Imagine this scene: A couple hours ago you picked up your favorite takeout meal. Possibly sushi from Misago, or pho from Pho Yummy. Whatever it was, it was tasty and served in plastic containers.

Now that you’ve finished the meal, what do you do with the containers? Reusing them would be probably the best option, but what’s second best – recycling, right?

At least for this reporter, the choice seemed obvious. But a recent reader question took us deep down the rabbit-hole of plastics recycling, and we’re here to share what we learned.

This fall, Lebanon County residents may have received a “recycle right” flyer through their trash collection service.

“We are very aware now of how much plastic is headed to the landfill as opposed to our recycling bin,” wrote one LebTown reader who received this flyer. “We have tried to find the reason for the shift to no avail.”

LebTown reached out to the Greater Lebanon Refuse Authority to learn more and spoke with recycling coordinator Amy Mazzella di Bosco about the complicated world of plastics recycling.

The GLRA does not work with collection services for recycling, and only offers recycling drop-off as a free consumer service, but Mazzella di Bosco is generally a font of knowledge on the subject, having more than two decades experience in the field.

The upshot is that yes, the flyer is correct, and no, it might not be ideal, but it is the economic reality at present and it’s important for all of us to understand why.

Not to get dramatic about it, but the simplest explanation is that America’s embrace of single-stream recycling was effective at increasing recycling participation, but China ultimately got fed up with the amount of trash we were letting into our stream and took actions to address it — actions which are now impacting Lebanon Countians at the curb.

Across the supply chain, firms have moved at different speeds and with varying tactics to respond to China’s actions. Some have lauded the policy changes as a catalyst for reform in global waste management, although with the name “Operational National Sword” the China policy clearly is as much an economic lever as an ecological one.

Nonetheless, America is presently in the position of needing to demonstrate it can throw the right waste in the right basket.

According to the GLRA, the public’s biggest misunderstanding is that you need to put as much as possible into the recycling bin. At this point it’s important to note that although GLRA is helping to promote the information, the guidance is specific to curbside programs, which again the GLRA does not operate or support. In fact, the GLRA and municipality-run recycling centers are in some cases able to accept items for drop-off in addition to what’s listed in the flyer above.

“We collect materials that are acceptable to the local markets and generate the best market value to help sustain our free drop-off center,” said Mazzella di Bosco.

One of the most surprising facts shared by Mazzella di Bosco was that the presence of a recycling code is actually not the key signal to understanding what’s economically viable (and therefore appropriate) to recycle. At this point, the GLRA also does not collect #3 through #7 plastic bottles through its drop-off program.

#1 PETE and #2 HDPE are the types of plastic commonly collected, oftentimes these are bottles and jugs made using the blow-molding technique.

Rigid plastics are also not recyclable, so go ahead and place that plastic toy or plastic tote into the trash bin.

It might feel uncomfortable, but right here, right now, you should probably be putting fewer items into recycling.

Do you have additional questions about recycling in Lebanon County? Share them using the contact form below and we may write about it in a future LebTown article.

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