This Earth Week, we participated in the Vienna Green Expo and were inspired by the “Ask Me Anything” sessions. Local experts in recycling, the new IRA tax credits, and tree health gave incredibly detailed and helpful advice. While the tax credits talk should have been my favorite (hello 30% federal tax credit for solar and battery storage through 2032!), it was actually the recycling one that got me super fired up. So in celebration of Earth Week 2023, here are the top recycling tips they shared, and an inside look at how Fairfax County’s single stream recycling works:
“How to Recycle Right” was presented by Mala Persaud, owner of Vienna’s Trace, Zero Waste Store and Charlie Forbes, the Public Works Environmental Services Manager for the Fairfax County Solid Waste Management Program. It was a great presentation and brought to mind my own recent tour of the Fairfax County recycling center, which was fascinating.
Recycling is your last line of defense
Persaud and Forbes are engaging, expert speakers. Mala is funny, determined, and full of great ideas. Charlie is incredibly knowledgeable, has a delightful Scottish accent, and has an entertainingly gruff attitude toward unnecessary trash. Together they explained that while recycling is nice, reducing is better.
“I can go on about what number plastic goes where and whether to put the top on a plastic bottle before you recycle it, and people love to talk about that because it gives them a sense of agency in the process,” Forbes said. “And that’s great. It’s good for people to care and want to do something.”
“But in the larger picture, only about 5% of all plastic in the U.S. gets recycled, and beyond that, only about 4% of the waste stream is plastic. So recycling is not solving much of the growing waste problem. The bottom line is, as a society we need to change our relationship to accumulating stuff. That is the only answer,” he said.
Seeing is Believing: A Tour of the Fairfax Recycling Center
His point echoed my experience when I recently did a tour of the recycling center where much of Fairfax County’s recyclables go. I had been wondering how single stream recycling works, and setting up a tour is relatively easy. I got all of my questions answered there, but also saw firsthand why Charlie preaches reducing consumption before recycling.
They do a great job at American Disposal Services, and the tour is amazing. However, even though it is a state-of-the-art facility and is doing great work, when you go there, you’re able to see what a huge amount of trash comes through and what a large percentage of it is not recyclable.
The first thing you see is the tipping floor, where container trucks dump out the potential recyclables that come from the Fairfax County transfer station. The constant inflow of trucks was surprising; we create a lot of trash in a day here in Fairfax. Even more surprising was the amount of stuff that was immediately set aside as not recyclable.
(Pro tip: Do not bag your recyclables in a plastic garbage bag. The people working on the tipping floor do not open them and dump out your nicely cleaned recyclables—they just throw them away. I’m sorry to be the bearer of that bad news. Find the trash and recycling guide here.)
“On any given day, about 30% of what comes in is contaminated or not recyclable,” said our tour guide, Hillary. “The main thing I hope everyone understands is that it’s really important to be sure your recyclables are clean and dry, or they will contaminate your entire bin.”
Everything that’s left after the initial sort gets loaded onto a conveyor belt and begins the next sorting process, which is amazing. Magnets pull out the steel cans. An optical sorter uses light to sense different types of plastic and blows them into the correct bins. Eddy currents between magnets react with aluminum to pull soda cans into their own bin. It’s cool, for sure.
But I also saw how inexact it is and how much more unrecyclable or contaminated stuff ended up in the trash as it was picked out by workers along the belt. We also watched everything grind to a halt several times because plastic grocery bags or plastic film got stuck in the gears of the machinery. Of course, at the end we saw baled bricks of aluminum and paper, and that was heartening, but along the way, I mostly developed a feeling of amazement that anything actually gets recycled at all.
The experience showed me firsthand what Charlie and Mala were talking about: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is a priority list. Recycling should always be our last line of defense, not our first.
So what can we do? Not everyone can be plastic-free or waste-free all the time, right?
Mala stressed that doing something, and trying your best is all anyone can do. We all have busy lives. But we can also all make a difference.
She showed us her bamboo utensils she’s had for 14 years and brings everywhere with her. Charlie also showed off his handkerchief that he uses as a napkin when he’s out in public, rather than taking a handful from the restaurant.
“This is something everyone can do. Leave your reusable grocery bags on your front seat so you remember them. I also bring a reusable mug to Starbucks. These are just habits that anyone can develop,” Persaud said.
The ideas and solutions available at her Zero Waste Store in Vienna are amazing. She has over 200 types of refillable spices and bulk foods, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion; waste free toothpaste tablets and dissolving laundry sheets; and those all-important bamboo utensils and reusable straws.
“I try to look at it like, first, find a way to never buy it. And if that’s not possible, make sure it’s not single-use. And then, I try to advocate at places I frequent to not use plastic containers, especially those that can’t be recycled, like styrofoam,” she said.
“For example, in Vienna, we have a restaurant that was using black single-use plastic containers for take-out,” Persaud said. “Any black plastic is not recyclable, no matter what number is on it. So, many people in town asked them to change the packaging. Just that social pressure caused them to make the change to a compostable container. It’s fine to ‘shame’ a business into changing; usually they’re very willing to do it if enough people ask.”
Top takeaways from Mala and Charlie’s talk are as follows:
- First, Reduce: Figure out a way to not buy it
- If you can’t reduce then Reuse: Buy things that are not single-use
- If you can’t reuse, then Recycle: This is the last option if all else fails
- If you must use things that need to be recycled, learn how to correctly prep your items so they actually do get recycled:
- Clean and dry your recyclables,
- Do not gather them in a plastic bag–just keep them loose in the bin,
- Plastic clamshells like you buy strawberries in are STILL not recyclable and can contaminate your entire collection,
- No black plastic
- Get all the guidelines here
- Fairfax County just passed a law that requires your trash and recycling company to hand you a flyer every quarter that outlines how to sort your recycling and handle your trash. If they are not doing that, you can email email@example.com and request it.
- Glass can only be recycled in Fairfax County in the purple bins, like the one shown below. There are various services you can hire to pick up your glass, our fave is Glass House Recycling — a green-preneurial project by Falls Church City high school kids who wanted to make a difference!
- Last and most important, Mala said that if you bring your own refillable mug to Starbucks they’ll give you 25 stars on your Starbucks app, and 100 stars gets you a free pastry! Woo!
Here are the Fairfax guidelines, click to download the full PDF.
Check in with Mala Persaud at Vienna’s Trace Zero Waste store or get in touch with the Fairfax County Public Works and Environmental Services Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And as always, if you’d like to up your sustainability game, get in touch with us for a free solar quote any time. Reach out at 866-484-7786 or click below!