Three ways Orange County recycling creates more trash

By Megan Cain

It Starts at Your Stove

It’s taco Tuesday inside the little yellow house on the corner.

Jess Griffin stands next to the stove, sipping a margarita out of a Solo cup. She empties the ground beef from its foam casing into the pan. The meat cracks and sizzles alongside the sautéed garlic and onion.

Without a second thought, Griffin tosses the plastic wrap covering the meat into the garbage. She begins to do the same with the foam casing until her housemate, Nadia Parashkevova, stops her.

“Isn’t that recyclable?”

Griffin side-eyes her housemate. Parashkevova has always been an Earth nut. She flips it over, noticing the chasing arrows on the bottom.

She throws it into the recycling bin with little bits of meat still clinging to the bottom. She does the same with a glass jar of salsa. But she ties two unrinsed cans of black beans in a grocery bag to avoid drippage.

Then, the two proceed with their evening, unaware of the trouble they’ve caused.

Who is an Expert

“Just a little extra effort can go a long way,” the solid waste planner for Orange County, Blair Pollock, said.

Pollock started Orange County’s recycling program in 1987 and says he forgot to leave.

Since his arrival, the county has cut its waste from 1.36 tons to about half of a ton of landfilled trash per person.

They can do better, he says. Especially when it comes to his three no-noes.

What Not to Do 

Contamination by food waste is the first.

“Somebody is working on the other end of that line, and during the summer, after sitting in the hot sun for a few days, that dirty can is going to be pretty rank,” Pollock said.

Just a light rinse of your containers, particularly the plastics, goes a long way.

Plastic can’t be heated to 1000-degree temperatures like glass and steel, so food and liquid remnants can complicate the sorting plant process or contaminate clean pieces, creating more trash.

Pollock’s second no-no? Plastic bags.

Bagging your recyclables might keep them from dripping, but with more than 140,000 tons of recyclables coming into the sorting plant each year, there isn’t enough time to open each bag.

“They don’t know if you put the dead cat in there, the dead goldfish or the bag of kitty litter, so they’re not going to open it,” Pollock said.

Bagged recyclables take the scenic route to the landfill. And all that effort was wasted.

Finally, don’t put your garden hoses or hangers in the recycling bin. These items can jam the belts and pulleys at the sorting center.

Other non-recyclable materials get mixed in too, but are less destructive than the big three.

Solo cups aren’t recyclable in many places, including Orange County, but they often find their way to recycling bins. Looking at the bottom of one, you’ll see a number six, which stands for polystyrene. It’s made from natural gas.

Pollock says as long as practices like fracking keep natural gas prices low, there isn’t much of a market for these materials to be recycled.

When Solo cups and other non-recyclable materials end up in recycling bins, they go right to the closest landfill, wasting energy and resources.

Recycling right makes a difference. If the container isn’t listed as an acceptable material on the label on your cart, don’t put it in there.

Even if it’s not on the label, it might still be recyclable. Large plastics, tires and scrap wood are among the materials accepted at five waste and recycling centers across Orange County.

What Happens Next

Just a few days later, it’s the most exciting day of the week. It’s trash day.

Taco Tuesday’s remnants sit in a brimming blue bin on the curb, anticipating pickup.

Black liquid oozes from the cans into the plastic grocery bag. Leftover margarita from the Solo cup seeps into Griffin’s notes from last semester. The salsa jar remains intact, for now. The smell of 3-days-old juicy, beef-soaked plastic foam wafts from the bin.


The contents of the bin and the rest of the county’s recyclables are picked up and dumped into a massive pile at the Orange County landfill.

A bulldozer packs these materials by the ton into a tractor-trailer that drives it all down to the sorting center in Raleigh.

There, the bag of cans and the Solo cup will be thrown away, perhaps along with the notes, depending on how badly they have been damaged by the margarita.

Some unlucky worker will have to deal with the hamburger tray and everything contaminated by its stench.

The glass jar is the only thing that’s going to be melted down, turned into usable material and sold back to companies.

How You Can Do More

But the loop isn’t closed yet.

If your favorite brand doesn’t use recycled material in its packaging, Pollock advises that you call and request for them to.

“If people will do that, and oil gets to $100 a barrel and natural gas gets to $5 a therm, then we’ll have recycling nirvana,” Pollock said.

According to Pollock, you contribute to the first arrow by recycling. But many consumers forget that they can serve a vital role by closing the loop and buying products made with recycled material.

“I know I tend to be a finger-wagger about this, but the good people of Orange County truly are doing a great job. We’re consistently at the top of the heap when it comes to waste reduction per person,” Pollock said.

Edited by Molly Sprecher