Columns, Opinion

Recycling is no longer the answer

(WARRENSBURG, Mo.) – Recycling is a cause that people champion even though many people haven’t the slightest notion of what happens between the time they drop something into the recycling bin and when that material is – if it is – reincarnated and used again.

Warrensburg does not recycle.

Warrensburg collects recycling.

It’s important to understand that everything collected in Warrensburg is sent elsewhere to be recycled. Or is again sent elsewhere.

Jason Duffey, employment specialist of the Vocational Center at RISE Community Services, said they stopped accepting plastic completely because of the financial detriment it posed.

He said in the first six months of 2016, RISE spent roughly $30,000 in labor and on hauling and shipping plastic.

The return? $700.

“It just got to a point that we can’t sustain it, so we had to make a decision at that point,” Duffey said.

Beyond the financial loss, Duffey said recycling is disgusting.

“The beer cans, the soda cans – it gets so rancid back there,” he said. “Our materials processing unit had a constant stench when we were doing plastic just from all of the juices that would come out of it. It would get in the machines and in their shoes and in their clothes. It was a horrible, nasty, fly-ridden place to work.

“It was just… degrading.”

Recycling is a business. It’s nice that companies are taking our recycling, but they have to get some type of return.

Marty Oxman, general/site manager of WCA in Harrisonville, Missouri, which takes the recycling collected by Heartland Waste, says one of the challenges is finding an end user for the recyclable materials collected. Some things are easier than others.

Both Oxman and Roger Morgan, owner of Heartland Waste, said they don’t refuse the collection of anything. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do anything with it once it is collected.

“Everyone has their problem child,” Oxman said. “For me, polypropylene is an issue right now.”

Recycling is at the epicenter of environmentalism. Ideally, it makes sense: It keeps things out of landfills and prevents the use of new resources in the production of new items. In practice, however, an argument can be made that the impact of recycling negates its benefits.

“You collect your cardboard at home and throw it in your car or truck and drive it here,” Duffey said. “We take a forklift out to pick it up and bring it in the building. We throw it in a machine that every time we want to compress, we have to hit a button, which then pulls energy like crazy. It’s a 240 (volt) machine pulling energy. We then pull it out of that machine with a forklift and drive it onto a trailer. Then they send a truck down, pick up the trailer, and drive it all the way to Kansas. Then it may get sent to Arkansas. It may get sent to Oklahoma.

“This cardboard that we’re trying to save emissions and save the world with, we’re putting a lot of that resource right back into transporting it everywhere.”

The world’s population is increasing exponentially. In 1960, the estimated population of Earth was just over 3 billion; in 2017, it’s estimated at 7.4 billion.

The amount of raw material required to accommodate 7.4 billion people is more than what is required to accommodate 3 billion. Therefore, it is impossible, even if everything anyone has ever used has been recycled, that we would be able to abstain from introducing more raw materials.

In our city, recycling is currently based entirely on participation. Those participating are the beneficiaries of good karma, cosmic rewards and the blessings of Mother Nature herself, right?

Maybe not. Some people participating are actually something of a detriment to the process.

If people don’t rinse the items, it can clog or break the machines. If a person doesn’t sort the items, it takes time and money to do it on their behalf. Handling sharp edges – broken glass, crushed aluminum – and working around bales of material weighing between 400 and 2,000 pounds is dangerous.

Scott Holmberg, executive director of RISE Community Services, said there have been two instances where workers were stuck by hypodermic needles while sorting through the recycling.

Nothing happened to either person, but that is an enormous risk that was unimaginable to anyone a few years ago.

How much money and good vibes from the community is the risk of acquiring hepatitis worth?

Recycling remains a largely privatized business in the Warrensburg area, which makes specific data hard to obtain. Businesses are not obligated to reveal such information, and sometimes they won’t.

I started trying to contact Heartland Waste, the company that collects most of the recyclable materials in Warrensburg, about six weeks ago. I finally got in touch with them this week via email. I still don’t have much data about their recycling efforts.

There are few, if any, commodities that we cannot obtain within a 45-mile radius, today. There is almost nothing we can’t get on the internet and buy and have shipped to us in a day, maybe two if we really don’t want to pay too much. It seems fantastic, and through the lens of availability, it’s as close to magic as most of us will experience.

But availability requires things to be… well, available. Things have to be packaged and shipped before we need them so they’re there when we want them.

For every item we buy, use, and then recycle its packaging, there are 12 more on the shelf and who knows how many on the way to replace it. Is recycling the packaging from one item going to offset the production of the packaging of many?

Ultimately, what all of this boils down to is that recycling is an option – a good one that we should utilize with the materials already out there – but it is nothing close to a solution.

At this point, we have a self-inflicted wound much too large to be covered by the bandage offered to us by recycling. If we don’t reduce the grossly unnecessary amount of these materials we use, recycling cannot keep up – eventually becoming a useless, empty gesture that accomplishes nothing.

In the meantime, we’re making the jobs of the people who are trying to perform this service on our behalf miserable.

Don’t pat yourself on the back too hard when you set that empty bottle aside.


Cordell Wright

It’s a good article with a lot of startling facts. I consider myself an environmentalist and always try to recycle. Hell, I’ve persuaded my stubborn roommates to recycle. You mention the stinky, gross conditions workers have to work in due to leftover liquids. From now on, I’ll definitly rinse out my cans and bottles.

However, I can’t help but notice an underlying, critical tone when you write about those who do recycle. For instance, “How much money and good vibes” and “don’t pat yourselves on the back too hard.” Those who recycle aren’t the problem. As you said, most don’t even realize the amount of effort and energy that goes into the behind-the-scenes of recycling. So let’s not criticize the recycler. I understand it’s not a solution. But if it helps make even a little difference, that’s something.

Anyways, I enjoyed reading the article. Maybe in a future issue you could focus more on the overproduction of raw materials and a solution to that issue.

Chris Holmberg

I very much appreciate the time you took to read the article and respond. This issue, as with other issues, is improved by conversation and increased awareness, which is the goal of this series.

I was not, in any way, condemning recycling as a practice. I was trying to convey that recycling is currently an inefficient process made more so by the partial investment of many who choose to participate. Futhermore, it only deals with what is already produced and does little to prevent the continued extraction of raw materials and production of synthetic materials. We must change our behaviors for recycling to have as meaningful an impact as it is supposed to have.

The statement “how much money and good vibes” that you mentioned was only half of my statement aimed at describing two specific events whereby individuals tasked with sorting recycling were stuck with hypodermic needles. It was not a general statement representing my opinion of recycling, but was meant to portray something that has indeed occurred as a result of things being mixed in with recycling, and in this case, things that posed a very real danger.

The last line (“Don’t pat yourselves on the back too hard when you set that empty bottle aside”) was simply meant to drive home the point that recycling without a lifestyle change and an overall cultural shift away from overconsumption will not do anything, and I don’t want people to think that just because they are recycling they are somehow not contributing to the bigger issue.

Again, I was not attacking recycling, and I certainly wasn’t specifically targeting those who choose to participate. I was just providing information that I have acquired over the last few weeks to ask people to consider that recycling, as revered as it is, is not currently functioning in the area how maybe we think it is, and it isn’t the solution that maybe we hoped it could be.

Thanks again for your interest and for bringing up your concerns.


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