Dear Eartha, My sister recycles berry containers at her house on the Front Range. Why aren’t they accepted in Summit County?
The short answer is that berry containers are not accepted for recycling in Summit County because they wouldn’t actually get recycled. They’d get mixed with #1 plastic bottles and rather than melting down during the recycling process, berry containers burn into ash that can ruin the rest of the plastic. Berry and similar containers that hold cookies, tomatoes, herbs and even prepared sandwiches are called clamshells in the recycling industry and they are not recyclable locally.
The good news here in Summit County is this: when we recycle right, our waste lives its next best life as fleece jackets, glass bottles, printer paper, cereal boxes and more. On the flip side, if we throw everything into the recycling bin and hope, it creates all sorts of operational challenges (not to mention drives up recycling costs), and many of those flimsy plastic items end up taking a really long road to the landfill.
Why are clamshells accepted in other places?
The statewide recycling facilities that I spoke to mix clamshells in with other loads of plastic. They’re unable to accept large amounts of clamshells because there are so few places dedicated to transforming clamshells into new products. However, with the growing amount of clamshell packaging on the market, these containers are impossible for berry-lovers (and recycling facilities) to avoid. And while efforts are underway to expand clamshell recycling, today most #1 plastic bottle recyclers will reject plastic loads that contain more than a small percentage of clamshells.
I know it’s hard to watch plastic berry containers, cookie packaging, toy wrapping, and other flimsy plastics stacking up in the trash (which is where this crummy plastic belongs). But remember, even if that non-recyclable packaging makes it from your home to the bottle recycling facility – it’s still ending up in the trash. And, it’s taking a lot more resources, manpower, and money to get there. Instead of feeling bad about buying berries, focus on the list of what is accepted for recycling. Share your knowledge with friends and whenever you travel, take the time to learn local recycling guidelines. Here in Summit, when you follow the rules, your recycling really does live its next best life.
All this begs our next question.
Why are these non-recyclable packages being used?
Plastic packaging is often a cheap option however the environmental costs are massive. Here in Colorado, legislators passed a bill earlier this year that requires producers of goods to take responsibility for their packaging. It’s called Producer Responsibility and state officials – with the help of recycling experts – are working toward a statewide recycling system for all kinds of packaging. By making producers pay into a fund that covers the cost of recycling for their packaging, Producer Responsibility incentivizes the use of more sustainable packaging (such as recycled cardboard) over time.
What can I do?
Embrace the saying “knowledge is power” and educate yourself – not only on the list of items accepted locally for recycling, but also on the local and statewide recycling programs that can make our communities healthy and sustainable for our kids’ kids. Knowledge won’t make that berry container recyclable, but it will help you channel your energy into what matters – speaking up and supporting recycling programs that make sense.