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Recycling as a last resort
Processing plastic a challenge, so ‘reduce, reuse’ receive priority
Recycled Boat Regata.jpg
Georgia Southern University student Danielle Criswell paddles a boat made from recycled materials in the annual Recycled Boat Regatta sponsored by the university's Center for Sustainability. The 2019 Regatta is scheduled for April 10.

Recycling of plastics in the Statesboro area, as in other places in America, isn’t dead, but it is struggling.

China, which had been the world’s largest processor of recycled materials, effective in early 2018 banned importation of discarded plastics from the United States and other countries. As an indirect result, the Bulloch County government lost its buyer and stopped accepting plastics at the county’s 19 recycling convenience centers last summer. But these convenience centers continue to accept cardboard, aluminum and steel cans, paper, glass, motor oil and other items.

Meanwhile, Georgia Southern University, in its recycling program for students and employees, continues to accept bottles made of two kinds of plastic, as well as paper, corrugated cardboard, aluminum and other metal cans, but not glass. The university’s Center for Sustainability also promotes recycling on campus and off as an alternative to sending waste to landfills. But the center’s director, Lissa Leege, says that Americans need to see recycling in a new light, as a last resort instead of a way to excuse the use of disposable items.

“I think that we’re all coming to the realization that recycling is not … It’s not the answer,” Leege said. “It is just a Band-Aid, basically, so what we really need to do is reduce our waste, reduce our disposal. We need to be focusing on the reducing and the reusing and using recycling as an absolute last resort.”

Besides reusable cloth shopping bags, other fairly obvious ways to reduce include using your own coffee cup and a refillable water bottle and not using drinking straws at all or carrying a reusable straw, Leege suggested.

“There are now metal straws that people are using that are becoming more common, also not using disposable dishware and silverware, bringing your own set,” she added.


‘Zero waste’

Leege observed that a “zero waste” movement is gaining ground, especially among young people. This requires a conscious effort not to throw anything away. Organizations that tout a zero waste philosophy promote the design of things for long-term use and the avoidance of packaging.

“There are some real leaders in this area who really don’t make any waste, or very, very little waste in their lives, and so they’ve shown that it’s possible to do this, and I think the rest of us need to sit up and take notice and really do our part to use recycling as a last resort,” Leege said.

Incidentally, the recyclable materials collected on Georgia Southern’s campus do not go to Bulloch County but to Waste Pro in Savannah.

Besides receiving “small-necked” Number 1 and Number 2 plastic containers, aluminum and other metal cans and corrugated cardboard at recycling receptacles on campus, the university has an Eagle Box program for collecting paper and other materials from its offices. Students are involved, teaching new faculty and staff members about the university’s recycling efforts.

Georgia Southern competes annually in Recycle Mania, a contest among universities in the United States and Canada to see who can recycle the most. This year’s contest is scheduled for February and March.

For the past two years, an event called the Recycled Boat Regatta has been a highlight of Recycle Mania. But this year, the regatta, in which students make boats from recycled materials and ride them onto a campus pond, is slated for April 10. That makes it a part of No Impact Week, another part of the Center for Sustainability’s calendar for 2019.


Bulloch outlook

Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch doesn’t see much hope for the county to start accepting plastics again, at least not for sale under general market conditions. The Chinese government’s decision, in its National Sword policy, banned not only foreign plastic disposables but the importation of other recyclables, such as metals, unless they are unusually free of contamination by other materials.

“Right now plastics don’t seem to have any value,” Couch observed in an interview last week.  He had participated in a December webinar updating city and county managers on recycling.

“The way it looks like right now, the recycling markets aren’t changing much, and unless some of these other faraway countries are willing to accept more plastic recyclables, it looks like the current market situation is going to be this way for the foreseeable future,”

The county isn’t getting anything for glass, either, but can at least get rid of it and keep it out of the waste stream, he said. For household waste that cannot be recycled, Bulloch County pays for space in a commercial landfill near Jesup.

Only cardboard brings an “OK” price for recycling right now, he said. Aluminum and other metals still sell, but the prices are down.

“We’ve got to get a grip, and when I say ‘we,’ not just Bulloch County or our citizens, but nationwide, we’ve got to think of new ways to reinvigorate recycling markets, but in the meantime we’re trying to figure out how we re-educate everybody on what kind of recycling that we ought to be doing and the product shift,” Couch said.


Boro Recycling

Both Leege and Couch mentioned one ray of hope for possible future recycling of Bulloch County’s plastics. A local man, Jon Cook, has just launched a business called Boro Recycling. He makes stepping stones and decorative wall hangers from plastic and glass reduced to a powder and fused together. The decorative items are sold through his website, and Cook has also made prototypes for structural materials such as bricks.

After working with one neighborhood as a test, Cook started accepting subscribers from Statesboro and nearby subdivisions last week for a curbside recycling service. He intends to pick up plastic, glass and metal recyclables once a week for $28 a month per household. He will begin rounds to about 30 households Monday, he said.

County officials would definitely be interested if Cook can process the quantity of materials the convenience centers can collect, Couch said. But he and the commissioners would have to be convinced of the sustainability of the service from a business standpoint, he added.

The Statesboro Herald will report more about Cook’s startup effort in an upcoming Business Tuesday story.