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Guest Blog: “Beyond the Chasing Arrows”

Thursday, Sep 29, 2022 at 12:27 pm

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This blog was submitted by Elizabeth Ellman, the City’s Sustainability Programs Coordinator and former Chair of Bexley’s Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC).

Learning more about the recycling system inspired me to live more sustainably, and getting a good understanding of the recycling arrows and numbers on the bottom of plastic containers changed not only the way I discard my waste, but also my consumption habits. My quest to clear up my personal confusion about the arrows and numbers on the bottom of plastic containers lead me to this realization. 

To put it simply: the presence of the triangle arrow symbol–formally known as chasing arrows–does not automatically mean an item is recyclable. This is simply a code identifying the resin used to create the product, not whether or not it is locally accepted for recycling. In fact, some states have considered legislation to regulate the use of the symbol to increase transparency and lessen confusion among those who recycle. If you ever find yourself asking “Can I recycle this type of plastic container?” the answer is no unless it is a clean plastic bottle, jug, tub, or transparent plastic cups (not red Solo cups!).

In any given region, only select items are accepted for recycling. This means that regardless of what you throw in the recycling toter, only what is accepted by the waste processor gets recycled. Placing items in that you’d like to be recycled, but aren’t actually accepted is called “wishcycling” – wishing that when you recycle it, it will get recycled. Unfortunately, this does more harm than good. So, if you aren’t sure whether to recycle it or not, it’s better to put it in your trash. When in doubt, throw it out!

I am often asked why we can’t recycle specific materials or products. The short answer is that it’s not an item Rumpke accepts — simple as that. The recycling system is built on the supply and demand principles of economics; Rumpke sells the products they collect and sort to companies who can recycle and reuse them. However, without someone who wants the recycled product, there is no purpose in recycling. Rumpke continually works to establish relationships with end users to expand the types of products they can accept. This is how Rumpke has been able to expand their offerings to accept items like tubs and cups, because they’ve found an end user to buy the material to recycle. 

There will be times when it is unlikely that a product will be accepted for recycling in the near future, unless new and innovative technology is rolled out. For example, as of now:

  • Anything with food waste on it is too dirty to be recycled, even if it is an otherwise recyclable product.
  • Paper towels, napkins, and tissues have fibers that are too short to be conventionally recycled again, but they can generally be recycled with food waste. Fun fact: paper can only be recycled 4-7 times before it is spent. 
  • 1-2 oz. condiment containers, pill bottles, and bottle caps are too small to be captured by the machinery, meaning that they will literally fall through the cracks at the recycling facility. 
  • Plastic bags, stretch plastic, and plastic pillows ruin the machinery used to process our recycling. These materials can often be brought to grocery and big box stores to be recycled separately. 
  • Rumpke doesn’t currently have an end market for plastic clamshell containers, like the ones berries or eggs come in. Unless you’re able to reuse, these should go in your trash. 
  • Black take-out containers can’t be identified by the technology that sorts materials onsite, so they are not accepted.
  • There is not enough time for the sorters at the facility to open plastic bags, even those marketed as being recyclable. Recyclables in plastic bags automatically end up in the landfill, with the only exception to this being shredded paper in a clear bag.

Taking care to recycle right helped me be more conscientious of how I discard my waste, which led me to be more intentional about my consumption. I have a feeling it may be the same for you! Recycling is a great place to start, and is just that – the start. 

We’re excited to continue discussing and exploring proper recycling habits even after Sustainable September is over. Stay tuned for more information on our newest recycling education program, Feet on the Street, coming to our community in October! To learn more about this program, visit bexley.org/FOTS.

If you have questions about what can and cannot be recycled, visit recycleright.org for a full set of resources and learning opportunities. If you have questions about Feet on the Street or recycling in Bexley, email me at eellman@bexley.org. Thank you for doing your part to Recycle Right!

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