Recycling is a great way to reduce the (many) truckloads of trash bound for distant landfills, but "wishcycling," the practice of throwing questionable items into the blue bin and HOPING they'll be recycled, is problematic, too. The Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency's Angelina Brandt lent us some hardhats and gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of UCRRA's bustling Kingston facility.
Thanks to our production intern, Keith Kortright, for recording our tour.
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During the holidays, it's estimated that Americans produced 20% more household garbage. So there's a lot of things that we can do to still have great celebrations and entertain all of our family and participate in gift giving that people love to do but do it in an in a more environmentally conscious way. Welcome to Kaatscast, the bi weekly podcast featuring history interviews, arts and culture, sustainability and the outdoors in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. This week, we met Angelina Brandt, Director of Sustainability at the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. Even outside of the holiday season, Ulster County generates a lot of waste. Recycling is one way to reduce the number of truckloads headed to the landfill. But wish cycling, the practice of throwing questionable items into the blue bin and hoping they'll be recycled, is problematic too. Angelina lent us some hard hats, and we hopped into a small utility vehicle for a tour of UCRRA's bustling Kingston facility. This thing moves like a snail; like a slog. It's very slow, but it'll get us to where we need to go. So this is our larger facility. We also have a facility in New Paltz. Most of our programs are running here out of this facility. Were permitted by New York State DEC. Those are our environmental regulators, and the agency overall is overseen by a board of directors. As we approach the site, you'll see our scale house; we have three scales on site. So every transaction coming into or leaving the facility must weigh in and out. So we're able to measure the amount of waste in charge fees according to how much waste or the type of waste that's being delivered. All users of the solid waste system are charged the same rate for disposal. So whether you're a municipality or school or contractor or hauler, the fee currently is $105 per ton for trash, which seems like a lot and it certainly is. There's a $0 tip fee for dual stream recycling. So we want to incentivize to recycle as much as possible, and that's part of our mission as a public benefit corporation. First stop; the solid waste tipping floor, a giant semi enclosed staging area where Ulster County's trash is transferred to a line of tractor trailers headed to a landfill. So this is the tipping floor in our solid waste transfer station. So waste is delivered throughout the day. It's tipped onto this floor, and it's live loaded into tractor trailer transport vehicles that are parked on this lower level here. So you see the grapple is lifting the trash and placing it into a larger vehicle. Some waste diversion takes place in this building. So to the greatest extent that we can safely and effectively pull out materials to reuse and recycle, we're able to do that. So we can capture things like scrap metals that should not be going to the landfill. Electronic devices that are, you know, not broken or shattered. Other wastes like Freon appliances, refrigerators, other types of hazardous waste maybe like propane tanks or fire extinguishers, we can recover things if we can see them and they're visible in the waste stream. We also have a diversion program for clean wood. So any clean wood that's unadulterated, it's not pressure treated, stained, varnished, etc. We can actually pull and recycle that wood in our composting operation. Each day we fill about 12 to 15 tractor trailer transport trucks. Each truck holds about 35 times, and those trucks are going to travel to Seneca Falls, New York to the Seneca Meadows landfill. That's a sanitary landfill. It's a facility that's also regulated by New York State DEC. So all of our waste in Ulster County goes to that landfill. As you can imagine, Seneca Falls is a very faraway destination for disposal. It's actually about 500 miles round trip for each of those trucks that we sent, and that costs, you know, about 98 gallons of fuel, which has a carbon footprint; that's tremendous. Solid waste makes up about 4% of the county's overall carbon footprint; just trucking it to the landfill. So we can do a lot better. Currently we're recycling about 20% in Ulster county, but I'm confident with more community engagement we can reach much higher levels of diversion. The combined mileage of a dozen trucks of trash round tripping to the Seneca Falls landfill is equivalent to sending one giant truck to Los Angeles and back every day. Reducing our waste and recycling what we can cuts down on those trips to the landfill. Angelina brought us to another tipping floor