The city of Morgantown is no stranger to the concept of recycling; local and county agencies have been handling the process for years.
Nevertheless, residents of Morgantown or of Monongalia County may find the process daunting — how to get started, what the process entails, where the items they put in their recycling bins actually go.
Vanessa Reaves, recycling manager for Recycle Right in Morgantown, said one of the intentions of Recycle Right is to ensure residents interested in recycling have easy access to the resources and information they need.
“Recycle Right in Morgantown is an initiative for the city to reduce contamination in curbside recycling bins, but also provide resources and tips for residents on how to recycle smarter, recycle right, reduce and reuse right,” Reaves said.
In 2019, Morgantown’s Green Team coordinated with the city to submit a grant to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan (REAP) program. The city was awarded the grant, which was used to fund the Recycle Right initiative that launched in February 2020.
Reaves, who has been with the initiative since its inception, provided an outline of how the recycling process works.
Curbside recycling or recyclable products that are dropped off at the Monongalia County Weekday Recycling Center in Westover are transported to the Mountaineer Transfer Station.
“From there, the recycling will go to a recycling sorting facility. Our facility is in Connellsville, Pa. At the sorting facility, the recyclables will get sorted into different [areas], and then be shipped to processors for the processing of recycling,” Reaves said.
Reaves believes one of the biggest misconceptions regarding recycling is people thinking they aren’t making a difference. She said this was further perpetuated by a previous scandal surrounding America and other developed countries shipping recycling to foreign countries, where very little of the recyclable products were actually processed.
However, Reaves said the scandal encouraged domestic manufacturers to begin processing recycling within the borders of their own countries.
“I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of having large-scale, effective plastic recycling, but we are making steps to it,” Reaves said.
So, what’s recyclable?
Reaves also addressed confusion individuals may have when determining whether or not a plastic item is recyclable, especially considering the amount of plastic hybrid products available.
“For me, the rule of thumb with recycling plastic is if it’s a bottle, jar, or tub, make sure it’s rinsed out, empty and clean — that can be recycled. If it’s flexible packaging like a chip bag or a plastic bag or some sort of wrapper, that is absolutely not recyclable and should not go
in any recycling bin,” Reaves said.
Reaves said cosmetic and toothpaste tubes are usually recyclable through specific programs, such as those provided through Terra Cycle, as these containers and tubes are composed of various types of plastic and other materials.
They should not, however, be put in your home recycling bin.
Rinsed and dried toiletry bottles, like those used for shampoo, conditioner or lotion, can be recycled via curbside recycling. Yogurt containers and plastic clamshell containers are also currently accepted for recycling.
Takeout containers composed of black plastic or loose lids are not recyclable.
“The optical sorter that sorts plastic cannot read black plastic. Loose lids are light and can get mixed in with paper, contaminating that material,” Reaves said.
Reaves added cardboard takeout containers are also not recyclable because those containers have thin plastic layers to prevent leaking, and those layers are difficult to separate for recycling.
And unfortunately, plastic to-go cups and straws are not recyclable, Reaves said. If you can, try using a refillable container and asking for no straw when you order.
If you absolutely must use a straw, paper straws are available at many stores, and several manufacturers offer collapsible, washable straws made of stainless steel and other materials.
What’s up with those numbers on the bottom?
Reaves also addressed the numbers assigned to plastic items, what they mean, and more specifications regarding their potential to be recycled.
According to Reaves, all plastics assigned numbers 1-7 are accepted for recycling with the exception of polystyrene (Styrofoam) or No. 6 plastics. Reaves said size and shape also matter when determining if a plastic product is recyclable and where.
Plastic packaging molded to fit a product, like the packaging that encases a pair of scissors, is not recyclable as it is difficult to melt down during the recycling process.
“Plastic recycling can be tricky, so it is best to stick to bottles, jars and tubs to make sure you are not ‘wishful recycling,’ ” Reaves said.
She said beverage bottles are the most common item found in local recycling bins.
What about plastic bags?
Reaves said plastic bags with a 1 or 2 symbol, like plastic produce or grocery bags, can be recycled by retailers such as Kroger, Target or Giant Eagle, but are not accepted in single stream recycling such as curbside, blue bins, or drop-off.
Recycle Right conducted a bin-checking initiative from August through December 2020, during which workers visited select areas and checked recycling bins for contaminated items. Bins containing contaminated or non-recyclable items received an “Oops Tag” on their bins, and their recycling was not picked up until the contaminated items were removed.
“Contamination items such as food contamination or soiled cardboard — pizza boxes was a common one — plastic packaging, such as the wrappers I just talked about, that’s not accepted in curbside recycling was probably the number one thing we saw across the board,” Reaves said.
Reaves said as the program progressed, Recycle Right witnessed a decrease in contaminated items found in recycling bins in their target areas. Reaves also conducted an audit of the recycling at Mountaineer Transfer station and found the decrease in contamination was notable there as well.
Lynn Castro, solid waste administrator with the Monongalia County Solid Waste Authority, said that while the MCSWA no longer plays an active role in the management of recycling in Monongalia County, the organization is still providing resources and answering questions regarding the process.
“The Solid Waste Authority basically, at this point, collaborates,” Castro said.
Castro said MCSWA can guide residents in their recycling inquiries or interests by directing them to contact Recycle Right or another establishment or source, and works with Recycle Right and Monongalia County for events and projects.
Why it’s important to recycle right
Keeping contaminated or non-recyclable items out of recycling bins is crucial, as it prevents delays in the recycling process and decreases the risk of harm for those working closely with the process, according to Reaves.
It also keeps the “good” recyclables from being thrown out.
“If there is a truckload of recycling that has more trash than recyclables, the recycler may just send it directly to the landfill because it’s too costly to try to remove all of the recyclables from all of the trash,” Reaves said.
Food contamination in recycling bins can lead to further contamination of previously recyclable items.
Additionally, if plastic bags — referred to as “Terrible Tanglers,” according to Reaves — are included in recycling bins, they can get wrapped around mechanical gears in the sorting process. This causes machine jams that workers must manually remove, creating a safety hazard for workers and delaying the recycling process.
Other “terrible tanglers” include hoses, clothes hangers, clothing, cords and packaging, such as bubble wrap.
Coming This Month
This article is one in a series to celebrate Earth Day and educate people on the environment and how they can and do affect it. Coming up:
- April 11: WVU experts weigh in on potential dangers — to the environment and our health — of plastic; and Sierra Club West Virginia weighs in on plastic waste and its problems.
- April 18: Morgantown and Mon County officials talk about limiting waste by reducing, reusing and recycling in city and county offices and facilities; and a look at what some area businesses are doing to be more environmentally friendly.
- April 25: What WVU does to reduce, reuse and recycle on campus; and WVU students talk about how they do the same.