How to make the most of that big blue bin

by Beth Porter, Better Paper Project Director

Hundreds of cities and towns across the country now offer big blue bins for recycling, about the size of large trash cans, to be collected weekly. While the increase in size is a great reflection of how eager people are to recycle, some problems can arise when that big blue bin is filled with incorrect items…

The Washington Post  reported that recycling was once a profitable business for cities, not to mention the environmental benefits. However, recently those profits have vastly decreased to the point where now many counties are contributing up to millions of dollars each year to maintain operation of recycling facilities. Why the change?  There are a few international reasons, including:

  • Falling oil prices – oil is a key ingredient in new plastic and is now cheaper to make than to recycle.
  • A stronger dollar – which means US businesses are less incentivized to be thrifty.
  • And a weakened economy in China – our largest buyer of recycled materials.These have caused a direct nosedive in the value for American recyclables.More local challenges point right back to the first phase of consumer recycling – the big blue bin.

The answer to how to incentivize people to recycle seemed perfectly obvious – make recycling easier. Duplicate the process of tossing a can in the trash, but just toss it into a bin with all sorts of other recyclable items – paper mixed with glass mixed with old plastic bottles. The increase in technology available to facilities gave the appearance that companies could recycle everything at once, a process referred to as single-stream recycling. Single-stream is great in theory, but in practice has shown problems with contamination. Glass can more easily be broken on the conveyor belts, and being comingled with the other recyclables, can contaminate paper bales and plastic with shards of glass.bins-1534219

With the introduction of the big blue bin and single-stream recycling, people in many cities are increasing the volume and size of items they attempt to recycle. These good intentions can lead to trying out a variety of items in the bins…including old garden hoses, shopping bags, Christmas lights, and even shoes. Needless to say, these items are not recyclable. When unfit items are put into the blue bins the cost of the entire recycling process goes up, including transportation and time spent sorting and re-routing these incorrect items to their actual end point (the trash incinerator or landfill).

Waste management facilities want to appease their customers but at the end of the day, will do what produces a profit.
They will not remain in the recycling industry if profits continue to be low or nonexistent. The very first way to reverse the recent problems? Make the most of your big blue bin.

In just a few steps, you can be certain that your items are truly recyclable and being sent to the right facility…check out these steps below and share with your friends and family to help continue the positive influence of the big blue bin!

  1. Don’t grab that bag…
    Putting your recyclables into a bag before sending them to the big blue bin might seem easier, but every bag has to be opened by the recyclers…that time crunch often ends in the bag being tossed in the trash pile.
    Instead: Try carrying them out to the bin in a box that you can easily break down and add to the bin after!
  2. Play the sorting game
    See if your city has nearby drop off locations for glass and paper (these are the most vulnerable to being ruined in the blue bins!) and adapt your at home recycling area to keep paper in its own container – better paper means arriving to be recycled…not ripped up or covered in water!
  3. Check up on your city’s rules
    What might seem ready for the bin doesn’t always match with what your city has the capacity to recycle. On the other hand, you might be surprised at things you thought weren’t okay, but that your city is actually eager to recycle!
    Click here to look up your area’s rules of recycling and keep the big blue bin full of approved items:

1 Comment »

  1. This article indirectly addresses a few environmental issues, such as pollution and fossil fuels. I chose to bring up pollution because the whole goal of recycling is to reduce waste. We prevent items from going into landfills and reuse them in another way. If we stop recycling because of cost, I can imagine we will see a increase of unnecessary waste. Not only will these items be floating in the ocean, and littering the side of roads, they will be pollution from the new materials we will manufacture. Manufacturing (plastic especially) reduces air quality and helps speed up climate change. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and the supply of fossil fuels isn’t as readily accessible as it has been in the past. It costs more to extract the oil and the process is harmful in regards to pollution.
    I enjoyed reading this article because it clearly expresses the problem and offers a solution. If we are going to put the effort into recycling, we should do it correctly and make it count. There’s no reason why people can’t educate themselves on the proper way to recycle, and in doing so they will financially help the blue bin community and the environment. Awareness is key!
    I will be following your blog the next few months to supplement my learning in my “Intro to Environmental Issues” course. Thank you for this information!

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