Q. “I recently heard in the news that most plastics aren’t recycled and instead go to the landfill. Is this true?”
A. “It depends where you live, but if your recyclables come to the Kent County Recycling and Education Center, 90% of recyclables are sorted, baled, and sent to downstream processors to be further processed (shredded, cleaned, pelletized, melted, pulped, etc.) and made into raw feedstock or materials for manufacturers.”
While many media stories are good at interpreting national or international recycling trends, most can’t speak to what’s happening to recycling in your neighborhood, and recycling is a hyper-local effort. Kent County Recycling Center accepts all rigid or firm plastic #1-7 bottles, tubs, jugs, or containers for recycling. Of all of the recyclables that are delivered to our recycling center, 90% of recyclables are sorted, baled, and sent to downstream processors to be further processed.
The downstream processors of those materials, are vetted and screened by our Recycling Manager and Recycling Center Site Supervisors for any red flags like dumpsters (as some downstream processors are known to ‘cherry pick’ what they want and landfill the rest) or shipping containers (for train or barge transit to other countries) to ensure that the materials we are collecting and baling on our end are actually getting made into new items. That remaining 10% of residue or leftovers are often things we cannot process or recycle at our Recycling Center like film or flexible plastics (EX: plastic bags, bread bags, bubble wrap, shipping envelopes, etc.), foam plastics (EX: styrofoam blocks, cups, bowls, plates, coolers, packing peanuts, etc.), both of which need to go to specialty collection recyclers. Additionally, that 10% includes straight-up non-recyclables like clothing, toys, or garbage from kitchens and bathrooms. That leftover 10% is sent to our Waste to Energy facility to undergo controlled incineration, and be reduced in volume by 90% prior to going to an inert-ash only section of the South Kent Landfill.
So where do these stories or statistics about plastics recycling come from? There are a lot of factors that determine whether something is recyclable and many of those factors vary from each recycling center and area of the state, not to mention different countries. Below are some factors that influence or determine recyclability of an item in an area:
- Waste hauler routes and which recycling center they deliver to
- Cleanliness of materials
- Access to recycling (either curbside or drop-off stations)
- Technology capabilities at the recycling center where your recyclables go to
- Quantity of baled recyclables (downstream processors need certain amounts of specific recyclable materials to fulfill manufacturer orders and it’s often more efficient to go after larger quantities)
- Technology capabilities at the downstream processor where baled recyclables go to once sorted (it differs from each one!)
- Feasibility of transporting baled recyclables to a downstream processor (sometimes they’re too far away for some sorting facilities to transport their materials to so they end up not collecting it or saying it’s not recyclable)
- Products being designed to be recyclable to begin with
- And so many others!
Kent County residents should feel good about recycling plastics because we have the technology at our recycling center to sort out the desirable materials and we are also within feasible traveling distance to several downstream processors in the Midwest. Many places on the coasts, where a lot of this reporting comes from, do not have these downstream processing facilities nearby making the cost of transporting sorted bales too expensive so they might go to landfill instead.
We are always ready to talk more about plastics recycling. We encourage people to see first hand how we process recyclables and what gets sent to downstream processors. Recycling Center Open Hours or scheduled a group tour.