where recyclables are sorted and bundled for a second life. So this is the tipping floor of our materials recovery facility. Or you might hear me call it a Murf; for short, MRF. So here we process dual stream recycling, that's largely coming to our facility from the local town transfer stations. So each municipality and Ulster County has a town transfer station that the town owns and operates. The residents separate their recyclables, and we pull those containers and bring the recyclables here for processing. This is dual stream recycling, so that's very different than single stream recycling. Single stream, just like it sounds like, everything's going in the same container, and it's going to get sorted out and process later. And in dual stream recycling, you're gonna keep your fiber or your mix paper products totally separate from your commingled products, which are plastic, glass, and metal. So this is just the staging area where that material is unloaded. Once we hit a critical mass of containers to sort, sorting will commence who will push all this material up into this equipment. It goes up a conveyor belt and the very first station there is the presort, where we have workers that are just looking to remove the trash, the objects that we know are not going to be captured in this system. Just as electronics and recyclable materials are hand pulled from the solid waste stream, human operators have to remove unwelcome trash and contaminants from the recycling stream. Just standing here you can see there's a old box fan sitting there. You see that there's a basket there, maybe held spoons and dishes at one time, a lot of plastic bags, a lot of objects here that are going to have to be removed by hand. So a lot of people don't realize that the recycling actually gets handled by real sanitation workers, and each one of these containers is going to be touched in order to sort it effectively here at our facility. So after that pre sorting happens, it'll go through another system of magnets that remove metals, a glass breaker that will crush the glass down and separate that from the stream, and then everything that's left are containers, bottles, jugs, jars tubs, and we'll sort them out according to the markets that we have to sell them to. We try to teach people to recycle according to the shape and not the number. Is it a bottle? Is it a jug? Is it a jar? Is it a can? Is it a tub? Is it a lid? Those are the general shapes that are very highly recyclable. They can be effectively captured through this mechanized system, and we have really good markets for the specific types of resins that are captured within those categories. What about haulers, curbside haulers who accept single stream recycling? What happens to that? Single stream recycling tends to be more highly mechanized in the types of equipment that they have. So a single stream does not come to our facility, it would go to a different Murf or Material Recovery Facility. There are a lot of similarities and recycling programs. But the specific things that are accepted or not accepted could be limited by the types of equipment that they have, the types of manpower that facility has to effectively sort materials, and the end markets, the other recyclers that are going to buy those resins and melt them down into pellets or fibers or flakes to turn into new goods. So we do see that there are some universal things that tend to always end up in the recycling. For example, plastic bags is a common one. Believe it or not, baby diapers is another one that people want to recycle. But a really big distinction is that in dual stream recycling programs, you do tend to see less contamination because you are doing a little bit more of that source separation, and the accepted items tends to be a little less. There's more contamination in single stream recycling systems. Between 10 and 20% of the weight of material that people put in their bin has to be removed as trash. And I see something I want to show you over here. This looks like a type of foam inner packaging that came with a meal delivery kit. It looks like a styrofoam cushion with a plastic padding on it and it has a really big recycling logo with a number one in the middle. If you actually were to pick up that and look at it, it that object says 'Please recycle me' in your recycling bin. There's a disconnect between the manufacturers of packaging, consumer education, and the recycling centers on the back end. Even though that object might be made with recycled content, in theory, it could be recycled. We can't functionally process something like that, because it doesn't fit into those categories; bottle, jug, jarred, tub, can, lid. You'll probably hear me say that a million more times, because that's the jingle I'm dying to get in everyone's head. If it's a bottle, jug, jar, tub, can, or lid, those are the shapes that are always recyclable. So you can see a lot of these objects are going to have to be removed, bakery dome, containers that you might get like a tray of cupcakes in