To survive and prosper, local recycling efforts are forging ways to update, upgrade and educate.
In 2014, six months after the residents of Lowell, Mass., received new 96-gallon recycling carts, Gunther Wellenstein got a “nastygram.” The letter to the city’s recycling coordinator came from the recycling contractor, Waste Management. It let Wellenstein know that contaminated -- that is, unrecyclable -- items were making their way into the carts.
Wellenstein was incredulous. He got in his car and drove around, stopping every now and then to get out, lift the lid of a recycling cart and inspect what was in it. “Lo and behold,” he says, “there was quite a bit of stuff that I guess people hoped could be recycled.”
What he found ranged from the mundane -- plastic forks, metal coat hangers, trash bags and even food waste -- to the outrageous -- diapers, syringes, appliances, bowling balls, doggie beds. He even found a cart full of leaves. “It was like people were saying, ‘Well, my trash can is full, but I’ve got room over here in the recycling cart.’”
Understandably, Waste Management wanted Wellenstein to address the problem. The syringes, bowling balls and other unrecyclable items were causing havoc at its recycling facility. A metal pry bar, for instance, got stuck on one of the conveyor belts and split it length-wise, shutting the building down for two days and costing the company upwards of $50,000. But the mundane things were also costly. “The first thing that comes off the line at the facility by hand is plastic bags, regardless of what’s in them,” says Wellenstein. “They automatically get thrown into the trash, and we get charged [for Waste Management] to process it and take it to the incinerator.”