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Local recycling experts: To be part of solution, 'don't be a wishful recycler' and no plastic bags

Rachel Greathouse (at left) and Jenny Wendt are helping to spearhead the Recycle Responsibly campaign for OneSTL, a collaborative organization focused on regional sustainability.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The world of recycling is a global one, with lots of moving parts. But in places like St. Louis, it all still starts with local residents and what they put in their neighborhood recycling bins. At least that’s where one regional organization is putting renewed focus as they try to spread a consistent message.

“Don’t be a wishful recycler,” Rachel Greathouse, a member of the OneSTL recycling work group, said Friday on St. Louis on the Air. “That’s something that we like to say in our field often … if it’s not on the list, it’s not in the bin. So that’s really important.”

With regulatory decisions in China and the recent closing of one local plant impacting regional efforts and costs related to recycling, Greathouse joined host Don Marsh to talk about both the big picture and the bin-sized one. Jenny Wendt, senior project manager for University City’s public works department, also participated in the conversation.

Greathouse, who does a lot of community-driven education in her job as a recycling program specialist with Brightside St. Louis, emphasized that it’s best to stick to six tried-and-true categories when putting items into a neighborhood recycling bin.

Those include paper, cardboard that has been flattened, plastic bottles and containers, glass bottles and jars, metal food and beverage cans, and food and beverage cartons.

“If it doesn’t fit in one of those six categories, it does not belong in your recycling bin,” Greathouse said. “What we’ve found is a lot of people hope that something can be recycled when it really can’t.”

Plastic bags are the biggest culprit when it comes to gumming up the recycling works, the two guests said. Other commonly misplaced items include Styrofoam and garden hoses.

“A lot of people [see] what we call the recycling symbol or the chasing arrows on a plastic bag and they think, ‘Oh, I can recycle it,’ Greathouse explained. “And so from a standpoint of education here, just because it has a recycling symbol on it doesn’t mean that it’s recyclable.

“And so that’s a big point that we are trying to [get] across as a region – to have a unified recycling message that plastic bags are our No. 1 contaminant in all recycling bins, and nowhere are they accepted in our St. Louis metro area.”

Wendt, who is chair of the OneSTL group pushing a new Recycle Responsibly campaign in the region, noted that such plastic contaminates otherwise recyclable loads of materials and that U.S. retailers’ and consumers’ continued heavy reliance on plastic bags remains a big factor in the issue.

“I think it’s the fact that it’s a free item,” Wendt said when asked why such bags persist in the region. “If you go to other areas within this country or Canada or different countries where they charge even five cents for a bag, people are reluctant to take one. So it’s not really the dollar amount – it’s just the fact that it’s free, I think, that really pushes that usage.”

Greathouse added that while people in St. Louis may think of the plastic epidemic that plagues Earth’s oceans and wildlife as a distant problem, waterways like the Mississippi River quickly bring such contamination into the mix.

Wendt agreed.

“They did a study recently in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said, “and they found that 40 percent of the plastics come from the Mississippi River, so it’s not just things that end up in the ocean from the coastal cities.”

On Friday, both guests were involved with a local event that sought to illustrate the magnitude of what is going on in an accessible way.

“We’re actually having a plastic-bag art installation today at the World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park,” Greathouse said just a few hours before the event wrapped up, “where we have tied together 2,663 plastic bags. [That] represents the number of plastic bags that get used per second in the United States.”

Related Event
What: Recycle Responsibly - The Trust About Plastic Bags
When: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, November 16, 2018
Where: World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park (1904 Concourse Dr., St. Louis, MO 63110)

Related Resources
Visit plasticfilmrecycling.org to locate participating retailers that serve as repositories for plastic bags that should not go in neighborhood recycling bins. And to learn more about the recycling-related efforts of OneSTL, see recycleresponsibly.org.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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