or something like that. I see some molded styrofoam blocks, those will be removed. Clamshell takeout containers, those will all be removed. Believe it or not, even though I'm explaining all these things that are going to be removed, we still have a very high capture rate and recycling. So I do want to encourage people to recycle as much as possible, but to recycle the correct items as much as possible, and all those items that we know and we learned can't be recovered right now to try to reduce your use of buying those as much as possible, and that makes a huge difference on the overall health of this recycling system. Consumers now have access to a wide array of plastic objects. They all have numbers on them. So if you look at your children's toys, for example, like a Barbie doll or a Tonka truck, right, those might have plastic resin numbers on them. Even automotive parts, things like that. They could have a number printed on them, but that's really not a good indicator of recyclability. When in doubt, ask. After the break, we did ask. Stay tuned for a rapid fire Q&A on everyday objects that can and can't be easily recycled. But first, some sounds from the floor of the Murf where bottles, jugs, jars, tubs, cans, and lids are sorted and conveyed on belts to Baylor's where they're crushed under 2700 pounds per square inch of pressure into dense cubes. When a particular material hits about 50 cubes, 50,000 pounds of plastic jugs, for example, that's enough to trigger a sale in the recycling marketplace. And all of those end markets are pretty local actually; regional or conceptually local meaning in North America or in Canada, for example, and that price per pound that we get for these different recycled products or commodities changes all the time, depending on a lot of different things like the price of fuel, the price of oil, the demand for certain types of products, certain types of paper or plastic products, or scrap metal. So the price is always changing and we as a public benefit corporation try to always aim to break even we don't earn a lot of money on recycling. But we try to get the best price that we can that were offered, or in some cases is the least price that we have to pay to make sure that it gets recycled. We're back with Angelina right after this. Kaatscast is sponsored by the Mountain Eagle, covering Delaware, Greene, Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham Weekly, Schoharie News, and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email email@example.com. And by the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the Central Catskills. For maps, itineraries, and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com. Back in Angelina Brandt's office at the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency, we discussed the concept of wish cycling and played a little game to figure out exactly what should and should not go into the blue bin. Wish cycling happens when someone places something in their recycling bin and they're not entirely sure that that item is accepted in their local recycling program. So you may hope that you put something in the bin and you're not really sure and you just hope it goes to recycling heaven, but actually that wish cycling could be really harmful to the overall recycling infrastructure. What's the worst thing that can happen by adding a non recyclable to the blue bin? Well, sanitation workers have died from trying to unclog machinery and equipment that was jammed with garden hoses and chains and belts and even plastic bags. So quite frankly, the sanitation industry, you know, waste management as an industry is one of the most damning jumps to work in, as far as workplace injuries and deaths. It turns out that if you combine a workplace injuries and deaths for police officers and firemen, waste management as an industry outperforms both of those combined, so it is a big deal when you put harmful things in the recycling bin, because real people handle and touch these objects to make sure they get recycled. So, you know, putting a butcher knife in your recycling bin because you think that it's metal and metals recyclable can really injure someone. So it's so important to know how recycling works. So we can do better at that. All right. So Angelina, have a little game you have in front of you a bell and a buzzer, and I'm gonna rapid fire through some common items that people might put in the recycling bin. And could you give us the appropriate response? What is recycling and what is wish cycling? Oh, I'd love to. Okay, ready? Let's debunk some of these myths here about recycling. Here we go. Peanut Butter container? And how crazy do we have to be about getting the peanut butter out of the container? So a good clean rinse. It doesn't have to be totally empty. If you put some hot water in that jar and shake it up with soap, that actually gets a lot of the innards out of containers and I heard a great trick about actually making a peanut sauce when you go to clean that jar out. If you have some soy sauce