District sorts out recycle waste
WARREN — One of the most common myths about recycling is that everything is recyclable, said Jennifer Jones, director of the Geauga-Trumbull Solid Waste Management District.
The Waste Management District is a government entity in charge of encouraging and providing recycling services to the residents of Geauga and Trumbull counties.
“Our mission is to keep as much out of the landfills as possible,” Jones explained, pointing out landfill space is finite and the trash isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So why not recycle everything? Well, the answer is simple.
“Recycling is a business,” Jones said. “You take something, and you sell it to somebody else for them to make it into something new.”
CRADLE TO GRAVE
In Trumbull County, only glass bottles and jars, aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles, jars, and jugs, and newspaper, magazines and cardboard are accepted at drop-off sites. The number on the plastic doesn’t matter anymore — it has more to do with the shape of the items.
“We can only process the things that our local MRF accepts,” Jones said.
A MRF, or material recovery facility, is one step in recyclables’ journey from “cradle to grave,” Jones said.
Items that are manufactured new and sold — the cradle — eventually are used up and broken and need to be disposed — the grave. The grave is where recycling is concerned.
When recyclables leave your hands, be it by curbside collection or at a drop-off location, they are collected by trucks and taken to an MRF. Materials from Trumbull and Mahoning counties are collected by Waste Management, an environmental solutions provider, and go to the company’s transfer station in Poland, then to its Akron MRF.
Waste Management handles 5,000 to 6,000 tons of recycling material per month in northeast Ohio, according to the company.
“The MRF sorts them and bundles all the same like things together. All the No. 1 plastics, or all the bottles or jars that are of the same type,” Jones said. “They bundle it into a bale and they sell it to a company who chops it up, melts it down and makes it into whatever they want to make.”
At the MRF, material is received, inspected by an operator and then blended in with the stream as it is introduced into the processing system, according to Waste Management. Much of the process happens by conveyor belt, Jones said.
Because of the conveyor belts, it is important to never put plastic bags into the bins. Recycling should always be loose.
“If you bag it and take it to a drop-off site or if you bag it and then put it in your curbside bins, when it gets to the MRF, the bags rip open and then it binds up the conveyor belts, so then they have to shut down the entire line, pull all the bags out — potentially sticking their hands in moving machines — in order to clear that,” Jones said.
Ultimately, Waste Management sends processed materials to off-site markets for further processing and to be used in manufactured products, according to the company.
Jones said that may mean selling recyclables to large companies or a local vendor. Different materials go to different places.
Bottles, jugs and jars are the most easily recyclable items, because there are buyers who want to turn them into something else, Jones explained. While in places like California there may be a market for more types of recyclables, in Ohio, items that can’t be baled and sold — like kids toys, pool liners or car seats — are simply tossed.
“People think, ‘It’s made of plastic; therefore it’s recyclable.’ Not really,” Jones said. “Anything they can’t sell at the end, it actually does get in the landfill.”
While most of what is put in recycle bins is able to be recycled, those unacceptable items destined to be discarded carry a cost.
“There’s a cost associated with pulling that out. There’s a cost associated with burying it in a landfill,” Jones said.
She said the Geauga-Trumbull Waste Management District pays $700,000 per year to process recyclables, and mixing in unaccepted items only drives that number up.
The Mahoning County Waste District pays about $630,000 to process its recyclables, according to Green Team director Lou Vega. The county has almost 180 8-yard recycling containers at 27 drop-off sites, some of which are emptied four times per week.
Vega said the cost of recycling went up after China, formerly the largest buyer of American recycling exports, stopped taking American recycling in 2018.
“A few years ago, you could probably get $5, $10 per ton for mixed recycling,” Vega said. “The cost then shifted from getting a few dollars a ton to paying between $60 and $90 to get it processed.”
Vega said the change caused programs around the country to shut down and pinched the budget in Mahoning County, though Mahoning is still the only county in the state to offer free curbside recycling.
Though recycling may come with a price tag, Jones said it’s a “major issue in sustainability.”
“Burying things in the ground is a temporary solution,” Jones said. “Ohio has a lot of landfill space. We have a lot in this area. But it’s not infinite, so we try to keep the things that we can keep out of landfill to preserve that space as long as we can.”