Managing our waste is a big problem in our world today, and particularly in the US, which is the largest generator of waste in the world. Until 2018, the US sent its waste to China. However, in 2018, China stopped taking the trash, so now it is being sent to other poor nations to deal with. A big component of our waste is plastic, and this is explained well by the PBS Frontline documentary, “Plastic Wars.” If we don’t cut down and manage our waste properly, it is not only an economic burden for the US, it is also an environmental burden for the whole world. When I approached Ralph Hammond about this issue, he directed me to Ed McGrath, who runs the recycling department in Bedford. Ed McGrath was very helpful and gave me a lot of information when I sat down to talk to him. Below are some of the facts about what can and can’t be recycled in Bedford, where things go after we put them in our bins, and what else we can do with our waste.
Single-use plastics are plastics that are only used once and then discarded. They can then go to landfills or end up in the ocean, where they can be harmful to ocean life. In Bedford, the plastics that can be put in our blue toters for curbside pickup are classified as containers from the bath, kitchen, and laundry. This includes things like shampoo bottles, milk jugs, and laundry detergent bottles. As for nonplastics, you can recycle glass bottles and jars, aluminum, steel, or tin cans, and paper and cardboard. More information can be found here. This list was made by the Massachusetts government and the MRFs (material recovery facilities) so that there would be a statewide list of what things could be recycled. Sometimes, when you go to the stores, you will see a number written inside the triangle of arrows. However, in Massachusetts, the recycling facilities no longer use these numbers, and they just go by whether or not it fits the statewide criteria. To help people figure out whether something can be recycled or not, there is a website called “recycle smart” which has an encyclopedia of what can go in your curbside bin in Massachusetts. There is also a link to it on Bedford’s Town Recycling website.
Once we put our recyclables in our bins, they get picked up by a company called Republic. Republic has a contract with Waste Management, so they then take them to an MRF in Billerica, which is run by Waste Management. From there, it is sorted into the different types of recyclables. Anything that isn’t on the list for recycling is called “residue,” and it is sent to the trash. About 10% of things they get from Bedford are residue. The problem with this is that the residue can contaminate things that otherwise would have been able to be recycled. Another problem at the facilities is when recycling is bagged in plastic bags. The bags can get stuck on the conveyor belts, and even if it has a lot of things that can be recycled in it, they won’t open it, and they will send the whole thing to trash. From the MRFs, they send each item to somewhere where they can be used. For example, glass bottles might get sent to a factory where they make beer bottles. Similarly, plastics can go to places where they make shampoo bottles and such. Something consumers should be aware of, however, is that just because a product says it is 100% recycled doesn’t mean it is made entirely out of the plastics from recycling bins. There are 2 types of plastics that are considered “recycled”—post-industrial and post-consumer. Post-industrial plastics are the scraps that are leftover from the factories where the plastics are made. Post-consumer plastics are the plastics that went into the curbside bins. Both types of recycling are good, but using post-consumer plastics is what closes the loop of recycling.
There are still other plastics that we use that cannot be put in our curbside bins. You might be wondering what we can do with those. If you have any stretch or film plastics, they can be put in the bins outside grocery stores. In Bedford, there is one at Whole Foods labeled “stretch plastics.” “Stretch plastic” or film plastic is any thin plastic that you can stretch or put your finger through. When you put things in those bins, they go to companies like TREX, which makes plastic lumber out of it to make things like patio furniture or benches. This way, these single-use plastics get at least one more use out of them. Plastics like these cannot be put in our curbside recycling, but separating them and putting them in the bins outside grocery stores is better for the environment. If you have plastics that could go there (plastic shopping bags, dry, clean bags, bubble wrap, or plastics found around cases of products), please do put them in those bins, because throwing them out into the trash adds to the waste problem.
Another thing to consider for reducing waste is composting. Composting is for items like food waste, and you can make a pit in your backyard or use Black Earth Composting, which is a paid service. Further information can be found on their website. Essentially, when you compost food waste (table scraps, fruit/vegetable peels) it turns into mulch, which helps plants grow, and can be used in gardens. This helps reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills.
Humans generate lots of waste, and we need to be able to responsibly get rid of it. Remember, plastic containers from the bath, kitchen, and laundry can go directly in your curbside bin without a plastic bag, stretch plastics can go in the bins outside grocery stores like Whole Foods, and composting can minimize the amount of food waste that goes to landfills.
Please do your part in making sure you are putting your waste in the right places to help keep our earth healthy.
Editor’s Note: Swetha Kaundinya, a student at John Glenn Middle School is a member of the Class of 2025