What's the real deal with recycling?

Everything an Atlanta household needs to know about recycling

📷:: AJC

I am thrilled that the City of Atlanta is restarting their weekly recycling and yard waste collection program the week of June 7th. If you’re like most Atlantans, you probably have some basic questions about recycling but have no idea where to get the answers. So let’s dive in! I thought I’d offer answers to questions I have routinely received since I served as the Sustainability Director for Atlanta.

  • Does the City really recycle glass?

No, the City of Atlanta does not currently recycle the glass you’re putting in your recycling bin. It’s not because the City is trying to deceive anyone, but rather because our recycling service provider, Pratt Industries, does not currently recover glass from our commingled recycling stream. Glass is a difficult item to recycle for several reasons. First, glass breaks easily during transit, and broken glass cannot be recycled. Second, broken glass contaminates the recycling stream, which creates operational challenges during the sorting process and drives up the cost of recycling because contaminated recyclables are less valuable than clean recyclables. For these and other reasons, Pratt currently sends our glass to the landfill or burns it in an on-site gasifier that provides energy to the facility.

  • But I really want to recycle my glass, what can I do?

I get it and I honor your commitment to recycling! Glass can be reliably recycled, but it must be separated by residents and brought to specialized drop-off points such as the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) near Grant Park, Tower Beer, Wine, and Spirits, or Your Dekalb Farmers Market. If you have friends in the City of Decatur, you can also take your glass to their house. Several years ago, Decatur implemented a dual-stream recycling program in which residents place their glass in one bin, and their commingled recyclables in another bin. The commingled recyclables are sent to Pratt, while the glass is collected and delivered to Strategic Materials in College Park where it is ultimately recycled into a variety of industrial products. This dual-stream approach is a model for other cities and towns that want to reliably recycle glass at the curb.

  • Can I recycle my pizza box?

Yes! Our recycling service provider strongly encourages residents to recycle all pizza boxes, even grease-stained boxes, as long as any solid food is removed. Pizza boxes and other cardboard are among the most valuable recyclables because of strong demand from paper mills that convert this material into new paper products. In fact, Pratt operates a paper mill next door to its recycling facility that converts our pizza boxes and other recycled paper into new cardboard containers made from 100% recycled content.

  • We generate a lot of plastic at our house, is it all recyclable?

Nope. Unfortunately, much of the plastic that we place in our curbside bins end up in the landfill or Pratt’s gasifier. If you’re most people, you probably think that if a plastic item has that little recycling symbol with a number in the middle, then it must be recyclable. In reality, those numbers are not always a useful guide for determining what should go in your bin and what should stay out. As a general rule of thumb, you should only recycle plastic jugs, cartons, and containers with a neck. Examples include water bottles, milk jugs, laundry detergent containers, and other similar items. Recycling is a business, and our recycling service provider will only recover those materials that it can sell at a price that covers the cost of operating the recycling facility. For Pratt, that means they only recover plastic #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE), thanks to strong demand from the carpet manufacturing industry in North Georgia. All other plastics are either too difficult to be recycled, or the market simply isn’t strong enough to support recovery and sale of this material.

For residents who want to recycle more of their plastic waste, CHaRM accepts a wide variety of items, including thin-film plastic, bubble wrap, clamshells, food containers, and plastic flower pots.

Regardless of whether you’re recycling at the curb or at CHaRM, all plastics should be free of liquid and solid food. A quick rinse is helpful, but there’s no need to wash that peanut butter jar until every last drop is gone.

  • It’s overwhelming, so I just put it all in the recycle bin.

Please don’t do that. You are contributing to the problem by making it more expensive for Pratt and other recycling service providers to operate their facilities. Recycling is a low-margin industry that is extremely sensitive to market changes. Every dollar counts. In fact, contamination of the recycling stream is one of the reasons that Pratt and other service providers now charge their customers for each ton of material brought to their facility. Up until a few years ago, recyclers paid for this material or accepted it at no cost. If we want our curbside recycling program to continue, and if we want our tax dollars spent wisely, then each of us must do our part to recycle properly.

  • What about aluminum and metal?

Aluminum cans and metal containers should absolutely be placed in your curbside bin. These materials are easily sorted and recycled, and they are always in high demand.

  • How does recycling impact climate change?

The natural process of the breakdown of waste emits methane. Methane is way worse than carbon dioxide, 25 times worse! So think about what your house generates that emits methane? Poop, food and paper. (We can get into poop another time. 1 word- biodigester.) Food- the City has no plans for a curbside composting program anytime soon. BUT I will happily teach you how to do at home composting or you can use a service like Compost Now. That gets us to paper! Recycling your paper reduces your carbon footprint! Yay!

Glass and plastic are inert materials. They don’t decompose. So on one hand, it’s good that that they are not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. BUT on the other hand, giant mountains of waste are piling up! I do believe that one day commodity prices will improve and we’ll be able to recycle more items at the curb. Heck, we’ll probably mine it out of the landfills!

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