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Recycling Renaissance

Word count: 974 Reading time: 3.6 minutes

One of the many things I learned from my dad was about recycling. Dad was a voracious reader of books and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the south Jersey Salem Sunbeam. Newspapers would accumulate on the basement stairway landing. Once a week or so, Dad would take the newspapers to the basement and stack them in a corner next to the furnace. The stack was straight as a pin. If a newspaper had some pages hanging out, Dad would unfold and refold the paper. You could place a level on the side of the stack and find it perfectly straight.

The Character Brothers owned a “junk yard” about a half-mile from our house. The yard included junked cars, scrap metal, and newspapers. During the 1950s, Dad would borrow the pickup truck from his car dealership on occasional Saturday mornings and we would make a trip to Characters’. We would fill up the pickup with the papers from the basement, and then drive to Characters’ right onto a large scale. After the truck and papers had been weighed, Mrs. Character, who lived just two doors away from us, would give Dad the thumbs up from the window of her little office by the scale. Dad would then drive to the section of the yard where the newspapers would be converted into bales. He would back in the truck, and we would heave the papers into the recycling area.

After driving back onto the scale, Mrs. Character would calculate the weight of the papers and give Dad the money. I don’t know what the price was. Currently, the price of recycled newspapers ranges between $2 and $10 per ton. It varies a lot based on supply and demand. When we got home, Dad would put the dollar bills in an envelope and the coins in a little barrel shaped bank. From time to time, Dad would take me to the bank where he deposited the newspaper money in a savings account for college.

Things are quite different today. Although awareness and intentions with regard to recycling are significant, global recycling is a mess. For decades, the United States sent most of its recycling on ships to China. The model was the recycled materials would be made into bags, shoes, and plastic products. That changed in July 2017 when China restricted imports of mixed paper and most plastics, effective in March 2018. A Chinese initiative called the National Sword changed their import policy to reduce the allowable percentage of contaminants from 5 to 10 percent to 0.5 percent. Contamination, for example, meant bales of paper which also contained pieces of metal, glass, plastic bags, etc. Waste-management companies across the country told municipalities there was no longer a market for their recycling. Municipalities had two choices: pay much more to get rid of recycling or throw it all away. Unfortunately, many, opted for the latter.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 75% of U.S. cities and counties contract with private businesses to handle their recycling. Where I live in Palm Coast, Florida, Waste Management comes twice a week. They only accept paper and cardboard. Pizza boxes, tin cans, anything aluminum, bottles, plastic bottles and bags are all treated as trash and get dumped into the environment.

Seven miles south on A1A in Flagler Beach (pop. 5,160 but growing fast), recycling is all city-run, and they have begun rolling out a revolutionary new recycling program. The program is run by Sanitation Supervisor Rob Smith. Smith says, “I’m not an environmentalist. I’m just a normal guy.” I would say he is a practical, common sense, get it done guy.

The Flagler Beach materials recovery facility (MRF, pronounced “murf”) now handles glass, aluminum, and tin. The more challenging material is the thin polyethylene bags which causes huge damage to the environment. Animals can die after becoming entangled in the bags. When polyethylene breaks down, it can release microplastics into the environment. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that can be ingested by animals and humans. They can cause health problems, such as inflammation and cancer.

Smith formed a partnership with a Trex, Inc. Using its TrexNex program, the company purchases returned consumer bags and film from the majority of grocery and retail stores in the U.S., and creates Trex premium composite decking from the recycled bags and other plastic film. Flagler Beach has put special bins around town with special stickers to identify them. They plan to add the stickers to traditional recycling bins marking them as thin plastic bins. NexTrex said they have “up-cycled about 430 million pounds of polyethylene film.”

They help partners like Flagler Beach pay for bailers where all the plastic material gets squished together into clumps. The clumps are mixed with sawdust and made into a composite material that can be used to create decks, park benches, and Flagler Beach’s boardwalk. Consumers can buy it at Home Depot or Lowe’s.

Flagler Beach is working on another very interesting project. They purchased a half-million-dollar machine with can grind up glass into a fine powder which turns into sand. The powdery sand can be used for landscaping, filling potholes, or filling up bags for use during hurricane season.

The city it doesn’t make a profit on any of its recycling efforts. Any savings are given to the people and businesses in Flagler. Rob Smith was quoted in the local newspaper summing it up, “If I can keep their trash bill as low as possible but still provide a good service and do something with the material – that I truly know is being done with it, instead of hoping – that’s a win/win,” said Smith. “That’s what it’s all about to me.” If Flagler Beach can do it, why can’t all American cities?