Is That Container Really Recyclable?

Here's the lowdown on glass, plastic, paper and more, from our trash talk with Arlington's solid waste bureau chief.

Erik Grabowsky at a Christmas tree recycling site. Photo by Skip Brown.

Name:   Erik Grabowsky

Age:   59

Lives in:  Arlington Ridge

Résumé:   Chief, Solid Waste Bureau, Arlington County Department of Environmental Services. Manages waste collection, street sweeping, litter control, and residential and commercial recycling. Previously spent 30 years in the U.S. Marine Corps (11 years active, 19 years reserves), with medals including the Bronze Star. Holds a law degree from Catholic University and a certificate in public management from The George Washington University.

 

“Not qualified”: I was transitioning out of the Marine Corps, getting ready to go to law school at night, and needed a day job. My father and other professional guys used to go to the transfer station on Saturday mornings and poke through the trash—Dad said it was a way to clear his head—so it was kind of in my blood. HR notified me that I was not qualified for refuse collection supervisor or litter collection supervisor. My eventual boss decided maybe I was qualified to manage people and resources, being a Marine Corps captain. He called me back and gave me the job.

Separation anxiety: Single-stream [collection] has made recycling much more convenient, but it does require an ongoing education effort. Materials recovery facilities, or MRFs, [pronounced “murfs,” they are where comingled materials are sorted] see all kinds of strange things. We’ve created a list of a “dirty dozen” things people should not put in their recycling carts [aka bins] for pickup—plastic bags, wire hangers, polystyrene, batteries, light bulbs, food waste… Plastic bags get wrapped around conveyor gears at the MRF. Take them back to the grocery store instead.

Life, recycled: Shingles, textiles, carpet…specialty markets can recycle almost anything. Companies like Trex recover plastic bags and make plastic lumber out of them. Patagonia jackets—and a lot of garments—have a percentage of recycled plastics and polypropylene. An aluminum can will become a new can in as little as 60 days. Your Amazon box was made from recycled paper.

Where stuff goes: This area has three MRFs [in Manassas, Fairfax and Elkridge, Maryland] for recyclables. Arlington’s [non-recycled] trash goes to a waste-to-energy facility in Alexandria where it is converted to energy. The residual ash is then taken to an ash monofill in Fairfax County.

Glass breakdown: None of the MRFs [serving Arlington] really recycle glass but Fairfax County takes clean, separated glass and makes aggregate for its own road projects. Arlington has two drop-off centers. Each has a container that allows us to collect glass separately for Fairfax, where it will be recycled.

Money saver: If I toss one ton of recyclables into the trash, it will cost $43.16 [to dispose of it]. If I take the same materials to a MRF—based on the value of the aluminum, steel, plastic, mixed paper, newspaper—it costs $17 to $18. So it does make economic sense to recycle. If commodity markets continue to rebound, we hope to make a small profit again, like in the early 2000s. There’s an economics lesson in trash.

Think globally: When China was a rapidly expanding economy, demand was high, and prices went up [for U.S. recyclables]. China has basically turned off the spigot. A lot of those commodities have found new homes in Vietnam, Thailand, India, Malaysia. Values are not great, but MRF managers have found some markets for everything.

Act locally: Plastics, steel and aluminum are used domestically. The Chinese have bought a couple of paper mills in the U.S. and converted them to make paper pulp [from recycled paper]. Hopefully there’ll be a higher demand, and prices will rise.

Reduce, reuse: How can we recycle better? First, buy less. Buy durable goods that last. Donate good stuff for others to reuse. Rinse containers so there’s less contamination. Recycle only what’s on the official list. Stop “wishful recycling”—that rubber garden hose will not go through. Invest a little time to read and get informed. Did you know we do curbside collection of electronic waste, scrap metal and old auto batteries?

What’s next: What people throw away has changed. People read less newspaper. MRFs were designed for newspaper. Newer machinery will have more robotics. MRFs are being rehabbed to deal with more e-waste but also more plastics and cardboard; they are getting sophisticated robotic equipment with electronic “eyes” that can read materials better and faster.

Role model: I’ve moderated my own purchasing decisions based on what Arlington can recycle best. I buy soda in aluminum cans, [plastic] bottles second, and stay away from glass. Long term, Arlington is considering adding food scraps to its solid-waste management plan; that’s why I’m managing scraps in my house now [by experimenting with composting]. If I can do it, I figure most people can.

For more information about Arlington’s recycling drop-off centers and what can be recycled, visit recycling.arlingtonva.us.

 


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