How does recycling in Columbia work? ♻️

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Recycling is confusing. In honor of America Recycles Day yesterday, we decided to break some of the details down for you so you can make sure you’re recycling in the most effective way possible.

♻️  Break it down by area, please.

There are several municipalities in the Midlands that operate their own recycling programs, and while they may vary slightly, they generally have the same rules.

City of Columbia | Blue roll carts free to residents inside city limits | Schedule + items | Drop off locations

Richland County | Includes individual recycling programs for unincorporated Richland County (lime green roll carts), Town of Arcadia Lakes, City of Forest Acres + Fort Jackson | Schedule, items + drop off sites for each municipality

Lexington County | Bins/roll carts free to residents with a subscription to curbside collection by the area’s designated hauler or municipality (like in City of West Columbia) | includes unincorporated Lexington County, Town of Batesburg-Leesville, City of Cayce, Town of Irmo, Town of Lexington, Town of Springdale + City of West Columbia | Schedule, items + drop off sites for each municipality

The following information is for the City of Columbia’s recycling program, but applies to most of the other programs run by Midlands municipalities.

♻️  Who sorts it + how?

Sonoco Recycling – a huge packaging company based in Hartsville. They’re the processor handling all of the sorting. Once your recycling is picked up, it’s taken to their facility and the sorting process begins.

Sonoco first sorts by machine, separating items by flats and rounds.

  • Flats = paper, cardboard, etc. – thus the importance of breaking down boxes
  • Rounds = glass bottles, plastic cartons, etc. – hence why you’re not supposed to crush cans anymore

After that, the separate piles are sorted by hand. This is why your recycling should be visibly cleanif it’s not clean enough, it could be considered contamination and taken to the landfill. We’ll get to ‘how clean?’ later.

♻️ What happens to it after it gets sorted?

The materials are sold to a buyer, which is a company that buys the recycling product + processes it and sells it to another company, who processes *those* scraps and sells it to another company… eventually making it to the end market user. (An example: Sonoco ➡️ Buyer A ➡️ Buyer B ➡️ Repreve, a company that makes thread from plastic ➡️ manufacturer of Patagonia fleeces.)

Sonoco has buyers for glass, plastic + aluminum, and most of the paper goes to their Hartsville packaging plant.

♻️  What can we, can’t we, and should we be putting in our bin?

All recycling can be mixed together now (vs. having to be separated by you). Here are the general rules:

Do: aluminum + steel cans (not crushed), glass (bottles, jars, etc.), paper cartons, plastic cartons, cardboard + paperboard (boxes broken down/flattened), paper (newspaper, junk mail), hard plastic, magazines

Why can we recycle glass but others (like Greenville) can’t?  

Glass is hard on recycling trucks and machinery; dangerous for workers; it’s heavy; inefficient for buyers to haul; and it just gets expensive to process. It’s also susceptible to contamination – like when you put the bottle cap in your beer bottle, the whole glass is contaminated. That’s why many recycling programs, like in the Upstate, have stopped accepting glass.

Columbia accepts glass, but to help with the efficiency of the process, you can separate it out from the rest of your recycling and take it to a drop off site specifically for glass.

⚠️ Treat: make food/drink containers visibly clean wash cans + jars (run peanut butter jars through the dishwasher or give them to your dog first); rinse milk cartons, soda cans, wine + beer bottles; remove any lids from recycled jars

Why? Everything that you recycle is machine sorted (between flats and rounds – a.k.a. why you need to flatten cardboard boxes) and then sorted by human hands. Stickiness is just rude. And the Recycling Wizard says trash should stink; recycling should not.

Don’t: plastic bags (#1 thing people try to recycle), plastic films (shrink wrap-style, like from greeting cards or records), bubble wrap, styrofoam, air pockets (that come in your Amazon package), food service cold packs (think HelloFresh); plastic-coated cardboard; plastic + paper cups (to-go coffee cups); hypodermic needles – and don’t wrap up your recycling in a big plastic trash bag like you would your trash (it takes too long for workers to rip them open + there’s a huge chance it’s garbage or something dangerous), use brown paper bags instead.

Why can’t we recycle these? Recycling is hyper localized, so just because it has a recycling symbol on it doesn’t mean it’s recyclable here

  • Plastic bags are a no because they can fly off the trucks and become litter, and they jam the sorting rollers + slow down the process.
  • Styrofoam is a no because Sonoco doesn’t have a buyer’s market for it.

What can I do instead? Donate gently used plastic bags to Harvest Hope Food Bank, who uses the bags to sort and bag food they distribute.

How will I remember all this? ➡️ Say hello to the Waste Wizard.  

The free, local solid waste/recycling website has three really cool features:

  1. Type in your address and get your garbage + recycling schedule (with optional notifications to remind you when to wheel out your carts).
  2. Type in an item and it will tell you where to put it – in the trash, recycling, compost bin or a special drop off site.
  3. Play the sorting game which tests your knowledge of how to dispose of items like metal hangers, old CDs, motor oil + clothing. 

♻️ What could we be recycling that we’re not?

This is more of a question of how we can recycle better, not more. According to the city, 40% of what gets thrown away into the landfill is food waste – which is definitely something that can be reduced by food donation, not overbuying, and composting (the city + county sell compost bins for ~$35, while most retail at $50+). The city also has programs for correctly disposing of cooking oil and electronics, and the county has programs for things like mattress and latex paint pickup.

We can all look at our purchasing behavior, too – like are those little plastic baggies necessary for 3 apples, or can they just go loose in our buggy? A plastic bag has a 15 minute lifespan from the store to your trashcan (and takes approx. 20 years to decompose).

♻️ What is the impact of the recycling industry locally?

  • Recycling makes a $13 billion economic impact on S.C. as of 2014
  • Over 500 companies related to recycling in S.C. 
  • 3,500 people directly employed in the industry in the Carolinas via

If each household recycled 2 more bottles per week in S.C. + N.C., there would be $10 million more in the bank + potentially 300 new jobs created in the industry