a century.

Why is Solid Waste Management Important?

A 2015 national report revealed that Americans are creating 262.4 million tons of solid waste (up almost 5% from 2010). Elected officials everywhere are confronted with solving the problem of how to reduce the need for more landfills and how to minimize the ever growing fees at public and private dumping facilities.

Even our celebrated program was green with envy as we heard accounts of zero waste cities on the east and west coasts. In turns out that the zero waste heroes weren’t truly reducing the amount of garbage they produced after all, these cities were just loading up their waste erroneously labeled as recyclables onto barges bound for Asia.

Why is Global Recycling Struggling?

By 2013, countries such as China had grown weary of the inferior quality of spoiled recyclable shipments and the environmental hazards that resulted from the contaminated waste they were receiving and began restricting their import of recyclables from the United States over the next few years.

The ripple effect of these “bad recycling practices” combined with efforts by the Trump Administration to balance trade inequities have had an enormous impact on global recycling markets, particularly with plastics, steel and other metals. Reduced global demand for some recyclable materials meant drastically smaller markets for these goods. Frankly, many material recovery centers (MRF’s) or recycling centers did not have the storage capacity to ride out what may be a short-term downturn in the market. This has resulted in the closing of many public and private recycling programs across the country causing people to wonder if recycling is dead.

Experts point out that recycling is still a much needed global economic and environmental practice. All nations must grapple with creating effective solid waste management plans and recycled materials provide much needed raw materials for countries with scarce natural resources.

There is encouraging evidence that markets for some materials are already rebounding. However, shifting demands have made buyers demand a much higher quality of recycled product. This means that recycling programs are becoming much stricter in their policies about commodities contamination.For the public and our business partners, this means your recycling bags or receptacles should only contain clean recyclables that are accepted by our program.

How Can We Sustain Recycling?

According to the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC), companies that create goods and services from recycled materials and the government or private organizations that collect recycling are doing much better in the southeast than elsewhere in the country. Alabama is particularly well placed near companies needing recycled materials to create new products and has many robust recycling collection programs throughout the state.

In another statement released in April 2019 SERDC said, “Everyday in the Southeast (and the rest of the country), recycling processors and manufacturers are still opening the doors, receiving materials and producing goods for us. Despite the challenges, recycling is still alive. We are all in this together.”

Locally, the City of Guntersville Recycling Program remains strong. Guntersville residents, schools, and businesses have given tremendous support to recycling initiatives since the program’s inception that have earned our program state and national recognition. The city began restricting plastic collection to Plastics 1 and Plastics 2 only last spring. Even the revenue made by collecting and selling a smaller variety of recyclables brings in revenue and saves us thousands by minimizing our landfill fees. We have done well, but we can always do more.

Doing Better

We encourage participants to be extra vigilant in recycling as much as possible, but doing it the right way by collecting accepted products only. Following a few simple guidelines can help us greatly reduce the contamination of our recyclables. Paper and cardboard items should free of food or oily residues (please leave out oily pizza boxes).

Food, beverage and toiletries like bottles of lotion, shampoo, etc. need a good rinse before tossing them in the recycling bag. Likewise, glass from food and beverage containers (including spaghetti sauce and pickle jars) should be rinse in separated into clear or colored glass and then tied up in a few old grocery bags or box to prevent injury or contaminated if the glass shatters inside the blue bag.

Items like used napkins or tissues, dirty diapers, and used syringes should never be placed in recycling, but should be placed in the garbage (syringes should always be capped and put into sealed clear plastic water or soda bottles or clear plastic jugs if there is not an official SHARPS/biohazard container available).

Getting to the Center of Plastic Recycling

The Resin Identification Code (RIC) system was invented in 1988 to provide a way for identifying the types of plastic resin used to make various products. The bottom of every plastic container or bottle should have a recycling triangle of chasing arrows symbol. At the center of the symbol is a number, ranging from 1 to 7. The numbers indicate the level of toxic chemicals used in the plastic, how likely the plastic is to leach, how bio-degradable the plastic is, and ultimately the safety of the plastic.

Descriptions of plastic grades 1 and 2 that are collected by the City of Guntersville Program are provided below.

Plastic #1 – PETE or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

Plastic #1 is one of the most popular type of plastic collects by curbside recycling programs. It is usually clear and used to make soda and water bottles. Some consider it safe, but this plastic is known to allow bacteria to accumulate. It’s found mostly in soda bottles, water bottles, beer bottles, salad dressing containers, mouthwash bottles, and peanut butter containers. Plastic #1 is recycled into tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, fiber, and polar fleece.

Plastic #2 – HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)

Plastic #2 products are typically opaque, not clear. This plastic is one of the 3 plastics considered to be safe, and has a lower risk of leaching harmful chemicals into the soil or groundwater. It’s found mostly in milk jugs, household cleaner containers, juice bottles, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, detergent bottles, motor oil bottles, yogurt tubs, and butter tubs, and toiletries bottles are made of this. Products made with recycled HDPE include: bottles for items such as shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, household cleaners, motor oil, and antifreeze; plastic lumber for outdoor decking, fencing, and picnic tables, benches, pipe, floor tiles, pens buckets, crates, flower pots, garden edging, and recycling bins.

What Will the Future Hold?

There are still many unknowns about the future of recycling. Here in Guntersville, recycling has proven an effective way of diverting solid waste from landfills, while also generating revenue that can be used to provide other service. One thing is for certain, in order for recycling program to continue effectively, we need everyone and every business to make an extra effort to recycle as much as possible and to recycle the right way. For now, recycling to make sense for us because it continues to make cents.

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