Subscribe
Well, Can You Recycle This?
Sustainability

Well, Can You Recycle This?

By | May 10, 2021

Jennie Romer, a U.S.-based sustainability expert and the author of “Can I Recycle This?” discusses everything from so-called “wish-cycling” to recycling “tanglers” to whether you can recycle a pizza box and much more in this special edition of the SpheraNOW podcast.

 

Welcome to SpheraNOW podcast, a program focused on safety, sustainability, and productivity issues. I’m James Tehrani, Spark’s Editor-in-chief. Today on the program, we have a very special guest. Her name is Jennie Romer, and she is a U.S.-based sustainability and single use plastics expert. She is also the author of a new book called ‘Can I Recycle This: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics.’ Thank you so much for joining me today and taking the time, Jennie. I really appreciate it.

Jennie-Romer

Jennie Romer:

Yeah, thanks for having me.

James Tehrani:

Great. So let’s start with an easy question. So what makes the ‘Can I recycle this?’ question so challenging?

Jennie Romer:

Well, I think what a lot of people think when they think of recycling is that an item is just getting turned back into another item. And the whole process is a lot more complicated than that. I look at whether an item is typically collected, whether it can be sorted through recycling machinery that’s currently in place, and then whether there’s market demand for a buyer to buy that item and turn it into something else. But what we’ve been taught is just to kind of put everything in our recycling bins and we don’t really know what happens next.

James Tehrani:

Exactly.

Jennie Romer:

So, what really encouraged me to write this book was just—  I’ve been working on plastics policy for a long time. I’ve learned a ton about recycling and waste reduction, waste management, but I get a lot of texts and different questions from friends and kind of, ‘Can I recycle this?’ seems to be just something that everyone’s thinking about. So I thought it was a really good point of entry to talk about all that other stuff as well.

James Tehrani:

Yeah. That’s a great SEO title for Google as well.

Jennie Romer:

Yeah, exactly.

James Tehrani:

So every day I go on a walk with my dog Oreo and we do this #litterchallenge where we find at least one item a day and we pick it up and we try and recycle it if possible. And sometimes I think of the recycle bin as like a magic area that if I put it in there, all is well, but that’s really not the case, is it?

Jennie Romer:

Right. And a lot of people do what we call ‘wish-cycling.’ So even if maybe they are pretty sure that something isn’t recyclable, or even if maybe sometimes their local jurisdiction says, ‘No, don’t recycle this,’ people like to put that in the bin anyway, because people really kind of think of these recycling bins, as magical. As if you put them in there, then maybe your jurisdiction will figure out how to recycle it. But that’s really, really not the case. And particularly with plastics, the plastics industry has invested in marketing recycling. [They] invested in that a long time ago, couple decades ago, where they were spending millions of dollars a year on making us feel good about recycling, particularly recycling plastics, as a way for them not to really have to concentrate on making the items more recyclable or more sustainable or source reduction. So that’s not by accident that we think everything’s recyclable and we feel so good about it.

James Tehrani:

I think that’s the key there. It’s almost like you’re feeling… It’s like an emotion inside of you. Like you want to do what’s right. But you don’t necessarily know if it’s going to get to the place you want it to and what’s going to happen to it. So what are some of the pitfalls once an item is improperly placed in a recycling bin?

Jennie Romer:

Well there’s some particular items that are particularly bad to wish-cycle. You know, some stuff will just kind of end up on a more roundabout way of going to the landfill if you wish-cycle it. But with things like what we call tanglers, like plastic bags for example, if you put those in your curbside bins, the vast majority of jurisdictions don’t accept carry-out bags or films. So we’ve got 97% of U.S. jurisdictions don’t accept them, in large part because they’re tanglers. So they get caught in the recycling machinery and make it so that the facilities have to shut down the line to have someone go, and pay them, to cut out all of that film from the cogs of the machinery. And so that ends up harming your local recycling facility. And they also kind of get stuck to a lot of the more valuable recyclables.

Jennie Romer:

So, I would avoid those and also avoid things that cause contamination. So if you’re recycling your takeout food container, very few of those are actually getting recycled because very few manufacturers will buy them to turn them into another item. But if you leave half of your food in there, then you’re also contaminating the rest of the recycling stream with your food. So, try to avoid, definitely avoid those tanglers and contaminating with food.

 

Going the Distance - Charting the Journey to Net Zero
E-bookGoing the Distance – Charting the Journey to Net Zero
To help businesses kickstart the journey to net zero, we’ve defined the net zero mindset and laid out a roadmap for how to get started.

 

James Tehrani:

So I’m sure you get this question a lot, but can you recycle a pizza box?

