Are you recycling or ‘wish-cycling’?
First eat the pizza. Then eat the residue that sticks to the box. Then recycle.
Really, here’s the dish on pizza boxes: it depends on the saturation level, explained Richard Bowen, recycling program manager in Anne Arundel County: “If the box has a couple of tiny grease spots, that can go in your recycling. If it has sauce and cheese on the bottom panel, rip off the top and trash the saturated side. There’s no reason to throw the whole box away.”
Why is Wish-Cycling Growing?
What happens to the pizza box next? It’s collected by a variety of contracted private haulers, who take it directly to the Waste Management Recycle America facility in Elkridge. This facility handles recycling from Anne Arundel and Howard counties.
There, the pizza box gets dumped onto its first conveyor belt, which runs past four human sorters – the facility employs 41 sorters who work eight-hour shifts – and they begin to pick out what amounts to the absurd things people should never have put in their recycle bins to begin with.
In under a minute, the sorters pick out a mangled metal-and-plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle saucer-sled, the lining to what must have been a trench coat, four plastic bags that may be filled with recyclables or trash, and more than 10 empty grocery bags. This is “wish-cycling,” where consumers simply drop stuff into their bins and hope for the best.
And that’s just the worst for sorters, said Michael Taylor, director of recycling operations for Waste Management, a Texas-based company and the largest environmental solutions provider in North America.
Taylor manages the plant in Elkridge along with several others across the region, and the stuff that ends up in recycling bins is befuddling, even after his 25 years in the industry. “You wouldn’t believe the bowling balls we’ve found,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
And: helium containers that are a fire hazard, a myriad of small electronic devices with potentially flammable parts, milk jugs full of hypodermic needles that get squished and explode all over the facility floor.
In 2006, when the facility first opened, about six percent of the intake was non-recyclable items that should never have gone in the bin. Today, the “wish-cycle” rate is about 16 percent, Taylor said, perhaps because more people are recycling but, at the same time, they are either uneducated or apathetic about what can and can’t go into their bins.
Back to the Pizza Box…
After the initial sorting, the pizza box rides another conveyor belt and enters a screener that, in an action that looks like a pinball machine, bounces stuff around to shake out items of a certain size and weight. During this phase, recyclables are separated into more recognizable categories – newspaper, other paper, cans, cardboard – and again fed onto conveyor belts, where human sorters once again pick out items that don’t belong.
The pizza box is then baled into a square that stacks into tractor trailers with the perfection of a Rubik’s cube. The Elkridge facility bales 900 tons of material a day. Where does it go?
A lot of cardboard goes to Vietnam, India and Egypt, said Bowen, whereas it used to go to China. “Currently, China has a one percent contamination level requirement which is really difficult to meet,” he said. In this case, “contamination” means items that aren’t cardboard have nonetheless been placed in a cardboard bale.
Cardboard – notwithstanding the new regulations from China – is still the most marketable recycling commodity. But the most valuable bale is actually aluminum cans, said Taylor. “Paper is used to make new paper, but the fibers get broken down,” he explained, “whereas the aluminum can – a lot of cans go to Alcoa — comes back pretty perfectly as an aluminum can. It’s the perfect recyclable.”
What we often label as cardboard is actually “old corrugated containers,” or two flat exterior layers of paper. Last year, old corrugated containers were worth $104.72 per ton, according to Recycling Today.
Though it’s harder to sell recycled bales to China, in fact other markets are available, said Taylor, “and some Chinese paper mill groups have actually bought U.S. paper mills. It’s a global business and a constantly changing marketplace.”
As the bales get loaded onto trucks, Taylor said the best rule of thumb for residents is, when in doubt, don’t just drop an item into your recycle bin and hope for the best.
“We’re here processing this stuff, and every day is different,” he said. “You put that bin on the curb, and it goes away, and people get mad when it doesn’t. Try to think about what has happened when you come home and that bin is empty.”
To learn how to be a better recycler, visit the county website:
In Anne Arundel County, visit: https://www.aacounty.org/departments/public-works/waste-management/Materials_Accepted
In Howard County, visit: https://www.howardcountymd.gov/Departments/Public-Works/Bureau-Of-Environmental-Services/Recycling