Recycling 101

Recycling 101

A guide to what you can recycle, and what you can’t, and how to recycle it anyway.

Ever put yogurt cups into your recycling bin on recycling day only to find them still in there after collection? While yogurt cups, like soda bottles, milk jugs, and deli containers, have the familiar triangle sign that denotes recyclable waste, they are not recyclable in Montgomery County.

“I just found out that the county only recycles containers with necks, but all the other things are not recycled. My concern about that is now that we’ve got people sort of used to recycling, we should make our recycling program inclusive,” said Susan Titon, a concerned resident of Montgomery County.

As it turns out, the issue is more complex than simply allowing Montgomery County denizens to recycle indiscriminately.

“A lot of products have the recycling symbol, but the requirement to be labeled as recyclable is that that item is recycled somewhere in the country or the world,” said Eileen Kao, section chief of the Recycling Section Division of Montgomery County’s Solid Waste Services in the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation.

The reason why the county cannot currently recycle items like yogurt cups and deli containers is because those items do not have strong stable markets. Not consumer markets, but processor venues, which process recyclable waste sent to them by Montgomery County.

“Some of these processors are in the Maryland region, some are on the East Coast, some in the Carolinas. We actually have someone who monitors the markets to ensure that we get the best pricing on the sale of recyclable materials,” said Kao.

Kao could not answer for the markets and why they do not collect certain plastics.

COUNTY RESIDENTS may be familiar with the items that they can place into their recycling bins every week: mixed paper items (cardboard, paper, magazines), commingled materials (glass bottles and jars, aluminum, plastic narrow neck bottles), yard trim (grass, leaves, brush).

Perhaps more surprising is that the county’s recycling program will pick up scrap metal items, like refrigerators, humidifiers, washers, and other household appliances To have those items picked up, residents must call the Division of Solid Waste Services the day before their weekly recycling day and request that the on-call truck come by and collect the waste.

As for narrow-neck bottles, their type of plastic makes them special. Different plastic containers are made in different ways; some are made by injecting molding with air, others by pouring molten plastic into a mold, according to Kao. “The way plastic items are formed influences the constituent and it determines the meltdown point, or temperature, so that's why we only at this point collect certain plastics. The market can only process plastics made in a certain way,” said Kao. It is important not to recycle narrow-neck bottles that have held toxic or poisonous waste.

Nevertheless, there are alternatives to simply throwing away otherwise recyclable waste. Containers can be reused — to hold leftovers, art supplies, or tools. Creativity is key. So is persistence; just ask Diana Conway.

CONWAY, WHOSE three children attended Potomac Elementary School, chaired the school’s Earth Day committee a couple of years ago. With the help of Potomac Elementary third-graders, Conway lobbied congressmen, local newspapers, and County Councilmembers in an effort that ended with plastic container recycling receptacles in Potomac Village.

“At the Village there was nothing going on about recycling at the consumer level — no stores recycled plastic that I could see. So, we had [Potomac Elementary students] write letters and draw pictures for each [public officer]. We also wrote letters to the Department of Waste Management and they heard us,” said Conway.

Now as the PTA president at Potomac Elementary, Conway is working on a new program — a rain garden that would collect rainwater and divert it from local streams and to an environmentally friendly garden that would contain specific layers of rock, dirt, and plants.

Behnke Nursery on River Road also has its own alternative recycling program. The nursery collects plastic household pots.

Such alternative recycling programs, coupled with creative use of non-recyclable items, is helping Montgomery County reach an ambitious goal. The county aims to recycle half of the recyclable waste it produces, according to Kao. As of the end of the Fiscal Year 2006, the County had succeed in recycling 42% of waste generated.

“The key is to have everyone in Montgomery County in single family homes, in apartment complexes, in condominium, at business, everyone to recycle as much as possible. We need to ask people to try, and they do,” said Kao.