How much of what we recycle gets recycled?

Published: Dec. 9, 2022 at 3:39 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Recycling is mandatory in Vermont but how stringently people separate their recyclables varies. Reporter Elissa Borden went sifting for answers on how much we throw in the bin is actually recycled.

It’s fairly easy to toss recyclables in the recycling bin, but some folks aren’t so optimistic about how much of those actually get recycled. “Oh, it’s definitely like, none. Maybe like 15%?” said Hale Tresselt of Burlington.

She isn’t alone in her thought process, but other folks we asked had a more optimistic outlook. “I know it’s better than nationally but... I’d probably say 50, 60% maybe?” said local resident Ben Egner.

“Maybe like, 60%?” said Mandy Dimarzio.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of difference between what is the difference between the two garbages? It all just kind of seems like it’s the same. I’d say maybe like 60%?” said Asa Panarelli.

“I’m hoping 100% percent,” said Burlington’s Peter Keating.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District is hoping for 100% too, but they’re not quite there yet. For years, a popular statistic making the rounds online has read that only nine percent of plastic is recycled globally. CSWD’s Michele Morris says that can be misleading. “What that really is, is nine percent of all plastic ever produced of any kind around the world since 1950 has been recycled,” she said. That could include things like sunglasses, hair clips, and plastics that can not be recycled. “So, it really has nothing to do with what you put in your blue bin for recycling -- bottles, cans, jugs, tubs, paper, cardboard, that sort of stuff.”

It’s a misconception she says that could stunt recycling on a local scale. When it comes to blue bin recycling in Chittenden County, they don’t break it down by material, but of all mixed recyclables that make their way to CSWD, they say 93% of it is recycled, a much higher number than some might think.

“The other 7% is typically stuff that never should have come there in the first place. It’s mistakes or it’s dirty recycling,” Morris said.

As compared to other communities, Chittenden County tends to do better. Most recycling facilities around the country see a 20 to 25% non-recycle rate.

And of the 93% recycled, 100% percent of that makes its way to processors in the U.S. and Canada, which find other uses for it. Morris says a small percentage of material cannot be recycled and will either be landfilled or incinerated.

Either way you look at it, Vermont comes out on top when it comes to recycling efficacy and efficiency and Morris hopes that 93% will go up, with a focus on educating area consumers. “Recycling is the third ‘R’ for a reason. We absolutely need to be reducing how much we consume and how much we waste and recycling and reusing as much as we can. Recycling is just a tool in a big tool kit and we need to use those tools effectively,” she said.

CSWD says their ability to sort recyclables will only increase with their new materials recovery facility, or MRF, that was just passed by Chittenden County voters. That is set to go online in Williston in 2025.

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