or some spices, you put that in the jar and then shake it. Then you can even reuse your food scraps and turn it into something you know a nice tasty sauce. Great. Okay, next up shredded paper. Shredded paper. Absolutely recyclable; you just want to put it in a clear plastic bag in your recycling bin so that they can identify that. Toilet paper rolls? Christmas cards? Glossy magazines and catalogs? Plastic bags? Ooo, it's kind of. So, we're gonna say plastic bags should not go in your home recycling bin. However, they can be recycled if you bring them back to your local grocery store where they have a bottle and can redemption. You'll be able to recycle those types of bags and all kinds of other film plastic wraps and things like that. They just shouldn't go in your curbside bin. Gotcha. Great. Aluminum foil? Beer bottle? Beer bottle cap? Ooo, beer bottle cap. So it's a really small object. We generally say anything that's smaller than a tennis ball shouldn't go in your recycling bin because it could jam up the equipment. Could get stuck in gears and conveyors and things like that, so it's tricky because it's metal. So it might be pulled out with magnets, but it loose caps generally don't get recovered. So that one's kind of I'm gonna say a 'No.' Soda can? Aluminum take home container? Aluminum take home container; that we can definitely recycle. Wine bottle? Wine box? The plastic bladder inside of a wine box? Pizza box? The boxes tend to be contaminated with food residual, pizza crust, and all that. But also we're finding that the fiber itself is affecting the recycling pile. Wow, so even the top of the box which isn't greasy is not acceptable. How about those plastic flats or pots that flowers are sold in? No. Ah, how come? No plastic flats; just like you would have food residue in a pizza box, you would have actual dirt contaminants in flower pots. Even if you rinse the containers clean, they may be black plastic, which is also widely not recyclable, so not something to go in your bin. However, home improvement centers and garden centers often have take back programs in the spring time. So if you do want to donate them, you can kind of give them back to like a Lowe's or Home Depot or something like that. Wrapping paper? Wrapping paper that's also going to be 'No.' So most wrapping paper is recyclable in your normal recycling bin, as long as it's not really glittery or have a lot of other ribbons attached to it and things like that. Metallic type paper. Metallic paper or if it has a lot of glitter product. But yeah, you can recycle it even if it has still has some tape on it. That's usually not a problem. But the ribbons and bows and all of that can be real problems, so just be carfeul. How about the tissue paper inside? Yeah, the tissue paper is also kind of tricky. I always like to tell people to reuse it as much as possible, because it is not quite the same type of fiber that we would recycle for mix paper. Cardboard milk or OJ container? Ooh, that one's also. I'm gonna say check locally; check with your recycling service provider because some recyclers can sort the cartons out and some of them can't. So if you use a curbside hauler, you might be able to include them. But if you use a town transfer station and your recycling comes here to Accra, we don't accept them, we can't separate them. Junk Mail? Junk mail; always recyclable. Even with the plastic address windows? Even with the plastic window. Pill bottle? Ooh, that's another surprise. Wow, how come? So medication bottles, even if they don't contain pharmaceutical waste, are kind of a regulated waste. Because if we see those pill bottles going across the conveyor belt on the sorting line, we have to assume that there could be drugs in them, and because that includes controlled substances, we have to actually be really cautious about how we manage those types of objects. So those unfortunately are trash or reuse them if you can. I know I have some old pill bottles that are really sturdy containers. I actually use them. I reuse them into sewing kits, for my friends who go camping or something like that, and I give them away at the holidays. So try to reuse them otherwise, unfortunately. What a shame. How about plastic solo cups? Any reason? They're single use disposable items. So they don't really fit into the category of being a bottle, a jar, a jug, and they could be different types of resins. So they're difficult to sort and they tend to not be recyclable. Styrofoam? And that goes for cups take home containers, giant blocks of styrofoam that electronic products are packaged in? Anything? Even if they have a recyclable symbol on them? That's true. So if you have expanded foam, packing peanuts, that are loose fill peanuts, you can reuse those. Sometimes you can take them to your local post office or like a FedEx shipping store and they will love to reuse them. Or if you know someone who's moving, always say 'Post it on Facebook or social media to try to share them with your neighbors' or something like that. The molded