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Recycling: Good intentions, poor practices

Recycling receptacles found on Peterson Air Force Base are marked with warnings to help prevent load contamination. If non-recyclable materials are found mixed in with recyclables the entire load will be rejected at the Material Recovery Facility and sent to a landfill, preventing reuse and increasing costs. (U.S. Air Force Photo, by Dave Smith)

Recycling receptacles found on Peterson Air Force Base are marked with warnings to help prevent load contamination. If non-recyclable materials are found mixed in with recyclables the entire load will be rejected at the Material Recovery Facility and sent to a landfill, preventing reuse and increasing costs. (U.S. Air Force Photo, by Dave Smith)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Each year more than 230 million tons of solid waste is generated in the U.S. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of 2,300 Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers. Of that amount about a third, 70 million tons, are recycled, meaning 690 carriers’ weight gets reused.

Those numbers, from a local disposal company’s web site, are alarming. Recycling, however, prevents all of that refuse from ending up in a landfill and that’s a good thing for the environment. But, what if the extra effort made to recycle items was all for nothing?

“Recycling is going to the landfill because it is contaminated,” said Fred Brooks, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron environmental element chief.

Peterson Air Force Base takes part in single stream recycling, said Brooks. It is a system in which paper, plastics and other recyclable material is comingled in the same container. The items are sorted mechanically at a Material Recovery Facility.

Contamination occurs when non-recyclable items, such as shredded paper, plastic bags, and bottle caps are thrown in with recyclables. These items cause equipment problems, and coupled with staffing constraints, Brooks said MRFs are rejecting entire recyclable deliveries when any amount of non-recyclable material is discovered.

“(Bins) from the whole base could be ok,” Brooks said, “but one contaminated dumpster could ruin it all and cause it to be rejected.”

When containers are brought in to the MRF from the base, they are dumped and sorters look them over specifically for contamination, Brooks said. When sorters come across something like a few bags of shredded paper in a dumpster, then all of the base’s recycling load gets rejected and sent to the landfill, which is more expensive.

Dave Kelley, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron hazardous material manager, said people throw things in recycle bins by habit and don’t realize the problems it can cause. For instance, it is common to find plastic bags – from large trash bags to shopping bags from the local grocery store – in with recyclables. When plastic bags are mixed in with recyclable materials and don’t get sorted out, they can jam up machinery at the MRF, causing delays or serious damage.

Plastic bags are one of six items Brooks and Kelley put on their list of top non-recyclable items. Along with plastic bags the list includes: plastic bottle caps, shredded paper, styrofoam packaging material, pizza boxes, and dirty food bowls and plates.

If people could take the extra time and sort out these items, Brooks said it will go a long way in reducing rejected material that is transferred to landfills. According to recycling industry numbers, recycling about 30 percent of waste each year could save the energy equivalent of about 18 million barrels of oil.

Brooks and Kelley admit there are a few items on the list that people have no idea can’t be included with recycling. Bottle caps are one of them. It is simple to finish a beverage, cap the empty bottle and pitch it in the recycling container. But when caps make their way through the sorting equipment they can pop off the bottle, becoming miniature projectiles and getting stuck in the equipment.

Old pizza boxes and used plates and bowls are contaminated by grease and food, so they can’t be included with recycled materials either. They can breed mold and contaminate entire loads of cardboard, Brooks said.

He said simplicity is the key to successful recycling programs and trying to keep what can, and what cannot, go into a bin can make it more complicated. But he has a suggestion to help.

“If you are in doubt, throw it out,” said Brooks. “That will keep it from contaminating everything else.”

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