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Waste Part I: Managing the New Commodity

Compressed aluminum cans for recycling

Legions of local residents could intelligently articulate the importance of recycling.  But what about those finer points?  For example, should bottle tops and jar lids get tossed into the recycling bin?  And what to do with all that plastic packaging?  Misconceptions about what is recyclable and what isn’t abound.   Part of the reason:  recycling facilities around the region have subtly different capabilities.



[sound of car keys, car door closing]

It’s a week before recycling pick-up day, and we’ve found two residents in New Hanover County who are willing to let us to root around in their household garbage for potential recycling mistakes. 

RE:  “Hi, Sweetie."

RLH:  "Hi, Mom."

RE:  "How ya’ doing?"

RLH:  "I'm fine…”

Yep, that’s my mom and step-dad, R’Lou and Don Ellson.  It’s harder than it sounds to find willing guinea pigs.  Apparently, garbage is a very personal thing. 

We’re joined by Joe Suleyman, Director of New Hanover County’s Environmental Management Department and Lynn Bestul, the County’s Solid Waste Planner.  They’re here to dispel some popular misconceptions about best recycling practices. 

[sound of recycle bin opening… contents shifting]

First, we visit the recycle bin which sits outside.

JS:  “This is a #1 PET plastic – very common.   It’s used for soda bottles, water bottles.” 

Joe Suleyman is holding an empty Diet Coke bottle.   

JS:  “One of the questions, I would say, Lynn and I get more often than not on these types of plastics is ‘what do we do with the lids?’

Do we leave the lids on or do we take them off?’  And consistently today the recyclers say LEAVE THE LID ON.”

That’s because a newer process puts all the material through a shredder.  And since the different types of plastics – in this case #1 versus #5 – also have different weights, the material is effectively separated.  It’s the same story with those plastic labels on bottles. 

RLH:  “If there had been, say, a glass bottle in there with a plastic cap, would you leave that cap in there?”

JS:  “All glass gets crushed.”   

It goes through a tumbling mill so items like plastic caps rotate out for disposal.  And that means that even glass jars with metal lids – like that pickle jar – can be tossed into the recycle bin with the lid.

JS:  “And that metal lid will get ejected out.  On some really fancy recycling systems, on the discharge end, they’ll have a cross-belt magnet that’s going through all the discharge material and pulling all the ferrous metals off of there for recovery as well.”

New Hanover County recently paid a consultant to recommend a long-term strategy for managing the county’s waste.  From where Joe Suleyman sits, he and the consultant agree:  diverting more material out of the waste stream and into recycling facilities is a critical part of any waste management plan. 

JS:  “At least 30% of the total inbound tons coming to the landfill is recyclable material and all those materials are banned from landfill disposal anyway.” 

Aluminum beverage containers, plastic drink containers…

JS:  "All those things make up such a huge quantity of our stream today and yet people continue to throw it out with their regular garbage.”

There are many reasons that people don’t recycle.  Residents who don’t live within Wilmington City limits have to arrange it themselves – at some cost.  Whether it’s ordering the service a la carte or organizing material and driving it to a drop-off center, there are enough obstacles, says Suleyman, that offering county-wide, curbside recycling will be a necessary step in the long-term plan.

JS:  “It’s got to be affordable enough for the residents to be encouraged to do it, but they’ve also got to see a benefit on the back end.  If I reduce the amount of trash I’m disposing of, I should see a corresponding reduction in my trash disposal rates.  So, really, that reduction on your trash rates should more than offset the cost of the expanded recycling.”

Confusion about what to recycle and how to recycle is another obstacle.  With nearly a half-dozen service providers in the region…

JS:  “The recyclable materials end up at many different processing facilities that have dramatically different processing capabilities.” 

Our volunteer homeowner Don Ellson wonders about what to do with all those plastic bags.  He takes them back to the grocery store. 

DE:  “Are there limitations on what kind of plastic we can include there?”

JS:  “What the stores are set up for is what’s called the #2 plastic bag.  And that’s the most common bag and one of the most aerodynamically efficient structures ever made by man.  Those things take off when a gust of wind hits them.  They’re a litter problem.”

Now that so many stores have bag return options, they’re more frequently recycled into park benches and landscaping timbers.  The bags can’t go into the single-stream recycling system, says Suleyman, because they can gum up the works and stop the whole operation. 

JS:  “The first step – if there’s not a stamp on that plastic bag with the recyclable logo, don’t bother recycling that, because that’s going to get pulled off as residue through the recycling process anyway.”

Suleyman says his family re-uses all those bags and plastic liners that can’t be returned to a store.

JS:  “We use it for pet litter cleanup.  We also use it to line the small trash cans you may have in your restroom.”   

And just throw out Ziploc bags – especially if contaminated with food residue.

Now that we’ve poked through the recycle bin outside, it’s time to root through the kitchen garbage to see if there’s anything here that could be recycled.  


JS:  “Tissues, used tissues and paper towels never get recycled.”

That’s because any fiber product that’s already contaminated could ruin the recovery process for other material down the line.

JS:   “For example, pizza boxes.  Pizza boxes are probably, by far, the most misunderstood recyclable item out there.  Once you get grease on that pizza box, it is not recyclable.”

The grease creates voids in the paper, says Suleyman.   When the water is squeezed out of the pulp, what’s left is no longer structurally sound.

JS:   “And they will have to reject the entire run that they made that day because they don’t how deep that contamination goes.  So you could potentially talk about tens of thousands of dollars of wasted product.” 

But if the lid of the pizza box doesn’t have grease or cheese – tear that off and toss it in the recycle bin.

While countywide, curbside recycling is at least part of the Holy Grail of a strategic waste management plan, Suleyman says that, for now, his full attention is on the County’s Request for Proposal process.  The winner of that contract could play a role in how – and whether – the county expands its recycling program. 

JS:  “We will take those back to the county commissioners in January and will likely get direction to begin negotiations with the winning bidder or bidders in February.”

In the meantime, the population continues to grow – which means the amount of waste going to the landfill continues to grow.  But one bright spot, says Suleyman, is that waste is rapidly becoming a commodity that needs to be managed rather than a liability…

As for the Ellsons’ garbage, apparently, it passes muster with Joe Suleyman. 

JS:  “I’ve got to say – it’s a very nice job.  Very nice job.  There’s nothing in here that, in the local community, we could effectively recycle.  You get a gold star.”

“Oh, well, thank you.  Thank you.” 

Listen to Joe Suleyman's Rule of Thumb here.

 Additional tips on local recycling:

  • Toss those non-plastic milk cartons in the recycle bin.  But at this point, most local facilities don't process the non-refrigerated cardboard boxes with tin foil on the inside -- such as broth or soup containers. 
  • Car batteries, light bulbs, and electronics must be taken to an appropriate facility.  These items are recyclable but do not belong in the curbside recycling bin.
  • Aluminum foil can be tossed into the recycle bin if NOT contaminated with food waste.  If possible, wipe foil clean after using and recycle. 


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.