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New Rules Mean 'Less Room for Error' in Plastics Recycling

Sarah Mizes-Tan



When you throw a plastic bottle in a recycling bin on Cape Cod, there's a good chance it will head to a municipal recycling facility called E.L. Harvey, in Westborough, Massachusetts. Where it goes from there depends a lot on what kind of plastic it is.


This story is part 4 in our series, The Big Blue Bin: Following the Path of Cape Cod's Recycling.  

The sound inside the E.L. Harvey warehouse is almost deafening. It's the steady roar of hundreds of plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, tin cans and glass bottles being sorted on conveyor belts by machines and by people.

"Most of the material you see here today came from municipalities throughout eastern Massachusetts," E.L Harvey president Ben Harvey said. "All those municipalities collect the material and send it to us to process." 

The process here is to sort out the plastics, squish it into giant cubes, and then ship the cubes off to what’s called the “marketplace” where it would be sold like a commodity, for a price.

"They're bales that weigh approximately 1,200 pounds," Harvey said. "All different types of plastic. We have plastic film, we have mixed rigid plastic. It's a combination of different types of plastics that we keep separate, and then we try to market that material."

In the past, most of those bales of plastic had gone to China. But since the beginning of last year, as it did with paper, China raised its standards on the kinds of plastic it’ll accept. This means no more plastics that are contaminated with trash, for example. There’s still a market for selling used plastic, Harvey said, but it's much more selective.


Credit Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI
Bales of plastic awaiting shipment outside E.L. Harvey.

"The basic thing is that we've had to do a much better job on the quality of the materials we package, so when it comes mixed together, we have to do a better job of sorting that material out," he said. 

Basically, this means having to put more manual labor on sorting belts to pull out materials that absolutely cannot be in a plastic bale. About a dozen employees work to sort out stuff like plastic bags, plastic film and just general trash from the conveyor belt of material zooming by. Harvey said that these days, when in doubt, throw it out.

"You can see a Twizzler package over there? People think because they generated it in their home, it's got to be recyclable. That's not recyclable," he said. "They're ending up in the trash anyway, because we don't sort those materials out." 

Closer to home, towns have also been making an effort to clean up their plastic recycling streams before they even get to a sorting facility. In New Bedford, a new effort has city recycling enforcers out checking recycling bins before a truck picks them up as part of a public education plan. Marissa Perez-Dormitzer, the city's recycling coordinator, has been leading the education effort.



Credit Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI
Marissa Perez-Dormitzer and Jessica Camarena check through recycling bins in New Bedford, MA.

One recent weekday, she and city official Jessica Camarena are looking through bins and checking for recycling mistakes made by residents. If a bin is bad enough, it gets marked with an “Oops” tag, explaining what was wrong. In some cases, the resident will receive a fine.

"The plastics we find can be confusing because of the number on them," Perez-Dormitzer said. "Sometimes, residents will see that number and automatically assume that the item can be recycled, but that's not the case." 

Many of the bins Perez-Dormitzer looks in have what is known as plastic films in them, the plastic wrap that’s used to hold together bundles of plastic bottles, or ziplock plastic bags that snacks or frozen vegetables come in. That’s a big no-no for plastics recycling. She said things are easier if people ignore the plastics numbering system, and just categorize recyclables by shape.  

"We're more looking for container type: bottle, can, jug, jar," she said. 

And bottles rinsed out, with the cap screwed on tight, please.


But even in the best case scenario, when the rules are followed, economist and environmental advocate Madhavi Venkatesan said that plastic recycling is still tricky.  

"When you recycle a plastic bottle, it doesn't go back to a new life. A lot of times, the recycling goes back to making thread for clothing, that's one of the most common uses today," Venkatesan said. 

In the end, she said that isn’t exactly recycling.


"You're expanding the life of the plastic, but when a plastic ends up in clothing, it ends up in our water system and it ends up in landfills when the clothing is disposed of," she said. 

For the everyday user, Venkatesan cautioned that recycling plastics starts with thinking before you buy. It’s always better to use less plastic, even if you can throw it in the big blue bin.