Earlier this year, I visited Boulder, Colorado, and one weekend, my partner and I went to the morning farmer’s market. There were vendors, food trucks, and nearly at every corner, recycling bins. This didn’t seem too out of the ordinary, until we finished eating our lunch from the food truck and walked over to the bins, where we were met by a volunteer. She greeted us and then told us exactly which bin to put the different components of our lunch even down to the plastic utensils and dirty napkins. To our surprise, every single thing we walked over to throw in the garbage was recyclable. However, without the volunteers to direct us to the correct bin, we likely would have just guessed at where the trash belonged, which we later learned would have contaminated the bin and been just as bad as putting it all in the garbage.
Since China’s 2017 decision to only take the highest-quality recycled plastic, it is more important than ever to have trained volunteers to ensure that no recycled material goes to waste.
Because of this giant decision, the market conditions for recycling companies have been wildly altered. According to an analysis of US export records referenced in a 2019 The Guardian article, “... the equivalent of 19,000 shipping containers of plastic recycling per month, once exported abroad, is now stranded at home. This is enough plastic to fill 250 Olympic swimming pools each month.”
These stranded materials are known as “mixed plastics,” which are separated from plastics with higher value, such as water bottles and milk jugs, and sent to landfills.
China has been doing this all along, even before making public their decision to only take quality plastics, but it’s now happening in the US too. If the majority of plastics are going to Chinese landfills anyway, US recycling facilities would rather send them to domestic landfills rather than paying the costs of sorting and transporting them overseas.
According to The Guardian, “A waste executive from Republic Services, one of the country’s largest garbage haulers, which serves more than 2,800 communities and has 91 recycling centers, said that one-third of everything collected by recycling trucks went to disposal because it was either contaminated, too small to be sorted or not actually recyclable.”
While the ideal global fix for this problem starts at the manufacturing level with advocating for more reusable or biodegradable packaging and less fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions, there are also lots of things we can do in the meantime. Recycling is a good start, but only if we do it right.
It’s intimidating to know where to put what and that’s why volunteers can be the difference between an entire bin of recycling materials being reused like intended and ending up contaminated and in a landfill.
In 2018, researchers from the University of British Columbia published the study, “Toward zero waste events: Reducing contamination in waste streams with volunteer assistance” in the journal Waste Management. They conducted a randomized control trial at the annual Apple Festival at the UBC Botanical Garden, which was attended by 10,000 visitors, to determine the most effective way to reduce waste contamination. They examined the impact of volunteer staff assistance, bin tops, and sample 3D items with bin tops, on the level of contamination of the organics, recyclable containers, paper, and garbage bins at a public event.
In the findings section of their report, they write, “Specifically, volunteer staff reduced contamination by 96.1% on average in the organics bin, 96.9% in the recyclable containers bin, 97.0% in the paper bin, and 84.9% in the garbage bin.”
It’s proven that volunteerism works and not only that, it helps spread awareness and knowledge of how to recycle the right way so that if patrons ever come across a bin not staffed by a volunteer, they’re more likely to be more confident in their decision to put their materials in the correct bin. It also attracts people who might be intimidated by recycling by providing them with a social aspect, making them feel more comfortable and reassured that they’re putting their materials where they need to go.
Volunteerism works — the data is there. We need volunteer-staffed recycling bins more than ever, even if it’s just at big public events like festivals, so we can continue doing our part to protect the environment and quit letting entire bins full of perfectly good plastic end up in landfills because of one item that contaminates the entire bin.