With a new trash services contract in place with Waste Management, officials in The Woodlands are now turning their attentions to educating township residents on the best practices and proper ways to recycle, notably reducing what is termed “contaminated” materials. The effort is in large part due to the changing international market for recyclable materials — notably China and other nations not accepting as much materials as prior years — and a new financial penalty if the township exceeds a 25 percent contamination rate of its recyclable material.
John Geiger, manager of environmental services for The Woodlands Township, took some time for an interview about all-things recycling in the Villager’s Sunday Conversation.
Question: The new “Recycle Right” program aims to educate residents about proper recycling habits; can you explain those issues?
Geiger: “For decades, it was about encouraging people to recycle. Well, The Woodlands…we have that message. Our residents are on board. We have over 90 percent participation in our curbside recycling program, that is fantastic, that is sky high, well above the national average. The focus now is not just to do recycling, it is doing it correctly. The ‘Recycle Right’ program is all about telling residents to only put the items in the recycle cart that are supposed (to be in there).”
Question: How much does contamination affect what products are recycled?
Geiger: “Recyling in general needs to be (clean). So, pizza boxes…cardboard, like all recycling material, needs to be clean. If you have a bottle, you want to empty out your bottles, it doesn’t need to be squeaky clean, but wash it out; take food chunks out of your tubs. Pizza boxes, if they are too grease-stained, they’re contaminated (and not recyclable). The ‘Recycle Right’ program is about reminding folks to only put the things in the recycle cart that belong in the cart. (The program) Is about recycling those products and only those products.”
Question: You have referred to the “MRF” facility several times in discussions of this issue, what is that for those who do not know that acronym?
Geiger: “Material Recovery Facility…that is where all of our (recyclable) material goes. They get sorted, baled and sent on to the next step where they are recycled. It is basically separating out the trash from the recycling and the recyclables get baled with (similar) products. Unfortunately, the MRF can only handle certain items. Something may have plastic in it, but if it is not a plastic bottle or a plastic tub with a neck or some of these specific items, they can’t handle it. Their machinery cannot process it, even though, yes, it is a plastic. A red Solo cup is made out of No. 6 plastic, but (the recycling facility) only take (plastics) No. 1 through No. 5. Then it becomes trash and just degrades the quality and ramps up costs.”
Question: How will the ‘Recycle Right’ program work?
Geiger: “We are going to tag each (recycling cart) once this spring, and we’ll follow up in following years. We figure it will take four to six weeks to hit every household. It involves (workers) walking around and placing a tag on each cart.”
Question: How much of this program was a result of the new contract between The Woodlands and Waste Management, which was finally OK’d by the Board of Directors in December?
Geiger: “There is a new clause in the current contract that states if we are over 25 percent contamination in our recycling, we’ll be paying fees for that. In the old contract, Waste Management assumed all of those costs…now, that cost is being shared with the township. In addition to wanting to do the right thing and recycle, we also want to be financially mindful to keep costs down by keeping contamination (rates) down.”
Question: Is the common resident unaware of the difficulties facing the recycling industry? Do we need more awareness of recycling issues?
Geiger: “Absolutely. I think the more people understand about how the industry works in general, the better recyclers they will be. Once they understand why they should not put their garden hose in their recycling cart, the more likely they will not do that. There is so much confusion out there, too, because things change from community to community on how programs work and what products they accept. They’ve heard, ‘my cousin in New York (says) our community has stopped recycling.’ That may be happening there, but it is not happening here. Some people hear, ‘Recycling: the bottom is falling out, and you should not do it anymore.’ That is absolutely not true. That is not happening here, our materials are being recycled here. There is always a need for more clarity and information for residents to understand how the process works.”