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Digging Deeper: Online shopping, curbside recycling increase during pandemic

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Pellitteri Kipp Street Recycling Facility
Pellitteri Waste Systems
Recycling at Pellitteri Waste System's Kipp Street facility.

MADISON (WKOW) -- Safer at Home. Gathering limits. Virtual learning. Remote work. Over the past 11 months, Wisconsinites have spent a lot more time at home, and the amount of recycling that's coming in reflects that.

"In 2019, we sorted 97 million pounds of mixed recyclables," Joe Spair, a municipal/major account representative with Pellitteri Waste Systems, said. "[In 2020,] we will either meet and/or exceed that data."

Spair said Pellitteri saw a big drop off in recycling from commercial customers like businesses, restaurants and schools during the pandemic. So, he said the fact total volume won't decrease is telling.

"If you think of commercial recycling, there's still a lot of cardboard," he said. "Well, that translated so much over to the residential side with how much people are ordering online and getting shipments, whether it be of groceries or just their everyday Amazon shipments, that the residential side of recycling has more than compensated for the decrease in commercial recycling."

He said the increased demand for recycling services led two Dane County communities to change their recycling pickup plans. Waunakee and Oregon recently switched from biweekly recycling to weekly recycling pickups.

Online ordering spikes, produces more waste

According to the media and research organization Digital Commerce 360, online sales increased 44% in 2020.

"A lot more people are ordering goods online, get a lot of deliveries," Spair said. "I know, personally, we get our deliveries daily."

The same Digital Commerce 360 data found nearly a third of the total increase in online sales came exclusively from Amazon orders.

More orders means more packages are ending up on doorsteps, and Spair said that's leading to more cardboard in curbside recycling bins.

"A lot more cardboard is ending up in the stream," he said.

Because of the demand for boxes and the processing capability of recycling plants, Spair said recycled boxes are often back in use very quickly.

"A lot of these cardboard boxes that are arriving on your doorstep and you're throwing in your recycling bin, if we get those at our facility today, there's a very good chance that you'll receive those again as a delivery on your doorstep next week," he said.

Contamination on the rise

Although more recycling is good in theory, there's a bit of a darker side, too.

"Basically 19% of what's in the cart right now is trash," Bryan Johnson, Madison's recycling coordinator, said. "In the city of Madison, we're the oldest municipal recycling program in the United States. We started doing this in 1968. We've been at this a long time, so 19% is far too high."

Contamination in recycling can come in many forms.

Spair said it's not uncommon for things like garden hoses and packing peanuts to come into Pellitteri's facilities. Those materials aren't recyclable, and their presence slows down the process and can cause recyclable material to be thrown out.

"In the industry, they call it 'wishcycling,'" Johnson said. "People really wish they could recycle this stuff."

Johnson and Spair both said even items marked with the recycling symbol aren't always good to go in your recycling bin because the equipment Pellitteri and other recycling companies use isn't set up to handle it.

That's the case with styrofoam sheets used to pad packages.

"It's got this little triangle printed on there, and so the assumption would be, 'Oh, okay, that belongs in the cart,'" he said. "But no, you can't because this is really tangley. It's basically like putting a dish towel in the recycling. It can get wrapped around that sorting equipment."

Spair said Mother Nature can also contaminate your recycling bin.

"Something as minimal as a little bit of rain or snow can contaminate your entire recycling stream of paper," he said. "Then that paper gets here and, essentially, is not a clean product that we can turn around and put back into the market."

And he says it really is a group effort to make sure your recycling is reused and not thrown away.

"It takes just one person," he said. "Your neighbor could throw a lot of contaminated stuff, and you could be doing your best job at recycling, but it's all going into the same truck, and it's all getting compacted together."

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Caroline Dade

Weekend Evening Anchor/Reporter, 27 News

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