Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Imagine if you didn’t have a recycling bin anymore- You just put everything in the trash, but somehow the reusable stuff still got recycled? Some places offer this service, but does it really work? Is it too good to be true? 

To find out, we had Lara Simshauser and Emily Tom from our Possibly Team look into this. Welcome, Lara and Emily! 

Lara Simshauser: Hi, Megan! 

Emily Tom: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So if I’m understanding this correctly, this approach lets you just dump all of your waste in one bin? Is this system legit?

Lara Simshauser: To answer that question, we spoke with Jay Eby, he’s the founder of Patriot Disposal, a recycling company that uses this approach, and he walked us through the process. He says, first, the trash gets picked up on the curb and put into trucks, just like your normal trash system.

Emily Tom: Then, it gets taken to the facility where it’s run through the “bag breaker.” 

Megan Hall: What’s that?

Lara Simshauser: It’s basically just a bunch of spinning knives that break the bags open.  

Emily Tom: Then, it goes through a spinning tube that has small holes 

Jay Eby: So dirt and granular stuff falls out of it

Lara Simshauser: After that, the waste moves onto a conveyor belt where workers sort through the materials by hand and pull out recyclables. For example, one person looks for cans, there’s another station where cardboard gets pulled out, and so on. 

Lara Simshauser: Now, the waste is ready to be put into a truck and driven to a landfill. 

Jay Eby: If at that point, we see there's still recycles in it, we can pick it up and take it back and start it back over in the process.

Megan Hall: So, how much of this stuff actually gets recycled? 

Emily Tom: Jay says, all in all, 

Jay Eby: Somewhere in the 20 to 30% is what I can get out of the waste stream 

Lara Simshauser: If we compare that to normal recycling, in 2018 the U.S. had about a 32% recycling rate. 

Megan Hall: So it’s not necessarily better than putting your stuff in the recycle bin. 

Emily Tom: Well, Jay has a different experience. He used to run the two truck system.

Jay Eby: When I switched systems, I got 600% More stuff out of trash 

Lara Simshauser: One of the reasons is that before, only 20% of people were recycling, now, it’s 100% of people

Emily Tom: And with the one bin system Jay can pull items out of the trash that aren’t usually recyclable.

Megan Hall: Like what? 

Lara Simshauser: Some of the most common things he pulls out are ceiling fans, car engines, garden hoses, even Christmas tree lights

Jay Eby: Again, not an item you can put in your recycle bin at home. But I do have an end use for that. I do have a person that wants to take those from me. 

Emily Tom: Whether Jay has someone willing to buy items or someone just willing to take materials, it all means fewer items are going in the landfill. 

Megan Hall: But what about contamination? Doesn’t the trash make recyclables dirty and soggy? 

Lara Simshauser: Well Jay admits 

Jay Eby: It's a big, it's a big issue. 

Emily Tom: Contamination makes the recycling less valuable. As an example, if you have paper that is stained with oil, it’s more expensive to make a high-quality recycled product out of it than if that paper were crisp and clean. In fact, if things get too messy, a lot of recycling just gets thrown out.  

But Jay says: 

Jay Eby: So even though I'm losing a little bit more to contamination, I'm gaining a lot more product in my process. 

Megan Hall: I don’t know. I think I’d feel pretty weird about giving up my recycle bin. I’d feel like I was doing something wrong. 

Emily Tom: Jay says a lot of people feel this way. 

Jay Eby: Because they've been taught since they were in grade school that you take this. Coke cans, if you drink a soda, that you put it in a separate bin than the other bin. (21:21)

Lara Simshauser: But the truth is, a lot of people, both inside and outside the industry, are looking for a better way. After all, it’s not like the system we have now is working particularly well, despite almost fifty years of messaging that recycling is really important. 

Emily Tom: To answer your initial question, yes. It does work. It is possible to get recyclables out of a 1 bin system. Time will tell if doing it this way improves on what we already have. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Lara and Emily! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.