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Column: How the city of Lebanon’s recyclables come full circle

  • Jeff Egner, of Lebanon, N.H., takes a bin filled with glass bottles to a recycling pile on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, at the Solid Waste and Recycling Facility at 370 Plainfield Road in West Lebanon, N.H. Egner said he goes to recycle about once a week. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Friday, April 12, 2019

Glass jars shattering on concrete, soda cans pinging off a mountain of aluminum, cars and pickups jockeying for parking spaces — it’s another noisy and chaotic Saturday morning at the Lebanon Recycling Center.

But what happens to all those cans, bottles and piles of junk mail, especially in light of recent policy changes in China? The world’s largest importer of recyclables no longer accepts certain materials and is limiting the amount of contaminants, or mixed-in trash, it will take with recyclables. That move has left a glut of recyclables on the world market, bringing down prices and forcing some towns to close their recycling programs.

Lebanon has never shipped recyclables overseas, said Marc Morgan, the city’s solid waste manager, so its program hasn’t been affected by China’s decisions. Lebanon has always cultivated local markets for recyclables, and while some towns have played the field and sold to the highest bidder when market prices were high, Lebanon has stayed with the same buyers. “Because we’ve honored those relationships with our buyers,” Morgan said, “they’re honoring them with us.”

One example of a good relationship is Trigon Plastics in Newmanstown, Pa., where Lebanon sends its bales of mixed plastics. The company uses optical scanners to sort out HDPE (high-density polyethylene) containers, such as plastic milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles, and then resells the remaining plastics to other manufacturers.

The HDPE plastic is ground into flakes, which are thoroughly washed and dried. Clean flakes pass through a state-of-the-art extrusion machine, where more color and ultraviolet protection is added. The UV protection prevents the plastic lumber that comes out the other end from breaking down and fading in sunlight, extending its useful life. At a sister facility, the plastic lumber is made into Breezesta outdoor lawn furniture. So a plastic milk jug tossed into the plastics bay last year might come back to the Upper Valley this summer as a vibrant, berry-red Adirondack chair.

Another example of a good relationship even closer to home is Lebanon’s buyer for mixed paper and cardboard, Recycling Associates of Nashua, N.H. Recycling Associates resells those materials to mills throughout the Northeast. Among other things, Lebanon’s recycled paper could become new paper bags, napkins or paper towels.

Steel cans and scrap metal are shipped to Schnitzer Steel in Worcester, Mass., where the metal is remanufactured into new products such as reinforcing bar (known as rebar) and wire rod. Aluminum goes to a facility in Georgia. Glass stays onsite and is used for construction material at the landfill.

At the Lebanon Recycling Center, each of the different types of recyclables — mixed plastics, steel cans, aluminum, glass, mixed paper and cardboard — should be thrown into the appropriate bay. When employees are baling materials from a bay, they do a secondary sort to remove contaminants. Shiny potato chip bags are trash, but are often thrown in with the aluminum, Morgan said, and plastic grocery bags are found everywhere. If the level of contamination in a bale exceeds a set limit, rather than being rejected by a facility outright, the shipment will often be downgraded, which means it fetches a lower price than a cleaner load would have. Occasionally a shipment is returned, and that wastes everyone’s time and money.

As for food waste, that’s more of a housekeeping issue. Steel cans, for example, are getting heated and melted in a furnace so a little food residue will be burned off. “But just for cleanliness and workplace friendliness, it’s nice to have stuff clean,” Morgan said. That doesn’t mean it has to go through the dishwasher, but recyclers should scrape out the food and give the container a quick rinse so as not to attract rodents.

Even with good signage at the center, proper recycling can be a little confusing. On a recent morning, recyclers had questions regarding pizza boxes and bottle caps. Morgan suggests using the “yuck factor” on pizza boxes. Don’t recycle the box, or the circle the pizza sat on, if it’s greasy or has cheese or other toppings stuck to it. Bottle caps should be removed before recycling. Steel and aluminum caps can then be recycled in the appropriate bays but plastic caps should be discarded in the trash.

The important thing, Morgan says, is not to be in too much of a hurry. That’s when recyclers make mistakes that can cause problems down the line.

A few helpful tips:

■ While access to the Lebanon landfill is restricted, anyone from any town can use the Lebanon Recycling Center.

■ The Lebanon Recycling Center is owned by the city of Lebanon, not a private waste management company. If your contractor misses your stop, you can bring recyclables to the center but they need to be sorted into the appropriate bays.

■ Plastic grocery bags, chip bags, plastic toys and Styrofoam are trash and should never be thrown into the recycling bays. Some grocery stores will take back and recycle grocery bags.

■ Rechargeable batteries need to be disposed of properly through the red door at the Recycling Center. Trash compactors running over rechargeable batteries have caused several fires at the landfill.

For the latest information or changes to what’s accepted, visit lebanonnh.gov/450/Solid-Waste-Recycling.

Barbara Slaiby, of Lebanon, is an environmental educator.