‘Wishful recycling’ increases contamination. Keep Xmas lights, plastic bags out of your blue bin

City of Wilmington sustainability manager David Ingram holds up electric wiring, an example of a "tangler," or item that can wind up equipment and cause difficulties at the county's recycling plant. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
City of Wilmington sustainability manager David Ingram holds up electric wiring, an example of a “tangler,” or item that can wind up equipment and cause difficulties at the county’s recycling plant. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Every day, more than a dozen sorters spend more than 11 hours pulling out materials that can’t be recycled from a conveyor belt at New Hanover County’s recycling facility off U.S. 421.

“They’re up there all day, from six in the morning to 5:30 in the afternoon,” said David Walker, Sonoco plant manager.

It’s here where “wishful recycling” can end up clogging expensive machinery and increase the workload on sorters, whose primary job function is to remove items that shouldn’t have been placed in blue bins in the first place.


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If recycling customers were to reduce the amount of contamination they contribute to this system, they could save taxpayers money.

Reduce contamination

Contamination means any product that ends up in the single-stream recycling collection that either: 1. can’t be recycled at the county’s facility; or 2. can damage other recyclable materials, like juice ruining otherwise recyclable cardboard.

The best way to minimize contamination is for recycling customers to familiarize themselves with acceptable materials and to keep all recyclable items “empty clean and dry.”

Both recycling and trash loads increase around the holidays, according to data shared by the City of Wilmington. “It’s more or less, out with the old, in with the new,” Walker explained.

With the increase in trash and recycling comes an increase in recycling contamination, which can sometimes lead to buyers rejecting entire loads when the county’s contractor goes to sell the material.

“If it reaches a certain contamination level within the bales itself, the buyer can then reject it,” Walker said in a press event Wednesday, organized by the City of Wilmington. “Then we have to pay an extra freight to get it here to then bust it to open, and reprocess it to try and pull some of that out.”

The county pays Sonoco to sell materials sorted and processed through the county’s recycling facilities to outside buyers, which are often international. According to Joe Suleyman, New Hanover County’s director of environmental management, the county’s financial arrangement with Sonoco depends on variable conditions in the recycling market. Years ago, Sonoco actually paid the county a rebate, but in recent years, the recycling market has taken a downturn, with products not as valuable as they once were.

The county has been paying Sonoco to sell and process its materials for the past couple years, Suleyman said, with the program overall in the red. In December 2019 — perhaps in the valley of the recycling market downturn — the city (which contracts with the county) and the county paid Sonoco a combined $17,700 to process and haul off recyclables, according to Suleyman.

Worst offenders

Walker, Sonoco’s plant manager, said the county operation averages between 18% to 20% contamination. “We’d like to get down below 15 as a start,” he said.

Removing contamination from recyclables at the county plant costs Sonoco about $300,000 a year, according to Walker. If contamination were to decrease, it could decrease Sonoco’s costs, therefore reducing its bill to the county and city.

Though contamination can be reduced, David Mayes, the city’s director of public services, said, “I don’t think we can ever expect contamination to go to zero.”

Certain materials can create havock at the plant. “Tanglers” can end up wrapping around machines and interferring with production. Common tanglers include Christmas lights, rope, yarn, ribbon, water hoses, electrical wiring, and more.

Plastic bags are probably offender No. 1 — many people put other recyclable materials within the bags, hoping they can all be recycled together.

The county’s facility is only capable of processing #1 and #2 plastics. Some grocery stores collect plastic bags to be recycled. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has a collection area, open to the public, that accepts several recyclable materials the city and county aren’t currently capable of processing.

Some heavier plastics that aren’t accepted at the county facility include toys, tools, and thick water containers.

Food waste that hasn’t been properly cleaned out of containers can contaminate other recyclables when it reaches the plant. Diapers and dog waste can present an especially difficult problem.

“Once they come through your screens and go through your system, they end up contaminating everything so it makes it very hard to clean that and market it,” Walker said.

Clothing, masks, and other items that may seem recyclable (and very well may be — just at other facilities) present a constant problem for the plant.

As waste and materials bulk up during the holidays, plant operators ask recyclers to make sure each item going in the recycling bin (or trash bin, for that matter) really belongs there.

Christmas lights, toys, masks, bowling balls, and all kinds of materials that can't be recycled end up at New Hanover County's recycling plant, causing delays and difficulties in production. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Christmas lights, toys, masks, bowling balls, and all kinds of materials that can’t be recycled end up at New Hanover County’s recycling plant, causing delays and difficulties in production. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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