The Recycling Roller Coaster
From plastic to glass to mattresses, recyclers share dos and don’ts, opportunities and challenges
By Jillian Manning | July 16, 2022
There’s nothing less appealing than being out on a beautiful northern Michigan beach or trail and coming across empty water bottles, snack wrappers, and other trash scattered along your path. Alas, litter isn’t uncommon in our natural areas during the summer months as usage numbers swell.
Step one, of course, is to leave no trace. Step two is to recycle whenever possible—especially those water bottles, as the Environmental Protection Agency estimates only about 29.1 percent of plastic bottles are actually recycled. Many of your favorite outdoor spots offer both trash and recycling containers, and you can always take bottles back with you to recycle at home.
That being said, the proactive urge to put every piece of plastic, paper, and metal in your recycling container can sometimes hinder rather than help. According to GFL Environmental, one of the trash and recycling companies that serves a large swath of northern Michigan, “Contamination is the biggest issue impacting successful recycling practices today, when people throw in items they shouldn’t, such as grease-soaked cardboard, plastic bags, or paint cans.”
Back to Basics
We all know we’re supposed to break down and flatten cardboard, but how important is it to rinse your containers before putting them in the bin? As it turns out, very. Even small amounts of food residue—like the gunk at the bottom of your peanut butter jar—could contaminate an entire recycling load and divert it to a landfill. As much as 25 percent of what we recycle (that’s 1 in 4 items) is considered contaminated.
Another no-no is bagging your recycling. Waste Management, a national player with operations Up North, wants recyclables to be loose in your bin rather than tied up in a trash bag. In fact, bags (aka films) in general are discouraged, from plastic grocery bags to sandwich and freezer bags. Instead, customers should go to plasticfilmrecycling.org to find where items like these can be safely and effectively recycled.
Mia Jankowiak, communications manager for Waste Management’s Great Lakes Area, says that some of the worst items to recycle are “hangers, films, grass clippings, leaves, bowling balls, propane tanks, and batteries.” Also on the reject list for most recyclers are styrofoam, electronic waste, shredded paper, plastic bags, scrap metal, and ceramics.
So what can go in the recycling bin? Waste Management focuses on “traditional paper, plastic, metal, and glass materials,” according to Jankowiak, as does GFL. This includes containers made of plastics; metals like pie pans, steel food containers, and beverage cans; cardboard and paper like cereal boxes, paper towel rolls, newspapers, and computer paper; and some glass products with the lids removed. (For a comprehensive list, go to wm.com, gflenv.com, or contact your local branch.)
The Recycling Market
We’ll admit it—those lists sound limiting and more than a little complex. But then again, so is the recycling industry. Even though recycling may seem like a public service, it’s still a business, and not all post-consumer products are easy to reuse, reimagine, or sell to another outlet.
“Metals have had a good market since the Bronze Age,” jokes Andy Gale, president and general manager of Traverse City’s Bay Area Recycling for Charities (BARC). The nonprofit offers services to Grand Traverse, Antrim, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Benzie, and Manistee and works with GFL for metal, paper, plastic, and glass recycling.
“The paper market in the Midwest here is pretty good,” Gale continues. “The number one plastics and number two plastics—your water bottles and your laundry detergent—those things always have good markets. But half of the other plastic out there [are numbers] three through seven, and there’s just no real good markets for those things.”
And what about glass, aka all the wine bottles we amass from local wineries? “There’s really no market for it,” Gale says. In fact, some recyclers have stopped accepting glass altogether, in contrast to the practices of countries like Sweden and Belgium where 95 percent of waste glass is recycled. An article in Chemical & Engineering News reports that only “one-third of the roughly 10 million metric tons of glass that Americans throw away is recycled,” despite the fact that “glass can be recycled endlessly by crushing, blending, and melting it together with sand and other starting materials.”
If your glass does end up going out with the trash, at least it’s not the end of the world. “Glass going into a landfill is pretty inert,” Gale explains. “It doesn’t have any chemical reactions. … It doesn’t decompose into anything nasty like electronics, wood, or plastic. It doesn’t create greenhouse gasses like organic material, like paper or cardboard does inside of a landfill.”
Gale adds that the markets are ever-changing, so glass and other materials could have a renaissance. “As technology happens and the world changes around us, there’s more and more things that are recyclable. People [also] make things more recyclable.”
Getting Rid of Everything Else
One product that does have a good market these days is a mattress, according to Gale. “We purchased back in 2014 a mattress recycling company called Michigan Mattress Recyclers, and we really expanded it,” he says. “When we bought it, I think they were doing about 5,000 mattresses a year. And right now, we’re doing about 15,000 mattresses.”
While you can’t set your old Serta down at the end of the driveway, you can take it to BARC’s Traverse City or Kaleva drop-off locations for a $10 to $35 fee or schedule a pick-up for an extra $75. The disassembly work is the hard part—Gale says the mattress gets “skin[ned] like a fish” to separate wood, plastic, and fabric—but at the end of the day, the pieces of a mattress are 95 percent recyclable.
Over the years, BARC has become a local expert on other harder to recycle items like refrigerators and electronic waste. Shorted out Christmas lights? They’ll take them for a small fee. House siding, couches, light fixtures, and dining tables? Yes to all of the above (again, for a price).
As if all that work weren’t enough, BARC offers zero-waste event services for everything from graduation parties to weddings to the Bayshore Marathon. They have also begun an initiative called De/Re Construction that involves deconstructing homes set for demolition and using reclaimed materials to build tiny homes as a solution to the workforce housing shortage.
No matter what products BARC receives, they first check what can be reused. Quality items that come through the recycling facilities are sent to their 2,400-square-foot Kaleva resale store. Those items that can’t find a second life are recycled, with the goal of making sure as little waste as possible winds up in a landfill.
“There’s a hierarchy,” Gales says of the steps in cutting down waste. “We want to reduce, reuse, and recycle. That’s in that order. Reduce when you can, and then whatever you can’t reduce out of your life, try to reuse it. … And then recycling or composting is the last thing.”
To learn more about the services provided by Bay Area Recycling for Charities, go to mybarc.org.
The Plastic Game
When it comes to proper recycling, plastic is one of the trickiest substances to gauge. Here are some examples of the seven plastic types:
- #1 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate): water bottles and peanut butter containers
- #2 HDPE (High density polyethylene): milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and detergent bottles
- #3 PVC (Polyvinyl chloride): credit cards and kids’ toys
- #4 LDPE (Low density polyethylene): sandwich bags and grocery bags
- #5 PP (Polypropylene): yogurt containers, bottle caps, and straws
- #6 PS (Polystyrene): Styrofoam
- #7 All other plastics: clear plastic cutlery and sports bottles
Check with your local recycler to find out which plastic types they accept.
Those in Grand Traverse County can also head to the county’s RecycleSmart Take It Back Recycling Directory website (gtcountymi.gov/983/Take-It-Back-Recycling-Directory) to learn how and when to recycle most items.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has a similar online service that allows you to search by material or zip code and provides a list of recyclers who can take various items. (recyclesearch.com/profile/michigan-directory)