How it Works: Recycling

Sort? Uh, sort of.

For years I’ve been going to the dump and dutifully separating my recyclables, and then every once in a while someone will say to me: You know, they just throw all that stuff into one big truck and haul it away – what’s the point?

As it turns out, in Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark, or Aquinnah, that’s pretty much what’s been going on. Each town has somewhat different policies regarding separating recyclables at their drop-off centers, but when the recyclables get to the Edgartown Transfer Station out by the airport, only the paper and cardboard are separated. The plastics, glass, and tin cans are all combined and sent off-Island. So why are there still separate bins for tin cans at the transfer station?

Don Hatch is the district manager of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District, which runs the Edgartown Transfer Station. “About four years ago, the state of Massachusetts encouraged what is called single-stream recycling,” he explains. “The thinking was that by making it easier to recycle, people would have no excuse not to. They would just have two barrels: trash and recyclables.” The separating is then done at mechanized centers using blowers, filters, and magnets. Single-stream recycling does, in fact, increase the amount of materials being recycled and has been adopted by many towns in Massachusetts. But there’s only one problem: we live on an island.

“Because we have to ship all our trash and recyclables off-Island,” explains Steve Dourian, supervisor of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District, “we have to do something to offset the cost of the transportation. Right now, we can make money by selling the paper and cardboard and that’s why we separate it. And because we can sell off the paper, it ultimately means that we can charge our customers less.”

The market for the rest of the stuff is another story. “We used to get paid $25 a ton for single stream,” Dourian explains, “but now we have to pay $25.” But that could change again, which is why, Dourian says, he still wants us to sort at least a little.

“If we ever want to go back to selling plastics, glass, or cans separately,” he says, “we don’t want to have to retrain people to start separating again.”

Hmmm. In Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, the recycling is handled by Bruno’s Rolloff, Inc. “Bruno’s is responsible for single-stream recycling coming to the Island,” claims general manager Bob Goulart. “If you have curbside pickup in Tisbury or Oak Bluffs, you just have two bins: one for trash and one for all recyclables.”

Bruno’s also has the bulk of the commercial customers on the Island, some of whom will soon start isolating food waste from their trash in order to comply with new state regulations. Goulart feels that eventually residential customers will probably have to do the same. Let’s just hope we won’t have separate bins for gluten and gluten-free.