Keep plastic bags out: Delawareans encouraged to research recyclables ahead of the holidays

By Rachel Sawicki
Posted 11/28/21

NEW CASTLE — From the looks of the main line at the Republic Services’ Delaware Recycling Center, many are unaware that plastic shopping bags are not recyclable.

In fact, since the bags are a hazard to equipment, this is the biggest issue the facility is currently facing.

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Keep plastic bags out: Delawareans encouraged to research recyclables ahead of the holidays

The first step in the sorting process is the main line. A few employees pick nonrecyclable materials from the belt that could be hazardous to the machinery.
Delaware State News/Rachel Sawicki
Plastic bags are commonly mistaken as recyclable but are actually dangerous if put through the machinery. All plastic bags must be removed before the rest goes through the sorting process.
Delaware State News/Rachel Sawicki
Posted

NEW CASTLE — From the looks of the main line at the Republic Services’ Delaware Recycling Center, many are unaware that plastic shopping bags are not recyclable.

In fact, since the bags are a hazard to equipment, this is the biggest issue the facility is currently facing.

And with the holidays approaching, these services are about to get even busier.

“The assumption was that people would reuse the plastic bags, which is what was envisioned, but that’s obviously not happened,” Gov. John Carney said during a visit to the New Castle facility Nov. 17. “Now, you have more plastic that is going into the waste stream, which obviously isn’t a good thing. Just go through this plant, and you can see how much plastic there is.”

State lawmakers, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Republic Services representatives and employees gathered at the facility for a tour and to hear more about what people can do to make the recycling process smoother.

“The whole system works in sequence,” said Arturo Aguero, operation manager at the plant. “If one belt is ripped, the whole thing goes down. That’s why we have to be on top of the maintenance.”

All materials are taken to a building when they first arrive on collection trucks, then they are sent to a sorting facility on a conveyor belt, where staff pulls anything off the line that is nonrecyclable and/or that could damage the machinery.

A few employees do this by hand on the main line. In about 10 minutes, they pulled several dozen plastic bags off the belt, along with items like clothing, pillows and rusty metal wiring.

Mr. Aguero added that items pulled off the line can be extreme, like used diapers.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said that it is important for people to understand this process.

“When you actually see that there are real people on the other side of your trash can, picking through what you put in it to make sure that you are doing it properly, I think it makes people a lot more conscious about what they’re throwing away,” she said.

Andie Holt is the general manager at Republic Services’ New Castle facility. She said the company operates 76 recycling centers across 41 states, processing over 6 million tons of materials every year. The Delaware Recycling Center takes on 115,000 tons annually.

However, the procedures aren’t perfect yet, largely due to public unawareness.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” she said. “Just think before you do it. There are people up there that have to touch and sort all that stuff. Have a little compassion and grace for those people up there.”

Ms. Holt grew up in the industry — her great-grandfather started working in waste management in the 1800s, and several members of her family have followed in his footsteps. She said the industry is ever-evolving, and technology has advanced the methods that are employed, as well as the materials that are processed.

“It’s the Amazon effect,” she said in reference to the online shopping site. “It’s all brown with cardboard now, whereas 10 or 20 years ago, there were all the newspapers.”

After all plastic bags and other nonrecyclable materials are removed, everything is passed through three screening machines: the largest to catch pieces of cardboard, the next paper and the last for bottles and cans.

A powerful magnet pulls away metal cans and aluminum from plastics, which then move on to an infrared sorting system. This machine rapidly identifies up to seven types of plastics using highly sensitive algorithms, then separates them with bursts of air, sending lighter plastics to one area and heavier ones elsewhere.

“When I think about our efforts to recycle, I think we’ve always been a little bit ahead of the curve with this facility in particular,” Gov. Carney said. “The idea is to recycle more material to keep our landfill space. It’s very precious.”

Each separate material is compacted and sold to various processing companies. Six or seven years ago, almost everything was exported to China, according to Mike Parkowski, chief of business and governmental services at the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. However, domestic markets have recently seen an uptick.

“We produce so much recycling as a country, and there weren’t enough places buying in the United States,” Mr. Parkowski said. “Recycling markets really do fluctuate, actually. They’re pretty volatile. We have swings where we’ve paid as much as $35 a ton to move mixed paper, and then, we’ve also had times when we’ve gotten paid $125 a ton for that same mixed paper.”

At the plant, costs associated with sorting and compacting are between $90 and $120 per ton with all overhead factored in. But in a “volatile” market, it isn’t always easy to balance the books.

“The role of DSWA is to supplement the cost at the times when they don’t make money,” he said. “Because they’re a private entity, they can’t be in the red. So when they are in the red, we basically cover them.”

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said individual efforts are pivotal to make sure recycling is done right.

“Make sure you dump, you clean, and you dry before you put it into the recycling bin,” he said. “That is extremely important, so that the materials are not contaminated, and there is no built-up water that makes the paper products clumpy and causes problems.”

Mr. Garvin also said that Delawareans should get into the habit of bringing their own bags to stores before a more restrictive plastic bag ban, passed by the General Assembly this year, goes into effect July 1.

An initial ban passed in 2019 has not produced the results lawmakers were hoping for. Following passage of that law, “we had this great idea that we would create reusable plastic bags that could be used over and over again, but by all accounts, that was not happening the way we wanted it to,” Mr. Garvin said.

Starting in July, plastic bags will have to be four times thicker than they can be currently, and lawmakers hope this will encourage shoppers to reuse their bags instead of throwing them in the trash or recycling.

Mr. Aguero believes the way the recycling facility runs now is the best way to do things, explaining that asking individuals to sort their recycling would likely complicate the process.

“I work for the future. I work for my kids. I have a 4-year-old, and I want them to enjoy this planet,” he said. “I love what I do.”

More information on recycling in Delaware can be found under the Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances section of the DNREC website.