Raleigh recycling explained

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Raleigh residents enjoy curbside recycling, but special one-time events often collect items you can’t leave by the curb. Saturday, November 13, Raleigh will hold a one-stop recycling event at the Shops at Seaboard Station from 10am through 2:00pm.

The event will collect items ineligible for normal curbside pick-up, including plastic bags, household hazardous waste, anything electronic with a cord (Caution! You are responsible for cleaning your own hard drive) and rigid plastics like lawn furniture, buckets and plastic toys will be accepted. Personal papers will be shredded onsite and gently used household items will also be accepted. Recycle relays, the Scrap Exchange and live music will create a fun atmosphere, so bring the kids along with your stuff and plan to stay awhile.

Why some stuff can’t be recycled in Raleigh

The saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is not always true in recycling. Private recycling facilities make money by selling what is collected or they soon go out of business. Raleigh contracts with two recycling companies, Sonoco and Waste Management.

Sadly, a 39-year old worker died November 3 in a work-related accident at event sponsor Sonoco’s Rogers Lane location in Raleigh.

Like recycling companies, cities lose money if they pay to collect items no one wants to buy. That means buyers also need to be close, otherwise transport costs not only surpass the price paid for the product, they increase emissions, too. The items Raleigh collects are the items it can break even or make money on. As new markets develop for other recyclable products, the economics will change and the city will add items, but sustainability is the key.

According to Jim Foster, Raleigh Sonoco plant manager, the rigid plastic collected at the one-day event could be considered a pilot of sorts.“ They require more processing, but we won’t do that. We’ll send it as-is to a broker who will then grind it into pellets.” Although the final destination is up to the broker and whatever market they find, “much of it will be high density polyethylene which can be used to make the black drainage pipes used on construction sites.”

Foster said market prices for rigid plastic are as low as four cents a pound, so it’s no money maker, but other plastic markets are rising. Polyethylene terephthalate (aka PET), which is used in soda bottles is a growing market because, Foster said, it can used in carpets.

Foster said he would describe Raleigh’s recycling program as “very methodical in what they take. Many want to add grades, but Raleigh is focusing on higher dollar items to make sure they get good value. Raleigh knows they have to have a market to make their service feasible.”

Compared to other locations, Foster describes the quality of Raleigh’s recyclable waste stream as “better than most cities,” because it is clean. That’s important because when ineligible materials are present “that just adds more work on the side to take out the non-eligible items and increases the landfill items.”

To keep Raleigh’s curbside recycling program affordable, it’s important to know what is eligible and what is not. Paper, chipboard, cardboard and newspaper make up most of the eligible fiber items. The only plastics collected are bottles and soft plastic beverage rings. Even though yogurt cups, margarine tubs, trays and plastic pots used for plants are plastic, and have the same code on them as plastic bottles, they contain a chemical that requires more heat to melt then the bottles. Currently, the Southeast has no market for these items, but if one develops, they’ll be added to the list.

Plastic bags can be recycled but they are not eligible for curbside pickup as the bags jam the equipment. Instead, take your plastic grocery bags, along with dry cleaning and department stores clothing bags, wrapping from shipped products, #2 and #4 plastic film, produce bags, newspaper bags and paper product wrap to Harris Teeter, which does recover these items.

Like plastic, all glass is not the same. Glass that holds food works, but non-food items are sold in glass that contains extra chemicals that melt at a different heat. Metals like soda cans and canned goods are eligible, but dirty tinfoil is not. The reason is that the dirty tinfoil burns up before the food waste, so there’s no material to recover. Metals hangars jam up the recycling machinery, but dry cleaners often take them or they can go into the scrap metal bin at Wake County Convenience Centers. If you have a metal lid to a glass jar with a bit of plastic inside, go ahead and recycle it, but separate it from the jar. According to Raleigh’s recycling website, “the plastic will melt (actually burn) away long before the metal begins to melt in the manufacturing process.”

Containers that held anything hazardous like pesticides, oil or paint are not eligible for recycling. Bring them Saturday’s event or drop them off at permanent Wake County collection centers.

Curbside collection schedules in flux

If your neighborhood has not already switched from weekly bin pick-up to bi-weekly rollout containers, check the schedule to learn when it will happen in your neighborhood. The city estimates three years for the changeover to be complete. The savings will far outweigh the cost of the new bins, but there are other benefits beyond the balance sheet.

The larger bins allow for automated collection so workers do not have to leave the truck. That makes for faster and safer collection. The bi-weekly cycle will save gas and reduce greenhouse emissions, too. Larger capacity containers (95 gallons versus the bins’ 18 gallon capacity) have increased the amount recycled in other cities, the hope is that Raleigh residents respond the same way. Economically speaking, Raleigh expects to save more than $330,000 the first year and more than $2 million annually after the change is complete.

The items that will be collected will not change. The switch is more about quantity than increasing the types of materials recycled. If you can’t think of a way to re-use your old green bin, the city will collect it, depending on which part of the city you call home. The new roll-carts are being phased in by city quadrants and unwanted green bins will be collected the same way, via curbside pickup, on special collections days.

Of course, one way to reduce waste is to buy less of what needs recycling. Packaging creates a large part of the waste stream, so buying in bulk is one way to reduce waste on the supply side. Many consumers think too much packaging is used in items they buy.

Looking ahead

According to an email from Dani Fassette, marketing associate with Sonoco Recycling’s headquarters in South Carolina, “Recycling options for all commodities, including plastics, is growing and changing daily. Prices have been fairly steady for all plastic commodities throughout 2010, although we have seen recent increases”

“Rigid plastic is not collected regularly because of the inconsistent markets for the material and our current facility was not originally set up handle the sorting/baling demands that rigid plastics require. As the market demand for rigid plastics increase, we are looking for ways to expand our service offerings to accept the material. Hopefully, we will work with the City of Raleigh’s Solid Waste Department in the near future to add defined rigid plastics to their current curbside recycling program.”

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