By Jenevra Wetmore, with input from Michele Morris, Director of Marketing and Communications, Chittenden Solid Waste District
Electronics being collected by Good Point Recycling at Sustainable Woodstock’s annual e-cycling and document recycling/shredding event on October 16, 2021. (Photo: Michael J. Caduto)
Where does our recycling go in Vermont? With recent news stories highlighting a volatile recycling market, this question has been on the minds of many Vermonters. Understandably, we want the recyclable materials we so diligently separate from trash to be reused. Thankfully, Vermonters can rest assured that, despite the bad news coming from other parts of the country, Vermont’s “blue-bin” recyclables are going to North American processors to be made into new materials and products.
The main driver behind the volatile markets for recycled scrap was China’s crackdown on illegal and unregulated imports that were not meeting the standards that were already in place. This sudden closure of the world’s biggest market for recycled materials of all kinds flooded the marketplace as others scrambled to fill the void. As with any market, when supply outpaces demand, prices plummet and markets dry up. When the policy was first enacted, some municipalities halted recycling programs entirely, while others stopped accepting certain items, or even landfilled or incinerated their recycling. However, Vermont never stopped marketing blue-bin recyclables so they could be turned into new products and materials!
Compared to much of the rest of the country, Vermont is also doing a good job of recycling the correct items. The materials that enter a recycling facility but cannot be recycled are called “residue.” Residue consists of materials that never should have been recycled in the first place, such as plastic bags, food scraps, textiles, and contaminated food containers. This contamination of recycling is often due to ignorance and “wishful recycling” or “wishcycling,” which is the act of tossing something in your recycling bin with the hope that it is recyclable. This is a serious problem for recycling facilities, as these items can pose hazards for workers at the facilities, contaminate valuable materials, cause clogged sorting machines, and result in excess time spent sorting items. Vermont’s two single-stream Materials Recovery Facilities (or MRF, where blue-bin recyclables are sorted) boast residue rates of 7 to 10%, according to statistics provided by the Chittenden Solid Waste District, the municipal owner of the Williston-based MRF. Other single-stream MRFs across the country report that as much as 20-25% of everything they are receiving is trash that should never have come to those facilities.
Recycling is also law. Some Solid Waste Districts enacted Ordinances requiring recycling in the early 1990’s. In 2012 Vermont passed the Universal Recycling Law (Act 148). This law bans “blue bin” recycling items from the trash. These items include empty and rinsed clean containers like aluminum, glass, and plastic bottles, cans, and jars, and clean and dry paper and cardboard. Generally, Vermont’s glass bottles and jars may be made into new bottles, fiberglass, abrasives, or used as a replacement for natural stone aggregates in road and other construction projects . Aluminum and other metal cans may become new cans or virtually any other new aluminum or metal product. Recycled paper may become tissues, new paper, or part of cardboard boxes. Plastics, which account for Less than 6% (by weight) of everything processed at the CSWD Materials Recovery Facility, may become new plastic bottles, plastic paint cans, or even fleece clothing.
Recycling is a good thing. By re-using materials like cardboard, metal, and plastics, we are conserving natural resources like timber, water, bauxite (a raw material used to make aluminum), and non-renewable resources such as petroleum, and we are keeping these materials out of Vermont’s only landfill. Recycling also saves energy, creates jobs, and prevents pollution. We are lucky in Vermont to know that our recyclable materials are truly being recycled, which is all the more reason to recycle.
Recycling tips for Vermonters:
- Don’t put black plastic, Styrofoam, or drink boxes and pouches in your recycling bin. The facilities that sort your recyclables can’t handle them and do not have access to markets for these materials.
- Don’t put anything in your recycling bin that’s smaller than 2” in two directions. In other words, nothing smaller than a tennis ball (but do NOT put tennis balls in your recycling bin.)
- Empty and rinse containers and make sure there is no food or drink stuck to or inside anything you put in your recycling bin.
- Don’t “wishcycle.” When in doubt, throw it out.
- Do explore your waste district’s A-Z recycling guide for a list of what to do with items in your region. Find your waste management authority at https://dec.vermont.gov/waste-management/solid/local-districts
- Do ask your local waste management authority about your options for household hazardous waste; items such as paint and household products labeled “caution, toxic, danger, hazard, warning, poisonous, reactive, corrosive, or flammable.”