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Business of recycling: Tracking where waste goes

Mahoning only county in state to offer free removal of items at curbside

Staff photo / Allie Vugrincic Pat Loibl of Cornersburg recycles cardboard at the drop-off site across from the Austintown 9/11 Memorial off South Raccoon Road.

AUSTINTOWN — Janet Moy of Austintown recycles twice per week.

“I recycle glass, plastic, paper, newspaper — whatever is permissible,” Moy said, adding that she has called the Mahoning County Green Team to double-check if items can go into the bins at the county drop-off sites.

She said she would like to know where that recycling goes after it is collected.

“I’m sure it goes to some facility with some big conveyor belt where it’s sorted,” Moy said, pointing to a documentary she saw once.

Moy has the right idea, according to Green Team Director Lou Vega — materials recycled in the county are collected and taken to a transfer station in Poland, where they are compacted and loaded onto trailers to be sorted at a material recovery facility — a MRF — in Akron.

An MRF is where recycling is processed and sorted by conveyor belt. The Poland transfer station and Akron MRF are operated by Waste Management, an environmental solutions provider.

Waste Management handles 5,000 to 6,000 tons of recycling material per month in northeast Ohio, according to the company.

“Once it goes through the processing, and they are going to extract the waste as well as recycling, that material is subsequently baled and sold to the market,” Vega said. Where it goes from there is based on the type of material collected and the demand, he said.

GOOD BUSINESS

Moy said one thing she’s learned is that not everything can go in the collection bins.

“I thought that everything plastic is recyclable, and it’s not,” Moy said.

“Recycling is a business,” said Jennifer Jones, director of the Geauga-Trumbull Solid Waste Management District, which handles recycling in Trumbull and Geauga counties. “You take something and you sell it to somebody else for them to make it into something new. … We can only process the things that our local MRF accepts.”

In both of those counties, accepted items are glass bottles and jars, aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles, jars and jugs, and newspaper, magazines and cardboard.

In Mahoning County, cardboard is not accepted in curbside pickup, though it is welcome at drop-off sites. That’s because the lightweight material sometimes blows out of curbside containers, Vega explained.

As far as those “bottles, jugs and jars,” the language is meant to simplify the message and get people away from referring to numbers on recyclables, Vega said.

“It’s meant to handle small items that you generally get from your grocery store. Once you start towing in motors and siding — heavy, bulky items that can’t be processed and fed through another conveyor system — it gums up the system,” Vega said.

Another way the system gets “gummed up” is when recycling is put in bags instead of loose in collection bins.

“Don’t bag that stuff. We like it loose. It’s the opposite of trash,” Jones said.

PRICE TAG

While recycling itself is a business, the Green Team and the Geauga-Trumbull Solid Waste District aren’t making any money on it. In fact, the entities pay to have materials hauled away and processed.

The Mahoning County Waste District pays about $630,000 per year to process recyclables, according to Vega. Mahoning County has 178 eight-yard recycling containers at 27 drop-off sites. Some of those containers are emptied multiple times per week.

The Geauga-Trumbull district pays about $700,000 to have recycling processed, Jones said.

Vega said the cost of recycling went up after China, formerly the largest buyer of American recycling exports, stopped taking American recycling in 2018.

“A few years ago, you could probably get $5, $10 per ton for mixed recycling,” Vega said. “The cost then shifted from getting a few dollars a ton to paying between $60 and $90 to get it processed.”

Vega said the change caused programs around the country to shut down, and pinched the budget in Mahoning County, although Mahoning still is the only county in the state to offer free curbside recycling.

WHY RECYCLE?

Though recycling may come with a price tag, it still plays an important role in sustainability.

“Recycling is closed loops. We want to recycle these products and turn them into other products,” Vega said. “You can’t just throw everything away. At some point, the landfills, there’s not going to be any more space.”

The drive behind recycling is partially about making sure there is enough landfill space for the foreseeable future.

Mahoning County has two landfills, which right now have a capacity of 100 years of landfill space, based on the amount of waste those landfills are allowed to take per day.

“We achieve that in part by recycling and keeping those items out of landfills,” Vega said.

Upcoming recycling events

• Appliance recycling drive, daylight hours, through Saturday, Greene Township, accepting dehumidifiers, air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, stoves, hot water heaters, water softeners and anything made mostly of metal;

• Tire recycling drive, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 25, Goshen Township Recycling Center, Salem, accepting up to 10 tires on or off the rim for free, $2 each additional tire off the rim, $2.50 each additional tire on the rim.

• Household hazardous waste collection, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 2, Canfield Fairgrounds gate 9, accepting acids, aerosol cans, asbestos (double-bagged), bleach, batteries, fire extinguishers, fluorescent bulbs, fuels, grease, household cleaners, oil-based paint, poisons, pool chemicals, among other items.

Source: Mahoning County Green Team

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