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Stream of Recycled Plastic Runs Deeper, Wider, Closer to Home

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The recycling depot at the south end of the Goshen College campus is a hub of activity, but many small-scale, independent recyclers like me may be missing an opportunity. Just one word: plastics.

For years I have dutifully dropped off cans, newspapers and cardboard for recycling. But the plastics were intimidating. The bins at the depot say that No. 1 and No. 2 plastics are eligible. I figured the categories included milk jugs, juice and soda bottles, and a few other containers.

A week ago I used the last drops of Bausch & Lomb Boston Advance Conditioning Solution for contact lenses. Could that be recycled? For the first time, I looked on the underside. Sure enough; it was marked No. 2. What about the empty container of pitted organic dates from the Maple City Market? The underside is stamped No. 5. This, too, as it happens, is recyclable.

The bins tell only part of the story. The Waste-Away Group, a family-owned business that is based in Elkhart and manages the recycling depot at the college and sites throughout Elkhart County, actually accepts plastics from across the standard continuum, which ranges from No.1 to No. 7, though the stream from Nos. 1 and 2 runs the heaviest.

“There’s definitely some confusion about plastics,” said  Leslie Jones of the Waste-Away Group’s communications department.

Some plastic containers are unstamped, and others that are clearly marked in the Nos. 1-7 range may contain waste residue that prevents recycling. A plastic container that held motor oil, for example, might end up in the landfill instead of a recycling vat. But for the most part, clean plastic containers will be recycled, Jones said.

Here’s a sampling of plastics by the number, courtesy of Jones:

  1. Water and soda bottles.
  2. Milk jugs, yogurt containers, some shampoo bottles.
  3. Cooking oil, shampoo and detergent bottles
  4. Squeezable bottles.
  5. Syrup and ketchup bottles.
  6. Medicinal bottles.
  7. Sunglasses and other miscellaneous plastics.

One challenging plastic to recycle is plastic foam, better known as Styrofoam, a trademark for a brand of foam of the No. 6 variety (who knew?). It’s difficult to find an end market, or someone to buy the plastic foam, so it often ends up in the landfill, Jones said.

Waste-Away, which operates under the business names Borden, Himco, Integra and Recycling Works, this month introduced optional curbside pick-up for recycling in Goshen and outlying areas. For $5 a month, customers can put all their recycling — cans, glass, junk mail, magazines, newspapers, plastic — in a 96-gallon container, for collection twice a month.

As of Friday, 10 days after customers received the initial offer in the mail, the company had signed up 150 households for the curbside service. Waste-Away already provides garbage collection in municipalities throughout northern Indiana and southern Michigan, though not in the city of Goshen proper.

“I think people really want to recycle and do so to the best of their abilities,” Jones said. “Recycling makes you feel good. People are aware of the staggering numbers, all the waste, that goes to the landfill. The majority of people want to do what they can.”

Waste-Away, which operates what is known as a single-stream operation, also announced that it will paint its recycling bins across Elkhart County to remind residents that they no longer have to sort recyclable materials except for cardboard.

“Everyone has been confused about plastics,” said Glenn Gilbert, the utilities manager at Goshen College, with oversight of recycling. “For so many years we have heard that this kind of plastic can’t be recycled or that kind of plastic can’t be recycled. My sense is that the broad recycling of plastics is a fairly recent transition. The bin repainting is probably the most definitive statement that all kinds of plastic are welcome now.”


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