We’ve “Bin” Recycling

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

September 26, 2022 Submitted by Cleaner Greener Hingham

While you know that Hingham requires recycling, do you know what happens to your plastic when it is recycled? According to a recent article in The Atlantic, no matter how good a job we do as a town, the plastic recycling system is irreparably broken. As evidence, the authors cite the United States’ dismal 5% rate of recycled post-consumer plastic. They argue that plastic recycling is a complicated, toxic, and dangerous process that often isn’t cost-effective. As Hingham residents, we like to think that the recyclables that we so diligently clean, sort, and carry are being, well, recycled. Surely our rate must be higher than 5%? Our water bottles and takeout containers will go on to live a new life as useful materials. Right? The answer is…it’s complicated.

First, let’s talk about how much plastic moves through Hingham’s Transfer Station. For fiscal year 2022, Hingham sent 190 tons of plastics for recycling! That’s the equivalent of a Great Blue whale, a medium-sized house, or a locomotive engine.

But wait, that number doesn't include bulky rigid plastics (like lawn chairs and large toys), plastic shopping bags, or Styrofoam (another 25 tons). It also doesn’t consider the many residents whose recycling is handled by a private hauler. Since plastics are very light weight, you can imagine the space all this would take up.

Where does all that plastic go? The Hingham Transfer Station recycles plastics #1 - #7. These plastics are then bailed together and sent to a private recycling company. Loads that are clean will be accepted for recycling. Loads that are contaminated will be rejected. So, while we know how many loads were accepted and rejected, we don’t know how much of our plastic is truly being recycled.

Hingham plastics that are recycled may find new life as carpeting or construction materials. But many of these processes involve adding in “virgin plastic,” (newly created and not made from recycled plastics) which means more fossil fuel consumption. Rejected plastics will be landfilled or incinerated, which also leads to emissions.

However, there is a larger complicating factor. Hingham PAYS for plastic disposal. Recycling is a commodities business and prices change regularly. As of early June 2022, Hingham is paying $5-10/ton - plus $100 shipping per load - to dispose of plastic. While that amount is still less far than the $95/ton to dispose of the equivalent amount of trash, is all that plastic really necessary?

Given the environmental and economic costs of single-use plastics, it makes sense to reduce your consumption wherever you can. For example:

  • Reject single use drink bottles and opt to bring your own reusable container
  • Favor aluminum, glass, or paper packaging
  • Frequent restaurants that provide paper or compostable take-out containers
  • Pass along old items to be re-used or pickup items from the swap vs. purchasing new (kid’s toys, etc.)

190 tons is a lot of plastic. We can all do our part to bring that number down.

2 thoughts on “We’ve “Bin” Recycling”

  1. Great article.

    Beyond the financial data that has been documented in the article, there are other things to consider.

    There are large machines in the recycling area at the transfer station that push the plastic materials around. What are the fuel costs for this equipment? What are the maintence costs for the equipment? What is the cost in man hours to do the job?.

    If I am not mistaken, I think plastic is made of petrolium. Are there scrubbers that reduce some of the polluants of plastic during the incineration process?

    This article points to the real solution, reduce what we buy and what is sold. The plastics industry is making fools of us as they advertise misguided information.

    In Roatan Honduras, the island does not allow plastic bottles to be sold. Their livelyhood depends on the environment and their people have decided if companies want to sell their products in Roatan, it cannot be in a plastic container.

    It would be kind of nice for students at Hingham High School who are concerned about the environment to weigh in on the plastics conversation.

  2. A huge contributing factor to weather or not certain items are recycled is weather or not people actually take the time to clean them first, AND make sure to NOT add non-compatible items to the recycling stream, A handful of yogurt, peanut butter, Mayo and Jam containers left unrinsed can cause more issues at the MRF (materials recovery facility) than one might think, and rather than taking the time cherry pick those few dirty containers from the load, lazy employees will oftentimes just reject a whole bucketload of material and forward it to the garbage instead of sorting it, Optical sorters are used in many cases and locations BUT visual pickers are still crucial to weed out “tanglers” such as plastic bags, coat hangers and other items in the mix that can screw up the equipment and cause hours of delays, and those visual pickers who watch the material going down the conveyors are not gonna take your dirty peanut butter jar and rinse it out, they’re gonna toss it right in the trash. Lazy people who also throw trash in the recycling stream cause a great amount of these issues as well, Truck drivers are instructed to leave the containers there and not empty them if they see any non-compatible material in the recycling bins, however oftentimes the other items are either buried, or the drivers are just not paying attention and carelessly want to get off their shift ASAP so they frantically hit one stop after another to finish as soon as they can, and get out of there and they could care less about the material, they have a “Pfft, let the guys in the building deal with it, its not my problem” sort of attitude. Another highly maddening thing that has been witnessed numerous times, Mostly in Hull though, Is trash trucks, Mostly private carriers, Not companies like Waste Management (Yet), Who keep going house to house, and taking the trash, and the clearly marked recycling containers and dumping them ALL in the back of the SAME truck !, This has been witnessed AND video taped numerous times and forwarded to MA DEP, Recycle Smart MA as well as the companies themselves, As to weather or not there were ever any disciplinary actions taken against the drivers or the companies is unknown, however I know for a fact that during the Covid dilemma, I was told point blank by people from MA DEP that many companies were issued waivers and told to go ahead and do so because the MRF’s were not accepting material at the moment, So rather than making this known to the public and telling people that if they really cared about their stuff being recycled, they may want to hold onto it and let it accumulate until the issue passes, they just kept quiet and had this “What people don’t know isn’t gonna hurt them” sort of mentality, and never said a word about it until they were contacted, at which point they played it off like it was a “Nothing to see here, Move along” situation and made sure to let us know that they had full rights to be doing this.
    What would be extremely helpful in the endeavor to recycle everything possible whenever possible, would be if companies like Waste Management, Republic Services, and other large, reputable waste recycling firms who have their own MRF’s would allow public access to the facilities, the same way that residents have access to their local town operated transfer facilities, For instance if the public could obtain annual passes to a Waste Management MRF, “For recycling purposes only” and be allowed to stop by anytime during business hours and offload loads of cardboard, paper, plastic or other mixed, comingled recyclables, it greatly increase the recycling numbers, and would eliminate the middleman, who in this case happens to be the privately owned trash haulers who we are trusting to deliver this material to the MRF but as mentioned, frequently do not follow through, and thus the material ends up at the incineration facility in Rochester instead of being sorted, baled and recycled.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.