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Sorting Recyclables from Litter Pick-ups

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

As I am preparing for our August Litter Pick-up I realized that I had yet to fully discuss how the trash is processed into specific categories.

The reason we use buckets instead of plastic bags to hold the trash collected is primarily to ensure that we do not add to the wasted plastics. In addition, we use buckets to allow for easy sorting; we do not have to break open a bag, or fight to get items out. By using a bucket - our sorters (usually me) - can easily sort the items without having to dump the bucket out.

We generally sort into the following main categories: Curbside Recycling, Scrap Metal, Recyclable Plastics, Oregon Bottle Deposit Items, Cigarette Butt Recycling, Compost, Household Items, and finally Landfill.

I wish I could tell you that we put very little in the landfill; however, this is not the case. Rather a large portion of what is collected will end up in the landfill, in compressed bails of rubbish. The reasons for this tend to be based on recycling programs available to us, and the content of what is collected.

Unfortunately we are unable to recycle plastic bits or plastic that is dirty. If we are unable to get the plastic fully clean, it will be sent to the landfill. Now your wondering how hard we work to clean the plastics recovered… I can tell you that I spend a lot more cleaning plastics and removing paper labels than I do picking up the litter or even sorting it.

On average for every individual hour of collecting, an average of an hour is spent trying to ensure that recyclable plastic is cleaned.

Take for instance our World Ocean’s Day Clean up. We had six people collecting litter for about two hours. Of that litter, it took an additional eight hours to sort and clean the recyclables. Every single piece of litter is sorted individually to ensure that we recycle as much as we can.

We have several programs that we work with to ensure that we are recycling as much as possible. For most of the plastics (that we can get cleaned) we purchase ZeroWaste Boxes from TerraCycle allowing us to recycle a material that is not accepted for recycling in our municipality. The boxes are one of the biggest expenditures of our litter pick-up events. The average cost of a litter event is based primarily on the cost of recycling the decontaminated plastic waste.

Most of the cigarette butts collected are shipped to another program at TerraCycle, one specifically intended to recover cigarette waste. This program is paid for by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company most notably known for its production of American Spirit cigarettes. The program aims to reduce cigarette butt pollution and safeguard water supplies. Most people are unaware of the impact cigarette butts can have on water quality.

A single butt can contaminate up to seven liters of water.

Additional impacts of cigarette waste on the environment can result when an animal ingests the waste, when the waste starts to break down, or as a result of the myriad of chemicals that cigarettes contain. Through the TerraCycle program, we are also able to recycle some of the packaging cigarettes are purchased in (the cellophane and foil) in addition to the butt itself.

With the remaining recyclable items, we distribute them in accordance with the programs we are working with; except for household goods. Generally, household goods that are in good condition are cleaned up and donated to a local non-profit that resells the item to fund programs for low-income individuals. Composting currently takes place in my backyard, along with the compost collected from Aurora Café.

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