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. Pizza boxes are a big one. And in my book I go through … I have illustrations of various pizza boxes in different states of level of grease and food that are left in them. A general rule is that pizza boxes are recyclable, as long as they’re not contaminated with food or grease. So, if your grease… If your liner of the pizza box kind of caught all of that grease, the whole thing could be recyclable. Otherwise, you can just pull off the lid and you can recycle the lid and either throw away or, if you have composting available, compost the part that is grease stained. But cardboard is very recyclable and it has a good value on the commodities market. So definitely try to recycle that.

James Tehrani:

Is it better to rinse it off at all and try and get that grease stain out? Or just, it doesn’t matter at that point?

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. Grease is hard. So I wouldn’t try to… Don’t try to get the grease out. But if you want to go the extra mile, snipping off the parts that are greasy is another thing that you can do.

James Tehrani:

Sure. And this is something that I wasn’t familiar with. So there’s actually numbers on the recycling symbol. Can you explain what they mean?

Jennie Romer:

Sure. A lot of people see that little chasing arrow symbol at the back of their plastic containers and think, ‘‘Oh! This means it’s recyclable!’’ But unfortunately that’s not the case. Those are resin identification codes. So it’s a chasing arrows, three arrows in the little circle and in the center, there’s a number. And that number is the code for the resin. So number one means PET and number two is HDPE. Those are the most valuable plastics on the market right now. So it tends to be the lower numbers are more recyclable than the higher numbers. There are seven in total.

James Tehrani:

Do you have any examples of these? Do you have examples of those?

Jennie Romer:

Sure, there’s seven total. One through six are specific plastic resins and number seven just means other. So that doesn’t really mean very much. And then, so number one and number two… Number one is water bottles. Number two are HDPE that’s plastic milk jugs. Those are actually the most… Have the most value right now on the market. Plastic milk jugs get sold for about a thousand dollars a ton for bottles and jugs. And just as a contrast, number three through seven, kind of the rest of it, can get bailed and sold for about negative $17.10. That means that you have to pay someone to take that material away. So there is a big difference. So not all plastic is the same. An example of a number six are party cups, like those red cups that people buy for parties. And those really have no market value. No one wants to buy polystyrene and sell it and turn it into something else.

James Tehrani:

So those wind up getting tossed out into the landfill then?

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. So those are sent to landfill, incinerated. And for a long time, we were sending a lot of our low value plastic waste to China. But even then those weren’t really getting recycled. They’re just getting kind of sorted and probably ended up in the environment, dumped somewhere.

James Tehrani:

Definitely. That’s not good. So I read a stat on the EPA’s website and I wanted to just run it by you and get your thoughts. So on the EPA’s website, it says in 2018, there were almost 36 million tons of plastic generated in the U.S. but only 3 million tons were recycled. Does that surprise you at all?

Jennie Romer:

Unfortunately, no. There’s another stat that only 9% of plastics ever produced have been recycled. That means that 91% of our plastic isn’t being recycled. And I can see that being a reality because I know that so much of the plastic that we’re using, isn’t truly recyclable in the first place. A lot of it’s are things like the party cups or multi-layer plastics, plastics and other materials made from more than one type of resin or plastic films. And all those really aren’t being recycled into something else. So I think we just need to talk a lot more about what really is and isn’t being recycled in order to make our system a whole lot more efficient.

James Tehrani:

Sure. And so I was reading about something called the waste hierarchy, which is reduce reuse, repair, recycle, recover, and dispose. So there’s obviously a lot of talk about recycling, but we don’t hear as much about reduce and reuse and repair, even though they’re the highest parts of that triangle. Why do you think that is?

Jennie Romer:

Yeah, and I think that’s definitely not by accident. The plastics industry has spent millions of dollars over decades on really pushing recycling as the answer. Reduction and reuse are a little bit more difficult because they require people to change their behavior a bit. So recycling, you can kind of continue your behavior, continue purchasing a lot of single used goods and recycling has been something that makes you feel OK about it. It makes you feel good about putting something in your recycling bin and people feel kind of like they didn’t use it at all. But what really makes a difference as far as helping the planet is reduction and reuse. And so things like bringing your own bag to the store, bringing your own water bottle. Those are examples of source reduction and reuse.

James Tehrani:

Cool. And when I was researching, before I spoke with you, I found this article on Singularity Hub that talked a little bit about something that sounded innovative, where they’re talking about infinitely recyclable plastics, but the article alludes to the possibilities, although obviously cost would be a huge factor with something like that. I’m wondering if you’ve come across any other innovations in recycling or any of those other parts of the hierarchy that would be of interest to my listeners.

