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Staying on Top of the Curbside Holiday Load

dstaerk/Thinkstock holiday-wrapping-paper

Americans throw away 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than any other time of the year, according to a study from Stanford University. That’s a whopping 25 million tons that make its way into the stream. Joe Vaillancourt, CEO of Cyclyx, discusses packaging and some other materials to be on the look out for in the bins these next couple of weeks. And what MRFs can do with them, especially plastics, they can’t manage.   Cyclyx collects, chemically characterizes, and processes waste plastic into feedstock custom-blended to fit specific recycling technologies.

Waste360: What packaging and other waste climb in volume during the holidays?

Vaillancourt: Waste plastic volumes increase dramatically during the holidays. This increase applies to all types of plastics, including those that are currently recycled as well as many that are not. In general, this seasonal increase in waste plastic is attributed to packaging materials, such as toy packaging, which can include rigid and flexible plastics, protective packaging, bubble wrap, and EPS (Styrofoam) packaging. Flexible and rigid packaging are typically recyclable, whereas the industry has had a difficult time recycling foam waste.

There is also an increase in tape, ribbon, stickers, and other accompanying materials that may or may not be plastic.

In addition to packaging, older toys may be disposed of as they are replaced by the holiday influx of new toys. These old toys have rarely been a focus of recycling and end up in landfill.

Waste360: What other trends do you see around the types and volumes of plastics that get thrown away during holidays and other seasonal events?

Vaillancourt: During holidays and other seasonal events such as summer concerts, weddings, marathon season, and other large gatherings, the trend we see is that the larger and more chaotic the event, the more likely it is that recyclables will be discarded in trash bins rather than properly recycled. Simplifying collection is the key. When people are faced with too many rules or steps around getting recyclables to where they need to go, they may opt for the easier option of throwing it all in the trash.

Waste360: What needs to be done so that more of the packaging plastic most heavily used during the holidays is recycled? 

Vaillancourt: The largest increase in volume of plastic during the holidays may come in the form of expanded polystyrene (EPS or “Styrofoam”). This material can be recycled if it can be efficiently separated from the other plastics. MRFs typically do not have this capability, so the separation would need to happen through a separate collection. Cyclyx has been aggregating EPS for years in the Pacific Northwest and is replicating those programs with our members in other geographies.

For many there is limited pick up or limited space available for curbside recycling programs – and in those scenarios, materials can often be taken to different locations for recycling instead of being thrown in the trash. People should check with their town’s solid waste department to learn what the options are in their area. The Cyclyx programs encourage the aggregation of all plastics without the need to separate the higher quality and or types of waste plastics from those that are more difficult to recycle.

Waste360: Anything you can share to help MRFs and haulers during this season?

Vaillancourt: Hauling operations should let residents know they should pay careful attention to the guidelines for what can be put in curbside recycling bins for their local programs, limit the amount of contamination that goes into the bins, and check local recycling options for materials that are not accepted in the curbside programs.

Residents should be made aware that when purchasing single-use plastics like cutlery, cups and plates [which make it into the stream in huge volumes during the holidays],  it would be helpful to plan ahead and verify that the type of plastic they’re buying is accepted in their town’s recycling program. 

MRFs should retrofit to accept most all plastic with the eye toward sorting out those plastics they do not want and coordinate with a processor like Cyclyx to take those lower quality and unwanted waste plastics to find new recycling options for them.

Waste360: What does it look like for haulers and MRFs when collections during this time go as well as expected?

Vaillancourt: If residents are paying careful attention to what’s going in their bins, despite the increase in volume, hopefully things will look much like business as usual. That said, with the expected volume increase, it is likely that some service delays could be experienced.

Waste360:  What does it look like for haulers and MRFs when they don’t go well?

Vaillancourt: Increases in garbage volume can cause disruptions for haulers experiencing staffing shortages, sometimes causing a delay in pick up services at what is their busiest time of the year. Recycling programs that start and stop can create confusion with customers, frustration, recycling fatigue, and eventually lead to the idea that recycling is broken (prompting some to ask “why bother?”), further limiting consumer engagement and negatively impacting the amount of waste plastics recovered.

Waste360: What most makes for a smooth season for haulers and MRFs?

Vaillancourt: Implementing more bag-it-and-bring-it programs like a program we recently rolled out in Kingwood, TX would make for a smoother season. But MRFs would need to retrofit their facilities. In doing so, in future holiday seasons they will be able to accept foams and films as well as increase their sorting capabilities to increase the capture of higher quality materials.

Waste360: What makes for a disaster? How can they be avoided?

Vaillancourt: When people decide to skip steps in their recycling process because they are too busy, especially when party items like Bailey’s and Kahlua bottles make it to the recycle bin with gooey liquid still inside, that causes issues. It’s important for recyclables to be rinsed out before being placed in the bin.

During the holiday season there is the added issue of light weight, high- volume materials such as wrapping paper or Styrofoam packaging which can fill up trucks a lot faster and cause haulers to make multiple trips to move everything where it needs to go, adding extra cost to the process.

Waste360: How will the new Cyclyx Circularity Center allow more plastic to be recycled for future holidays?

Vaillancourt: With the sortation capacity and capability of the CCC, households won’t have to do as much sorting and sifting through their plastics before discarding them. The Styrofoam packaging from the new TV, the blister pack that the new action figure was packaged in, and the shrink wrap that kept the candy canes fresh can all go in the same bag. When collection is easier, people are more likely to participate, which will help drive the rate of plastic being recovered and recycled.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and context.

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