Jeri Gray and her husband Mike have lived in the University Park area of Raleigh for 37 years. Jeri holds an MLS in environmental studies from N.C. State. She retired from NCSU where she was a science writer and editor for the Water Resources Research Institute. Over the last 25 years, she has served on a number of Wake County water-related task forces, including the Water and Sewer Task Force and the Watershed Management Task Force. As a representative of the Wake County League of Women Voters, she participated in the environmental impact scoping study for the proposed Little River Reservoir. As a volunteer for the University Park Homeowners Association, she coordinated a Raleigh Adopt-A-Park program which provided community service credit for high school students who maintained dog waste dispensers at six park and greenway locations. Most recently, she coordinated efforts of Wake League of Women Voters volunteers for Wake County’s CLEANWAKE litter reduction challenge.

 What your recycler begs you NOT to do

Recently I joined the Wake County League of Women Voters Environment Committee on an eye-opening tour of the Sonoco Recycling center in Raleigh. Sonoco processes recycling materials for the City of Raleigh and Wake County. As soon as the ten of us were settled into the Sonoco classroom, our guide pleaded with us to tell everyone we know: DO NOT PUT PLASTIC BAGS OR BATTERIES INTO YOUR RECYCLING CART.

“Some people like to tie up recyclables in plastic shopping bags before they put them into recycling carts, but we can’t stop to open bags, so it all goes into the trash,” said Kevin. Other people just stuff loose plastic bags and plastic sheets into their carts. “Plastic bags and sheets cause serious problems for us,” Kevin said. He explained that non-rigid plastic can get caught in a conveyor belt and jam it, meaning that work has to stop and workers have to climb and crawl around the machinery to cut the bags or sheets out. Jammed conveyor belts not only slow down the sorting process but also unnecessarily endanger workers who have to remove the obstructions.

Likewise, Kevin said, batteries tossed thoughtlessly into recycling carts can explode during sorting, seriously injuring sorters.* Unbelievably, he said that jars of dangerous hypodermic needles have appeared in recycling  materials. I decided recycling workers should get combat pay.

Following our classroom “Q&A,” we ladies donned hardhats, earplugs and vests with luminous green strips and headed to the floor of the processing plant. In the center of this cavernous industrial building, arrayed at  multiple levels, large conveyor belts loaded with what can only be called trash ran up and down and parallel and crossways while sorters on both sides of lateral belts rapidly grabbed items off the belts and slung them into nearby cans. It was dizzying, loud, smelly, and — to us recycling devotees, dismaying.

As we watched a greasy mess of almost-anything-you-can-think-of being sorted, we learned that of the 10,000 tons of material that comes to the recycling facility each month, 20 percent is unrecyclable and is sent to a landfill — where it should have gone to begin with.

We learned that if a load of supposed recyclables is too contaminated with unrecyclable materials**, food, oils or other organics, the entire load has to be sent directly to a landfill.

We learned that contamination is threatening the viability of our entire national recycling effort. It drives up the cost of processing, drives down the value of the end products, and has led to the closure of many municipal recycling programs. In 2017, China, which had been accepting most of U. S. recyclables, stopped — largely because the loads were so nasty they could not be economically processed and ended up in landfills. Now, because of contamination, much of what could be recycled in the U.S. is going to landfills or incinerators here.

As I was being carpooled home, I thought about what I see in my neighborhood on recycling days: blue recycling carts packed to overflowing with Styrofoam (not recyclable), bags of packing peanuts (not recyclable), gobs of fabric (recyclable — if at all — only at special facilities), yard waste (recyclable only in green carts on yard waste days) and on and on.

I also recalled the litter that I recently spent a year picking up: plastic water bottles (recyclable and banned from NC landfills), aluminum cans (recyclable and banned from NC landfills), and glass drink bottles (recyclable and banned from NC landfills if they originally contained liquor).

These experiences mystify and embarrass me. In one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest country in the world, we have neither the personal ethics nor the appropriate infrastructure and educational, monitoring and  enforcement efforts to responsibly manage the enormous detritus of our privileged daily lives. Our recycling efforts are on the level of a third world country. And, yes, I realize that is a derogatory term. We deserve it.

*LEAD-ACID BATTERIES ARE BANNED FROM LANDFILLS BY THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA so they should NOT be put into recycling OR trash carts. They should be collected and recycled at county waste facilities or commercial facilities that accept them such as Best Buy.


    • CLEAN (meaning rinsed) Plastics marked on the bottom with raised number 1 and “PETE” or “PET” or with number 2, and “HDPE” (The City of Raleigh Recycling program designates recyclable plastics by shape, but I think this system often leads people to include plastics (like most yogurt cups) that aren’t currently recycled or to trash plastics (like clamshells) that are Pete or Pet but don’t fit the shape scheme.)
    • CLEAN metal food containers (aluminum, tin, steel)
    • CLEAN Paper—no hard-backed books or shredded paper
    • CLEAN cardboard (meaning no tape or plastic lining or food residue)
    • CLEAN Glass food and beverage containers and table glass. No other kinds of glass like window or furniture glass.
    • CLEAN gable-top cartons, such as milk cartons.