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Madison County expert shares recycling tips

Carly Stone
Staff writer
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Posted 4/22/22

It’s Madison County Recycling Coordinator Kristin Welch’s job to show the public what responsible waste management is all about. This Earth Day, she’s sharing tips and tricks at the county …

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Madison County expert shares recycling tips

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It’s Madison County Recycling Coordinator Kristin Welch’s job to show the public what responsible waste management is all about. This Earth Day, she’s sharing tips and tricks at the county level to ensure our consumer waste can be used for all its worth.

By understanding our trash and the systems to extend its use, Welch says there’s potential to achieve a more sustainable, less wasteful status quo.

The basics

Madison County runs a two-bin curbside recycling program, meaning that not all recyclables are processed together. Paper/cardboard goes in one bin, and plastic/metal/glass containers go in another.

Residents can get tripped up by this seemingly simple concept, Welch shared, because surrounding counties operate on a single-stream system, where all contents go into one bin. What’s even more confusing, some county residents get their recyclables taken by Syracuse Haulers or Bert Adams to Syracuse’s single-stream facility, meaning that two neighbors could have different rules to follow.

Because recycling systems are not standardized, any one program in the state (or the nation) could have different rules than the next. As a result, Welch stresses the importance of knowing the particulars of where your recyclables are going, specifically.

Exactly how much waste is being processed? In Madison County, the recycling facility takes in approximately 4,000 tons of paper and containers annually. Comparatively, the landfill takes in a whopping 55,000 tons of garbage per year.

What’s accepted

Most anything, technically, has the ability to be recycled. But what matters is what’s feasibly possible with the infrastructure at hand, which includes equipment, labor, technology, and a viable, competitive market of buyers seeking the recycled goods — someone has to want your old shampoo bottles.

This results in a finicky system where, sometimes, what appears to be an acceptable, recyclable material really belongs in the trash bin. This varies across recycling programs, too, which only adds to the confusion.

During public outreach, Welch demonstrates what items can currently be recycled at the county facility through curbside pickup and what tricky items should just go in the trash.

Acceptable paper items include:

Office and Colored Paper

Newspapers, Magazines, Flyers, and Junk Mail

Cardboard Boxes

Corrugated Pizza Boxes (Grease is OK)

Shredded Paper (in Paper Bags)

Dry Food Boxes and Other Boxboard

Toilet Paper Rolls, Gift Boxes

Acceptable non-paper materials include:

Plastic Bottles and Jugs

Plastic Dairy Tubs

Metal Containers (soup cans, etc.)

Aluminum Foil

Empty Aerosol Cans

Glass Bottles and Jars

Some things, like clamshell togo containers and fast-food plastic cups, can’t be recycled in Madison County, even though many people hope and assume that they are. This is due to market demand for certain types of plastics. To know if your plastic (besides dairy tubs) is accepted or not, Welch says to look at the shape: if it has a neck, it’s probably good to go. The shape indicates how the plastic was molded, and thus how it can be later processed into something new.

The recycling coordinator describes the impulse to throw hopefully-recyclable-non-recyclable material in the green bin as “wishcycling,” and while it’s often done with good intentions, it actually clogs up the recycling stream, causing contamination. This requires extensive resources to correct (Madison County’s system is largely hand sorted), and sometimes, it damages recycling equipment, puts workers at risk, or gets viable-material thrown out all together. Welch says when in doubt, throw it out.

See this list of non-acceptable curbside matierials to avoid placing in your recycling bins:

Plastic “Clamshell” Containers

Plastic Cups/Lids

Black Plastic

Straws or Utensils

Plastic Bags

Paper Cups

Milk/Juice Cartons

Napkins/Paper Towels/Tissues

Biodegradable or Compostable Items

Frozen/Microwaveable or Refrigerated Food Boxes

Egg Cartons

Any mix of foil/metal and plastic

Styrofoam (any type)

Other: Cords, Hoses, Ropes, Belts and Chains, Windows, Drinking Glasses, Mirrors.

The reasoning for what’s not acceptable is complex, and things could change at any time. Some materials, like electronics (and even bulk styrofoam), have special programs to recycle them outside of the curbside program. The Madison County Solid Waste Department provides a search tool on their website to learn how to properly dispose of any given material. Check the county’s website, MadisonCountyRecycles.ny.gov, to find out more.

A new state-wide paint recycling program is beginning May 1, 2022. Details can be found at paintcare.org/states/new-york/.

Insights and the future

Madison County recently celebrated its 30th anniversary of recycling in 2020, a milestone showing the municipality’s longstanding commitment to divert trash away from the landfill as much as possible. These efforts along with the county’s recent “Rethink Waste” initiative have been showing promising results, Welch says.

“The community is still really strongly involved in recycling and they do want to recycle correctly, and we have seen that in our facility in terms of less contamination coming through.”

In addition to this progress, Welch says that recycling markets are starting to make a comeback, with more competition and places for materials to go.

However, recycling isn’t the end-all to society’s waste problems. “It is a great way to reduce waste, but it’s not the most effective way.” What’s most effective is to not create waste at all, Welch says.

Having conversations with the public and instilling curiosity about where their trash goes is important, because it does have to end up somewhere. Should waste trends remain consistent, there’s about 100 years left in the county’s landfill capacity, the recycling coordinator reports. She says consumers can have an influence on these trends and the kinds of waste being generated in the first place.

“You can choose recycled products when you go to the store and let the larger companies know that hey, you want your container of milk to be in something that can be recycled,” Welch said. “Consumers have that purchasing power to help sway how materials are made, what they’re made out of, if they can be recycled, if there’s a market for them, and even if there’s no longer a need for certain types of packaging and it’s just ultimately creating waste.”

Bottom line: an informed public can help make change.

When the landfill is all filled up, waste will have to find a new home, and the landfill will require constant environmental monitoring, as it already does now.

“Recycling is great, but our goal is to reduce waste so we can extend the life of our landfill even longer. And that’s a much larger conversation,” she admitted.

To learn more about Madison County Solid Waste and Recycling, visit MadisonCountyRecycles.ny.gov.

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