NC State Fair wrap-up - Part 1

Guest Blogger - Clare

The 2009 N.C. State Fair has come and gone. For some, including myself, that last day was one big sigh of relief. It’s great to talk with North Carolinians in person about recycling in their community and why it’s important, but it sure is tiring. Around 85,000 people visited the Green NC tent. I talked with hundreds of fair goers, many of whom had questions that I and the other volunteers were happy to answer. While some had questions specifically about their community, I noticed that we were getting the same three overall recycling questions each day. From these questions I got the impression that people do care about recycling properly, but also showed an education gap that we need to continue to plug. So here are the questions most frequently asked and my answers.

1. Why can’t I recycle my yogurt cups with my plastic bottles?
I got two different variations of this question. Most people were just confused as to why they can (and have to) recycle their plastic bottles but not their yogurt cups or margarine tubs. I answered by saying that while a handful of North Carolina communities can recycle yogurt cups and margarine tubs (like Cary or Haywood County), most do not. This is because plastic bottles are made with blown plastic and a tub is made with molded plastic. Basically a similarly numbered bottle and tub are made at different temperatures for different lengths of time, even though they’re the “same” plastic. Your local materials recovery facility is equipped to handle sorting of plastic bottles, but any tubs would be thrown away even if you put them in the recycling bin.

This leads into the other variation of this question, typically asked by “transplants.” It went along the lines of “In (fill-in-blank northern U.S. town) we could recycle yogurt cups and tubs, so why not here?” Basically there isn’t a market for these plastic materials in North Carolina like there is for plastic bottles. Here in North Carolina, plastic bottles are turned into new plastic bottles, carpet, polyester textiles, plastic straps and more. The largest plastic bottle recycling facility in North America will open in Fayetteville next year, with a capacity to recycle 280 million bottles annually. There’s no equivalent for tubs or yogurt cups here in North Carolina, at least not yet. I did stress that buying recycled content items helps to expand this market, so who knows what might come in the future.

For resources to help you answer these questions, see a previous blog post about the difference between #1s and #2s, the plastics recycle cycle graphic and the plastics recycled content guide.

2. What do I do with my bottle caps?
This question was the hardest for me to answer, not only because each community has its own policy, but also because leading plastics recycling organizations have different opinions on the matter. It’s no wonder people are confused. Since I started interning at DPPEA, I’ve heard to leave the cap on; leave the cap off but put it in the recycle bin; throw the cap away; and the latest variation is to squish the bottle and twist the cap back on. Each time I hear a new version, I change my recycling habits. My fiancĂ©e is usually two versions behind, so our home recycling bin is a hodge-podge of these methods.

Personally, I told fair goers who asked to throw the caps into the trash. For one, if you leave the tops screwed on a bottle without deflating it (i.e., squishing it) the cap can become a projectile in the MRF when it’s getting baled, which can hurt workers. Also, not all MRFs can process the bottle caps, which can jam equipment if left loose in the bin. And while some can (maybe even most), I’m sorry to say I haven’t yet memorized each North Carolina communities’ list of recyclable materials collected, so I decided to stay on the safe side.

However, after the fair I got an e-mail directing me to a Web site full of gruesome pictures showing the stomach contents of dead birds, and in all the pictures some form of bottle cap was among the contents (click here to read about it and see pictures, but it’s pretty depressing). Clearly something needs to happen with this plastic to help curb this and other disturbing trash phenomena. This leads to the last and current plastic bottle cap recycling habit of mine: squishing the plastic bottle and reapplying the cap. Kelley’s the one who clued me to it, with the idea that if the industry is inundated with a material (the cap plastic) it should become valuable to recycle it.

What do you think about the caps debate? What do you tell your citizens?

On a side note, I had some fair goers tell me that there is a “caps for cancer” program that if you donate your soda bottle caps to this program, money is raised for cancer research. I had heard about the Aveda recycling program that works with schools to collect caps then send them off for recycling (information here), but nothing about cancer research. A quick Google search showed the cold hard facts presented by Snopes.

3. Oyster Shells? Why are oyster shells banned from landfills?
Our big message this year at the fair was talking about the plastic bottle landfill disposal ban. If you missed the giant, spinning plastic bottle made from 500 plastic bottles and their caps, make sure you check out the pictures on our Flickr or Facebook page. In addition to plugging the plastic bottle ban, we had a poster naming the current and upcoming items banned from landfills. For some reason, everyone’s eye stopped at oyster shells and I could answer their question before they asked it.

Oyster shells were banned in January 2007. North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries set up a recycling program to put empty shells back into the sea. The reason (from the DMF Oyster Recycling Web site):

Baby oysters begin life as free-floating organisms but quickly settle to the bottom attaching themselves to hard surfaces. That's why oysters grow in clumps on pilings and concrete, but their favorite most productive place to grow is on other shells.

A mound of oyster shells placed in brackish water with good tidal flow will quickly become colonized by a multitude of marine organisms, including oysters. This mound, also called an oyster reef, serves a number of purposes - first and foremost, it helps produce oysters.

Since the number of oyster harvests in N.C. has decreased from 1.8 million bushels a century ago to 40,000 at present, it’s a good thing to have a program putting empty shells back to help keep the oyster populations strong.

DMF has a Web site to learn about oyster shell recycling and includes a list of where you can recycle your used oyster shells. Find out more here.

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