Sustain Jefferson Jefferson County, Wisconsin

Plastics: Think before you buy

Corporations ultimately must be held responsible for the waste plastics they create. But in the meantime consumers need to think before they buy: Can this be recycled?

That was the message of Town of Ixonia recycling manager Vic Karaliunas when he spoke recently to Sustain Jefferson's monthly discussion group. The focus of the discussion was plastics recycling and ways to reduce our use of plastics at a time when the markets for recyclable plastics are dramatically changing and even disapearing.

China has almost completely stopped taking recyclable plastics from the U.S., Karaliunas said. It was initially outsourced to Vietnam and other Asian communities, but they also are losing interest in accepting waste plastics, he said.

He gave some advice to make plastics more desirable to recycling markets including taking the caps off plastic bottles so they can be compressed for shipping. Throw out the caps. Put only clean materials -- jars, cans, other containers, plastics, etc. -- into recycling bins. Envelopes with cellophane windows are not recyclable. Neither are those mailers padded with bubble wrap inside. If plastic wrap or packaging can be stretched it's good for recycling.

To be recyclable, plastics must be non-contaminated, although there is a low tolerance in the recycling marketplace for some contamination, including food debris and non-recyclable materials like cellophane. But the trend is to reject loads that contain these materials. Karaliunas said that if a consumer is not in a situation to clean out a plastic container, it's better to just throw it out rather than risk having a whole load rejected.

Used batteries are not to be thrown into the garbage, yet there are virtually no markets to recycle them, Karaliunas said. Plastics from TV's brought to electronics recycling sites are separated before the TV's are sent on for further "harvesting" of recyclable materials. But those TV plastics are not saleable in the recycling marketplace and are now simply being stored, he said.

All residents and businesses in Wisconsin are required to recycle certain mandated items that are not to be tossed into the waste stream to end up in landfills. Yet, Karaliunas said, it is nearly impossible to enforce this law with fast food restaurants, events, etc. and when an attempt is made, food containers are contaminated with food debris.

Karaliunas said there should be uniform systems of waste collection put into place with elected officials setting clear consistent labeling standards and requirements for collection bins across the state.

He said ultimately elected officials and consumers need to hold corporations accountable for the waste they produce. But, he said, consumers need to think carefully before they buy anything: Is this easily recyclable?