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The Neighborhood Toxicologist
by Emily Monosson
I shouldn't admit this, but I get an odd thrill on trash collection day. Maybe it's because our two trash cans are packed so full that it's a relief to have the stuff carted away. Or maybe it's because waking up to empty barrels means I've actually remembered to pick up some stickers from the Mini-Mart and put them on the barrels. I don't mind paying the $2.50 a barrel, in fact, I think it's more than fair. After all, thanks to the incredible recycling program in town, it's only once or twice a month we even drag the barrels to the curb.
For years I've ignored that nagging question, does recycling really reduce the amount of waste we toss from our homes? Am I justified in bragging to friends and family that we generate only two barrels or so of trash a month? Years ago (in another town) there were rumors that our carefully sorted bottles and paper ended up with the rest of the trash – in the landfill. Some part of me wanted to be content in my ignorance, in my faith that unethical recyclers were a thing of the past or something that only happened in big cities.
But, one afternoon while listening to an National Public Radio story on recycling those new compact fluorescent bulbs, the spiral energy saving bulbs you have to wrestle from all that energy intensive plastic packaging, the commentator noted how few consumers are even aware the new bulbs contain mercury, although each package clearly states that: LAMP CONTAINS MERCURY; Manage in Accord with Disposal Laws; See www.lamprecycle.org.
Listening to the story and aware that I limit her tuna fish consumption to a can a week because of my concern about mercury, my daughter Sophie asked, "What do they do with the mercury, and how do they get it out?"
Good question. In fact, what happens to all the stuff we leave curbside? The yogurt containers, juice cartons, milk jugs, tin cans, and cereal boxes. And why can't we leave eggs cartons, pizza boxes and plant pots?
According to a local expert, Jan Ameen, Executive Director of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, there truly is an afterlife for our milk jugs, soda bottles and computer paper, though disposal is the end of the road for the lowly egg carton.
"Egg cartons use the shortest paper fiber," Ameen explained. "Basically, they are the end of the paper recycling line. The fiber cannot be used again, so when they go to the paper mill for recycling, they dissolve and end up in the wastewater.
"Pizza boxes can be recycled if they're not greasy. Most recycling paper mills don't use chemicals, just warm water to dissolve the paper. There isn't a good way to get rid of the grease from this process."
In contrast, all the used and reused printing and computer paper, all the old bills, envelopes, and technical reports on obscure topics I finally cleared from my filing cabinet fared better than the egg cartons and pizza boxes.
"All of the paper from western Massachusetts," said Ameen, "ends up at a paper recycling mill in Fitchburg, North Shore Fibers. They make Monopoly boards and book covers, mostly, and other paper products."
It was good news to find my old paper might be hosting games of Monopoly, or protecting someone's storybook, but I wasn't really worried about paper recycling. It's been around for decades, and it seems these days all sorts of paper products including my Seventh Generation toilet paper, which proudly proclaims the "post-consumer" content (post-consumer meaning made from the stuff we leave curbside) as 80%. Not bad. Neither did I worry about recycling cans. Tin and steel are valuable, so it makes sense we've been recycling them for years.
But what about plastics and their array of letters and symbols: PETE, HDPE, LDPE, PP, PS? Why do we no longer sort them, and why can't we recycle all those plastic plant pots?
It's a big world, and there's lots of plastic. The American Chemistry Council reports that in 2005, 922 million pounds of HDPE bottles (those thick plastic bottles like milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles) were recycled, as were over 2 billion pounds of PET and PP bottles (PET are things like coke and juice bottles, and PP are polypropylene – those "next generation" bottles that don't add a plastic taste to your drinking water.) This represents only about 25 - 30% of all recyclable bottles out there. Sadly, many still end up in the trash. Still, that's a lot of recycled plastic. And those plastic plant pots? Says Ameen, "Plant pots aren't recyclable because of the dirt and because they are often black (no black plastic is recyclable.)" Though a web search led me to a couple of programs specifically for plant pot recycling, one in New Jersey and one in Missouri, it seems that gardeners nationwide are stymied by the inability to recycle these items locally!
In our town, the first stop for all of our bottles, boxes and papers is the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility, where plastic recyclables are sorted according to type and then sent off for further processing, depending on the item. For plastics, that means recycling them into anything from fiberfill to polyester-like fibers, to those blue recycling bins, to plastic lumber furniture. Ever have a cinder land on your new fleece jacket and watch it melt its way through the fabric? That's because fleece is plastic! And while some companies still rely on "virgin" polyester to produce fleece, there is now EcoSpun, ECO-Fleece, and EcoPile products made primarily or entirely from our recycled bottles. Even large corporations like Malden Mills, which produces Polartec, are touting their recycled fleece products.
But, I wondered what happens then, when the fleece eventually becomes too ratty to donate to the Salvation Army? Patagonia, the mega-outdoor retail store now recycles old fleece into new products, though they note that their process is currently limited to Polartec, and their own capilene and cotton products from Patagonia. On their website, they say they hope other companies begin taking advantage of old fleece as well.
Ah, but what about those mercury containing fluorescent bulbs? The good news is, according to the EPA, the new bulbs help decrease mercury emissions by reducing the demand for electricity. Primary sources of electricity are coal-fired plants, which still routinely emit mercury into the atmosphere.
The bad news is there is no curbside service for the bulbs, and many distributors don't have a program in place to recycle the bulbs. Fortunately, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, since the new bulbs are supposed to last for five years, or 8,000 hours. That's right - five years, and if they don't last that long, all you have to do is send in your receipt and UPC (hah!) and get a refund. But when the time does come, and it certainly came sooner than five years for a few of our bulbs (unfortunately, those UPCs were recycled long ago), we can take them to the Montague Transfer Station where they are sent off to Veolia Environmental Services in Stoughton, MA, for recycling. Although at the moment it costs fifty cents a bulb, maybe in five years when we all recycle our bulbs en masse, there will be more recycling options.
Veolia specializes in recycling lighting and electronic wastes. On their website they note that an "estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in U.S. landfills, amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste." That's a lot of mercury.
Using an enclosed process Veolia crushes the bulbs, and then extracts mercury and other components. In the end, the company's website declares that all parts, including glass, metal end-caps, powder, and mercury, can be reused.
So next time you flip on your compact fluorescent, and pull on your favorite fleece for a game of Monopoly, who knows, you could be enjoying the fruits of your recycling efforts!
Earth 911: A site that provides you with disposal and recycling information for any zip code in the country.
Emily Monosson, PhD., is an environmental toxicologist and writer who lives in Western Massachusetts. Her blog is theneighborhoodtoxicologist.blogspot.com . PS–she's also a Mom.
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