Recycling is one form of waste disposal that involves collecting materials and sending them through a process that converts them to new products. Some benefits of recycling include a reduction in the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators, energy conservation and jobs for people in recycling facilities, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The recycling process varies from location to location, but Waste Minimization Coordinator Ben Kreitner said there are 11 recycling centers in Columbia, as well as several more in the surrounding areas. He said these centers are open 24/7 and anyone can use them. City residents receive vouchers in June and January for 36 blue recycling bags and 25 black trash bags, according to the City of Columbia website.
In this Q and A, Kreitner answers questions about the city’s recycling policies.
What types of materials can and cannot be recycled in Columbia and why?
“The ability to recycle an item primarily depends on five factors: (1) product design, (2) ability to properly sort the material, (3) availability of factories that can recycle the material, (4) market value and (5) interest from the community to invest in the necessary equipment and staff. For example, we do not currently recycle Styrofoam because there are no factories in that area that accept the material. It also requires special equipment that consumes a lot of energy and water, which can make the recycling process more detrimental to the environment than sending the material to a landfill.”
Can any of the non-recyclable materials be recycled in other locations?
“The list of recyclable and non-recyclable items can be very different depending on where you live. You can recycle plastic flower pots in Columbia, but you cannot recycle them in St. Louis. You can recycle milk cartons in Jefferson City, but you cannot recycle them in Columbia. This inconsistency is why many cities struggle to provide an effective recycling program. Recycling education is especially challenging in Columbia since many of the residents are students, and they come from cities with entirely different recycling programs. The City of Columbia website is the best source of information for what can and cannot be recycled. Residents can also use the search engine in our phone app: COMO Recycle and Trash.”
Why are blue bags used if they can’t be recycled? Are there other recyclable options?
“The blue recycling bags are not recyclable, but Columbia residents have decided to keep using them after multiple city-wide ballots. In other communities, the most widely accepted method for curbside recycling is to have reusable plastic tubs or roll carts. This method avoids unnecessary plastic waste, improves employee safety and saves money. However, some Columbia residents believe that the plastic bags are more convenient or the reusable plastic tubs are an eyesore.”
Can tiny items such as lids, bottle caps and small pieces of paper be recycled? Why or why not?
“Smaller items are more difficult to separate at the City’s recycling facility. We have about 30 employees that sort through Columbia’s recycling a few days after the material is collected. As you can imagine, shredded paper is more difficult to pick up and separate than whole sheets of paper. Therefore, we ask that shredded paper be placed in a clear plastic bag before sending it to our recycling facility. This would enable us to recycle the paper, but then we have another plastic bag that would be sent to the landfill. Plastic lids and bottle caps are much easier to recycle because they can be attached to the original container. If you recycle the plastic bottle and cap separately, there is a chance that the cap will not be recycled.”
How much of our city’s recycling ends up getting recycled into new material?
“Almost all of the recyclable material that enters our facility will eventually get recycled. The only rare exception is when we experience issues with the machinery or when we run out of storage space and the material must be kept outside for an extended period of time. When the recycling facility was initially constructed, we received about 5,000 tons per year. We now receive about 15,000 tons per year, and the facility has not expanded in size.”
Is there anything citizens can do to improve the recycling process or reduce the amount of city waste?
“Residents should remind themselves to reduce the amount of waste they are generating, reuse items that still serve a purpose and then recycle whenever possible. Most of these decisions happen when you go to the grocery/retail store or when you shop online. It is better to invest in quality products and take good care of those possessions. Whenever something breaks, you can try to fix the item or donate it to someone that is interested in using the parts. When shopping for holiday or birthday gifts, you can purchase services instead of products. If you are preparing to buy something that is considered disposable, make sure that the item is recyclable in Columbia before making the purchase. It is also important to remember that shopping local is often better for the environment than purchasing items that were made in other parts of the world and then shipped to your home.”
Why is it important to recycle?
“We do not have unlimited resources. The main benefit of recycling is that it promotes a circular economy and materials are continuously cycled into new products. A linear economy is where we extract resources from the environment, create new products, use the product, send it to a landfill and then repeat the process. Whenever we send material to a landfill, it remains in the landfill indefinitely, and the cost of extracting more resources from the environment will increase as they become more scarce or difficult to extract. Meanwhile, the extraction process leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, habitat loss for wildlife, and exploitation of impoverished areas.”
How do you reduce, reuse and recycle? Let us know in the comments below.