blocks are never recyclable, and Styrofoam is widely not recyclable; not just here in Ulster County, but you know, most places. Tomato sauce jar? And the lid? Plastic orange cheese container? And the cap? Pre washed salad container? Wow, and that's surprising because that's a big piece of plastic that I assumed could be recycled. Yeah, those plastic containers that salad or sometimes berries come in are called clamshell containers. And it's any type of container that opens on a hinge like that can also be a variety of different plastics. Sometimes they're number one, sometimes they're number two, sometimes they're number five, so they don't easily fit into a certain category that recyclers can manage. And also, they tend to be contaminated with food residue a lot of the time. But there's a lot of ways that we can reduce our use of those types of containers. I know a lot of people buy a lot of salad. And this is a concern for many people. But you know, shopping at your local farmers market, or buying a share at a CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, then your foods coming to you without any packaging at all. Or you can try to grow it yourself. I know lettuce is pretty easy to grow. We have wonderful climate here for gardening in Ulster County. So I always like to share those tips. Empty spray paint can? Ooh, that's also going to be both. I would say check with your recycling service provider about their ability to sort those. If they're completely empty, you might be able to recycle them with like scrap metal. But commonly they they don't like those going in the recycling bin because they could self compress gas in it that could be very explosive and very dangerous. So it's a good question to ask. Receipts? Receipts. Receipts are not recyclable. They contain a film of BPA and a film of plastic even though it's paper. You're not able to separate that in the recycling process. So go paperless, have them email your receipt, that's the best way to avoid that. Great. What a fun game. Well, it's always fun for me to debunk some of these myths about recycling because we want people to be really good at recycling, and to not only just know what goes in there and what doesn't go in there, but to understand the why. Because wish cycling can cause a lot of damage. It can damage the equipment, it can harm the sanitation workers that are sorting this material, it can ruin the value of other types of recyclables as well, and when that happens, you know waste time and waste money and we can't have a really effective efficient recycling system. So I love it and people come in the office sometimes and bring me all kinds of crazy stuff. Is this recyclable? You know, like a recycling show and tell and I just really enjoy helping people better understand what to do. If you have curbside pickup, check with your hauler for specifics. I checked with mine and it turns out they can recycle some of the items that Accra doesn't, for example, pizza boxes, clamshell containers, even solo cups and disposable nursery pots. On the other hand, shredded paper can't be recycled with my company. So again, check in with your county or hauler for specifics. At the beginning of this podcast, Angelina told us Americans produced 20% more waste during the holidays. Before we sign off, here are some tips and tricks for the season. So there's a lot of things that we can do to still have great celebrations and entertain all of our family and participate in gift giving that people love to do but do it in an in a more environmentally conscious way. So it starts with holiday gift shopping because people really like to exchange gifts for the holidays. So you know, remember to bring your own reusable bag; I always like to ask people to look for eco friendly gifts. Give a gift that keeps on giving like a reusable bottle or a reusable object that kind of encourages people to reuse more in their daily life. Eco friendly packaging, things that don't come in a lot of packaging, but also when you're wrapping presents, get creative. Use fabric, make the wrapping part of the gift somehow, or give gifts in a reusable gift basket that you can kind of recycle every year. If you do use gift wrap it can be recycled as long as it's not metallic, or sparkly, or anything like that. The holidays are just such a wonderful time and there's a lot that we can do to be better at recycling. Make sure you set out a recycling bin and have that be part of the experience of gift giving is having your family know what can go in there and kind of make it a fun game right turn it into a basketball hoop or something like that for the kids. From all of us at Kaatscast, we wish you a happy and sustainable holiday season. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. Thanks again to our local sponsors and to you our listeners for your contributions to the show. If you'd like to contribute, just click Support at kaatscast.com. Until next time, I'm Brett Berry. Thanks for listening.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL