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Recycling misconceptions costing city, counties more money

Posted at 1:48 AM, Feb 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-24 08:08:59-05

BALTIMORE (WMAR) — Recycling has become very commonplace but some say maybe too much, calling it wishful recycling.

"People want to recycle but they may not be recycling the right items," said Waste Management Director of Recycling Operations Michael Taylor.

In Baltimore City, most recycling starts off curbside. Department of Public Works employees pick it up and it all ends up at the Northwest Transfer Center.

"We collect about 24,000 tons of recycling annually," said Bureau Head of DPW's Bureau of Solid Waste John Chalmers.

But recycling is not all they get.

"Of this load here, we're looking at maybe 15-20 percent maybe would be contaminated," said Chalmers, looking at a load of recycling dumped by a city truck at the center.

Contaminated, meaning it's not actually recyclable. Chalmers points out the plastic wrapping of a 24-pack of water bottles, a glove and styrofoam as just a few examples of what should not be there. It all gets compacted and sent to the Waste Management Recycling Plant in Elkridge, where employees immediately start searching for all those 'don'ts' to get the recycling ready to be sorted, packaged and shipped out to customers around the world.

Some of the most important don'ts are things that pose a safety hazard, like batteries.

"Even the little batteries that are in greeting cards, if they're damaged, they can spark and also cause a fire," said Taylor.

SEE ALSO: How much do you know about recycling? Click here to take a quiz.

He said employees have even come across insulin needles.

"They think they're doing the right thing by putting the used needle in a milk jug and then put the milk jug in the recycling container. Well that presents a hazard to all the employees we have," said Taylor.

Taylor said they are also looking for things that can cause a mechanical failure, like cords, wires, hoses and...

"The most common item that we continually deal with are plastic bags and film plastic like from a dry cleaner," said Taylor.

He said employees often have to throw away trash bags full of what could be recyclables because it can't go through the machines.

"That material gets wrapped around all the metal machinery and it causes the equipment to break down," said Taylor.

Taylor said on any given day, they could spend three hours fixing equipment, causing a loss of production time and money. Also costing more time and money, disposing of all that trash. Waste Management said the contamination made up for 16 percent of the Elkridge plant's intake last year. That's 32,000 tons of things that shouldn't be there... more than the total amount of recycling in the city annually.

He said the amount of contamination has continued to rise over the last five years, causing them to have to add 30 employees to handle the load.

"So those costs keep adding up," said Taylor.

And those costs get passed on to the customers: Baltimore City, Howard County, Anne Arundel County, and others in the state that have contracts with WM to take their recycling. That increase in cost could eventually impact the tax payer but Taylor said there's a way to stop that trend: by knowing what and how to recycle.

"It would be more efficient and actually lower our cost to our customers, meaning to the city and the other counties, if our costs improved based off reducing the amount of contamination we receive," said Taylor.

It's not just about decreasing the amount of contamination. It's about increasing the amount of actual recyclables. The more recyclables WM can sell to customers, the more money they make, possibly charging the contracted jurisdictions less. Plus, it helps them achieve the core goal of recycling.

"Our biggest mission is to make sure we are recycling the most material that we can," said Taylor. "We have a valuable commodity that we can reuse again. It saves energy. It saves natural resources and those things are good from an environmental perspective."

So Chalmers said when it doubt, throw it out, or check out DPW's new Recycle Right tool that tells you how to dispose of most common household items. And if you miss your recycling day in the city, there are five different drop-off centers throughout the city.

"Also at the citizen drop of locations, they can take their hard plastic, electronic recycling. We do have household hazardous waste days," said Chalmers.