By Joshua Blanco
Think twice before throwing that piece of garbage into the recycling bin. While it’s certainly true that recycling is one of the most simple and convenient ways to incorporate environmental stewardship into our daily routines, the process doesn’t come without nuances worthy of attention.
When an item is recycled, the contents of the bin are loaded up and taken to a recycling facility that sorts the materials, eventually packaging them to be sold to manufacturers who can use them to make their products. Curbside Management, commonly referred to as Curbie, is the primary destination for recyclables in Western North Carolina, accepting loads from households and businesses all over the region.
Once the shipment arrives, it goes through a rigorous sorting process to create a final product that companies will purchase. This sorting process occurs in a number of steps, including manual pre- and post-sorting techniques that eliminate any non-recyclables. A variety of machines are also included in the process to detect unwanted materials and filter them from the final bales.
It’s a labor-intensive process that takes a lot of time and money to accomplish effectively. Too often we assume that anything with the recycling symbol can be thrown into a recycling bin, hauled off and eventually used for something else. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to Joéle Emma, director of education at Asheville GreenWorks, there are a variety of items that, despite being recyclable, disrupt the recycling process at facilities like Curbie. Plastic bags, for example, are perhaps the worst offender. “When plastic bags get caught in machinery, they have to shut the machines down a few times a day and cut the bags out with knives,” says Emma. “It’s dangerous and it slows the whole sorting process down.”
In addition to certain plastics, objects comprised of a variety of recycled materials essentially become trash due to an inability to separate them into their individual components. As a result, these items are set aside and shipped to the nearest landfill.
The greatest factor in determining what can and can’t be recycled isn’t the facility itself. Rather, it’s the demand from manufacturers for the various materials that drives the process forward.
In early 2018, when China introduced National Sword—a policy barring recyclables from being imported into the country—the landscape changed. According to Nancy Lawson, China was the largest consumer of paper and plastics in the world. “The markets right now are really bad as far as recycling goes,” she says. “We are finding a home for it domestically, but the recycling markets are very low.”
This market lull stems from the saturation of recyclable goods in the US. Though there are some upsides that come with keeping our materials local—like the fact that a large chunk of the materials are no longer destined for Chinese landfills—US manufacturers are left with a supply that far exceeds their own demand. “There’s such influx of material now,” says Lawson. “We’re actually paying to get rid of our paper at this point.”
Fortunately, North Carolina is situated close to the Port of Charleston, which gives us an advantage over other states because facilities can ship some recyclables to countries overseas. That said, the amount shipped overseas is almost negligible, and therefore doing little to offset the decrease in local demand.
With no control over market fluctuations, Curbie has instead decided to shift its focus internally, looking at better ways to improve the sorting process. “Any time a door closes it drives innovation,” says Emma. “It forces us to come up with better innovations and better ways of sorting.”
Thanks in part to a grant awarded by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, Curbie was able to add a fiber optics machine to its sorting line. “[The grants] are very helpful,” says Lawson, “but you have to match the grant donation and sometimes that’s difficult in the environment that we’re in right now.”
The need for an efficient sorting regimen is heightened at a time where every bale of recyclables counts. If a bale delivered to the manufacturer is contaminated with unwanted materials, it will often be rejected. By educating citizens on the how-to’s of recycling, Curbie hopes for a smoother process that ensures more bales make it out, which translates to less waste sitting in landfills.
To help with the process, GreenWorks has been working with the city, tagging blue bins in various neighborhoods with informative pamphlets. “Each time we came back we saw improvement,” Emma says. In addition, GreenWorks has sponsored Hard-2-Recycle events to give people an opportunity to recycle materials like styrofoam and other items that don’t belong in the blue bin.
Emma also says individuals have the power to impact the market. If they buy recycled paper, for instance, the amount of recycled paper needed by the manufacturing companies will increase, leading to more demand and therefore more opportunity for facilities like Curbie to recycle. “What we’re asking is for people to learn a little bit more about the process and about what can be recycled at the facility,” Emma says. “Just because it has a number doesn’t mean it can go in the bin.”
For more information on what can be recycled and where, visit the Curbside Recyling website at Curbie.com. Asheville GreenWorks also provides a number of ways for citizens to get involved in creating a cleaner Asheville. Those interested can also help the city achieve its Waste Reduction Goal by 2035 through proper recycling. Go to MayorsInnovation.org or contact GreenWorks at 828.254.1776. The next Hard-2-Recycle event will be held April 25, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at First Baptist Church Downtown, 5 Oak Street, Asheville. For a list of allowable items, visit AshevilleGreenWorks.org.