Home Commentary Opinion OPINION: Zero-Sort (of) Recycling

OPINION: Zero-Sort (of) Recycling


by Cassandra Hemenway

In the last issue of The Bridge, Larry Floersch provided a bit of entertainment with his tongue-in-cheek analysis of “Zero-Sort” recycling in “A State of Mind: Zero-Sort Recycling?” Recycling nerds like me can use a shot of humor about a subject we occasionally take too seriously, so I’m not knocking it. But I’d like to respond to Floersch’s eloquently-illustrated frustration with recycling in central Vermont.

First, a clarification: the term “Zero-Sort” is actually a branded phrase used by one for-profit company. It’s a marketing tool. I’m not crazy about the phrase because some people interpret it to mean they can toss trash, compost, dog hair, you name it, into the recycle bin. No. Please don’t do that.

The term “Zero-Sort” means “single-stream recycling,” which is a system in which people can toss all their “listed” recyclables into one bin. Trash goes into a different bin. Single-stream recyclables DO get sorted — by machinery and people at the Materials Recovery Facility in Chittenden County. Montpelier gets a break. You don’t have to sort recyclables into more than one bin. In Barre, some haulers do require sorted recyclables.

As to that term “listed.” Mandated recycling went into effect on July 1. It calls for six items to be recycled. These are the “listed” recyclables: glass, rigid plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum and steel. Nothing else goes into the recycling bin. It would be misleading to pretend there aren’t nuances and odd rules that only make sense if you work behind the scenes, but the basic idea is that those six items get recycled. Lots of other things besides “listed” materials can be recycled, but not in your recycling bin.

Most people prefer single-stream recycling. You don’t have to think about it. (Though we recycling nerds would be much happier if you WOULD please think about what you throw away). More people recycle now in part because single sort makes it easy. It doesn’t capture the highest value of the materials, however.

Floersch tapped into a common complaint when he bemoaned the days of meting out differently numbered plastics into different bins. Many people detest the idea of sorting out their materials. We in the solid waste management biz call the act of sorting materials “source separating.” Source separating, unlike single-stream recycling, captures a higher value of the materials.

For example, glass sorted by color can be marketed and sold. But mixed glass gets crushed and used for landfill cover. Some plastics are worth more than others. Separating out the higher value plastics such as 1s and 2s, means they’re worth more. Office paper and glossy magazines have a higher resell value than newspaper.

In a way, even single-stream recycling is a kind of source separating. We do this all the time in our daily lives.

The minute you walk in the door and put away your groceries, you are source separating when the pasta goes in the cabinet and the ice cream goes in the freezer. In order to retain the value of those materials, you have to source separate them. Applying this concept to what goes OUT of our homes as well as what comes in enables materials to have longer lives and higher values. It also extends the life of Vermont’s one operating landfill.

In the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, we only have one company, Earth Waste, sorting its recyclables and marketing them at a better rate. Again, in Montpelier, this isn’t an issue unless another company catches on and also starts wanting to capture higher values out of recyclables. In the meantime it’s single-sort in the capital city.

As an aside, I was thrilled to read that Floersch’s garbage men (to his understandable annoyance) were picking contaminants out of his recycle bin. It’s good to know the boots-on- the-ground folks are fully aware of the need for recycling to be contaminant-free in order to retain its value.

You may have heard that the recycling markets have bottomed out in recent months. Part of the reason for that is that contaminated loads no longer have a market. It’s essential for the stream to remain “clean” — meaning no Styrofoam, no plastic bags, no milk or juice cartons, no recycling things you wish were recyclable, but aren’t on the list.

Staffers are available to help you figure this stuff out. We offer talks and presentations about recycling, composting and reducing waste. If your community group or business would like us to come, please call us at 229-9383 or email comments@cvswmd.org. Go to cvswmd.org for information about where to bring your hard-to-recycle materials.

Cassandra Hemenway is the Outreach Manager for the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.