Where Does Our Recycling Go?

In the 1950’s, America had a culture of “throwaway living.” Consumers had the idea that  single-use items were a necessity, which led to the increase in plastic, styrofoam, and other disposable items. 

Recycling programs started becoming popular in the 1960’s and 70’s, when people realized that the large-scale production of plastic was going to harm the environment, and that we needed to be more mindful of our environmental impact. 

In 1997, Durham passed an ordinance making it unlawful to place some recyclables in the garbage, including aluminum cans, glass bottles and jars, plastic bottles, and newspapers. The law also bans many items from being disposed of in a landfill, such as electronics, appliances, and lead-acid batteries. “The city provides recycling opportunities for the targeted items as well as several other items through drop-off centers and curbside collections. Residents and businesses may face financial penalties for not complying with the ordinance,” the City of Durham posted on its website.

Recycling is proven to be one of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions. At Riverside, it is also one of the biggest ways of reducing the carbon footprint. 

Recycling is important because it limits the amount of materials going into landfills, or polluting the environment. In North Carolina, there are over 1000 active and closed landfills. Many of them were built and used before there were regulations, meaning there is a lot of pollution coming from them. 

Landfills create methane gas that is released as a greenhouse gas, which is a major contributor to global warming. Methane is 84 times more effective at absorbing the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide. If a liner in a landfill breaks then contaminants can go into the groundwater and soil. Landfills also take up a lot of space; around 1.8 million acres of habitats have been lost due to landfills, according to the University of Colorado Boulder’s Environmental center.

Recycling saves money and resources because it is cheaper to reuse materials than to make new ones. It also saves land because less land has to be used for resource extraction. For example, according to Stanford University’s recycling center. “A ton of soda cans made with recycled aluminum saves an amazing 21,000 kilowatt hours by reducing the virgin bauxite (bozite) ore that would have to be mined, shipped, and refined. That’s a 95 percent energy savings.”

At schools, students are the leaders in advocating and collecting recycling. Across the state, 77 percent of schools have students collecting the recycling, according to the NC department of environment of natural resources, (NCDENR). 

Every week, students in Riverside’s Occupational Course of Study (OCS) program, which focuses on preparing students to go into the workforce after college, go around the school to collect the recycling from classes.

OCS is led by Perry Tharrington, who has been at Riverside for 14 years. 

“As a school we end up with more trash than we would like,” Tharrington said. “Recycling cuts down on the amount of stuff going into landfills.” 

Most of what goes into the classroom recycling bins is recyclable, but about 25 percent is trash. Tharrington says enforcing what people should and should not put into the recycling bins has proven difficult. 

After it is put in the recycling dumpster, it is taken to a collection center, then to a recycling facility

“A lot of students don’t really care,” said Tharrington. “They just see a bin and they don’t care whether it’s trash or recycling.”

This is a problem because if one piece of trash gets recycled then it may all be unable to be recycled and go to a landfill instead. “Some of it will get sorted out, but depending on the material it can contaminate the entire batch, which could be a bin or it could be an entire truckload,” said the director of construction and sustainability for Durham Public Schools, Dan Schnitzer. Recycling can be contaminated if there is anything that can’t be sorted out, like oil or glue on paper. The most common cause of contamination is plastic bags because it can clog up the system. This discourages some people because they believe that it is impossible to recycle anyway. 

Recycling does not have to be sorted by individuals however, as the city of Durham does that in facilities. 

Education about recycling is essential to allow the maximum amount of products to be recycled. If people don’t know what can and can not be recycled they will put many items in the wrong bins. Schools are a good place to start this education because it will set up recycling as a habit later in life. “Recycling education encourages people to take action towards improving life and protecting the environment by using materials that would otherwise be considered as waste as raw materials,” according to WasteAdvantage Magazine.

At Riverside, there is no guidance on what can be recycled. The city of Durham created a website that shows what can be recycled.

“The biggest problem regarding recycling is that students throw trash in the recycling,” says senior Ella Whithaus, one of the leaders of the environmental club. Aware of this problem, Riverside’s environmental club has put a terracycle program in place that allows students to recycle things that would otherwise not be able to get recycled. 

“Terracycle is a program that recycles typically non-recyclable items like used masks, chip bags, contact lens containers, and used school supplies,” said Whithaus, Riverside has become a drop off location for terracycle items, which may potentially earn money for the school. There are bins to collect items all around the school. Items collected in the bins will be made into materials which are sold to sustainable companies. 

“The environmental club has been talking about doing it for at least three years, but we just finally made it happen this year,” said Whithaus

Ideally, all of the recyclable items in the school would be put into a recycling bin, and all trash would go into the trash bins. Making the extra effort to place things in the correct bins makes a big difference, but many students don’t because there are less recycling bins around the school so it is more convenient to throw everything in the trash. “Schools need to engage in education and activities to get students, teachers and staff to know what goes where, and there needs to be some level of accountability,” Schnitzer said.

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