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. I try to approach that innovation, the recycling space a little bit cautiously, because I know that the plastics industry is hard at work and trying to kind of pitch old ideas as something new. So they’ve been pitching incineration by calling it waste to energy. They’re pushing basically melting plastic down to a fuel as what they’re calling chemical recycling. And those are not what we see as real recycling solutions. Recycling, we really want to see an item be turned into another item and to create a circular economy rather than kind of a linear, using an item and burning it. You don’t want to consider that recycling. So be careful to parse that out. But there are innovations happening in recycling. Right now, there isn’t a good way to recycle what they call thermoform, which are some cups and clamshells that you might get a salad in, are made from thermoforms.

Jennie Romer:

That’s where you take a sheet of plastic and mold it into something rather than with bottles and jugs. They’re blow molded. They’re blown into place. And thermoforms have a smaller molecular weight, which some people describe as a shorter molecular chain, but those can’t be recycled right now back into another clamshell or another cup. But there are pilot projects happening with that. And I think that’s something that we’ll see a lot more of in the future, now that there’s a lot of pressure to do something with all of that plastic.

James Tehrani:

Sure. Great. And well, let’s get into some of the fun questions here. So what are some things you think people would be surprised you can and alternately cannot recycle?

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. And I will say that in my book, I try to make it fun. So it is an illustrated book for adults with illustrations of how the recycling system works and specifics of all of 60 different items. And so one thing that a lot of people really want to recycle are plastic utensils. And I think people are getting more and more of them as they get more takeout and delivery food during the pandemic. But maybe they don’t feel OK about it since they’re putting them in their recycling bin, but the utensils are really kind of awkwardly shaped and a lot of the time don’t make it through the recycling machinery to be put into bales. And even if they do, they’re usually made out of polystyrene plastic number six. That really doesn’t have a market.

Jennie Romer:

So try to reduce the amount of utensils you’re getting if you’re getting to go food, say you know, you don’t need it. If you have something at home, especially. And then something that is very recyclable, I would say paper and cardboard even magazines have a market. So people think that those are relatively shiny and colorful, but those still have a market.

James Tehrani:

OK, great. And what is some of the weirder things people have asked you if they are recyclable?

Jennie Romer:

Well, I would say my husband tried to recycle a corn dog stick, like a wooden stick that a corn dog comes on, and it even had a little bit of food left on it. So I saw that in our paper pin and said, “What are you trying to do here?” Wish-cycling does happen in my household sometimes or tries to happen. So he thought that since it was wood, maybe it was similar enough to paper. But that is not recyclable and had some food contamination. So that’s one example. But I’d say that I talk to a lot of recycling facilities in writing the book and I like to go on recycling tours. So the things that those facilities told me to make sure I told people about were things like clothing. People try to put a lot of the clothing, like jeans into their recycling bin.

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. It’s not something that your curbside program is capable of handling.

James Tehrani:

And donations don’t work, I guess.

Jennie Romer:

Yeah. Definitely try to take it to a thrift shop or there are a lot of groups on Facebook has a buy nothing, sell nothing groups. Or Craigslist. Try that, but don’t put them in your curbside bin because they actually clog the recycling machinery. We don’t want that, or things like garden hoses and extension cords. Those also tangle. And batteries are particularly bad, especially when we’re talking about the lithium ion batteries, rechargeable batteries or anything with a rechargeable battery in it. Those are big problems for recycling facilities because they get kind of slammed around a bit in the recycling process and that can cause explosions and fires. So don’t-

James Tehrani:

Yeah, that’s not good. We talk a lot about safety topics on this show, so we know that’s not a good thing. Well, thank you so much. Oh, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you. So I don’t know if you saw it on Twitter yet, I posted a picture of something I found during my litter challenge. It was a cigar wrapper case. So I recycled it. Was I wishcycling or not?

Jennie Romer:

Unfortunately, yeah, that was wishcycling. Sorry to tell you. So two things there. One is that could be considered a film and most programs will, even the most lenient of curbside recycling programs will only accept rigid plastics as film doesn’t have a market and it can get clogged in machinery. And also that looked like it was a multilayer kind of a film. So it probably had couple types of plastic and maybe a metal mixed in. And one rule of thumb is that if you have multiple materials kind of glued together, then nobody’s going to want to buy that because it would be too hard to extract everything. So, sorry.

James Tehrani:

Oh, that’s good to know. I do my litter challenge every day. So Jennie, if people want to learn more about you and your book, how can they do that?

Jennie Romer:

You can go to my website for the book. It’s canIrecyclethisbook.com?

James Tehrani:

Very good. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Jennie Romer:

Sure. Thanks for having me.

 

Latest Insights from Sphera
The Best of Spark Delivered to Your Inbox
Sphera
Sphera is the leading provider of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance and risk management software, data and consulting services with a focus on Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability (EHS&S), Operational Risk Management and Product Stewardship.
Subscribe to Spark
Receive expert content from Sphera about Safety, Sustainability and Productivity.

 
close-link