Teaching people to recycle more and recycle better

The world of recycling is a tangled web of “dirty” pizza boxes, junk mail, green plastic soda bottles, rechargeable batteries and flip phones. And then there are compost heaps and piles of brush, mattresses, refrigerators and household hazardous waste, paint, oven cleaners, mothballs, lightbulbs and kerosene. And what do you do with coat hangers?

“It’s far more complex than you think,” said John Phetteplace, president of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority.

But SCRRRA has launched two initiatives it hopes will help those who live in the 12 towns it serves to recycle more and recycle better. On the authority’s website, www.SCRRRA.org, are two links that answer those pressing trash and recycling questions.

“What Goes Where?” is a search engine that answers specific questions about trash, like what do do with those old hangers — recycle metal hangers, and toss in the trash wood and plastic ones.

In the “Waste Sorting Game,” visitors are asked to dispose of various items and win stars when answering correctly. For example, batteries go to the transfer station; plastic straws get recycled; fish scraps get put in the compost pile. As players advance, they can add items to a virtual public park, like swingsets and fish ponds. Players can also win prizes, like a countertop compost bucket and reuseable water bottles.

Both are also available as apps for smartphones and other devices.

The answers to the questions will be collected and evaluated by the authority, which will use the information to create new programs to cater to the needs of individual towns.

“Some people are not recycling as much because they don’t know where it goes,” said Becky Chapman, the outreach coordinator at SCRRRA who helped put together the “What Goes Where” and the “Waste Sorting Game.”

“These programs help people know where things go,” she said.

There has been a push to reduce the amount of garbage since the 1980s, when towns began shutting down their landfills. Up until then, towns dug holes and buried the garbage. Today there are no landfills in Connecticut.

The towns in SCRRRA recycle about 35 percent of their trash annually in a single-stream recycling program that allows residents to toss paper, plastic, glass and other recyclables into one container. The material is collected curbside and sent to Willimantic Waste, where items are pulled from conveyor belts and baled, crushed or shredded and shipped out for reuse.

But it’s not just bottles, cans and glass that get recycled. There’s composting for natural food waste, such as potato skins, orange rinds and egg shells. Clothes donated to Goodwill are either resold locally or sent overseas for clothing for the less affluent. Some clothes are sorted by color, bundled and turned into rags.

The less solid waste, which is what's left over after recyclables are pulled out, is sent to a trash-to-energy plant, where it is burned and converted into electricity. Each town pays a tipping fee for the amount of solid waste hauled away. SCRRRA has the lowest tipping fees in the state, at about $58 a ton. The state average is about $70 a ton, according to the authority.

“We’re offering more opportunities for recycling to save on tipping fees,” said Phetteplace, who is also the director of Solid Waste and Recycling Department in Stonington. Phetteplace has a blue recycling bin in his basement office in Stonington Town Hall that he pulls out when a visitor has a question about recycling. It's filled with empty soda bottles, baggies of shredded plastic, and pellets made from compressed plastic, which eventually will be turned into new bottles or building materials for playgrounds. Some plastic is spun into fiber and is used for clothing and carpets.

“Most people don’t know they are walking all over soda bottles,” he said.

The goal for the next 10 years, according to Dave Aldridge, executive director at SCRRRA, is to increase recycling from 35 to 60 percent.

“The biggest challenge we face is people not understanding where things go,” he said. “We get a lot of contamination.”

The number one item that shows up in recycling bins that doesn’t belong there — plastic shopping bags.

“It surprised most people that plastic bags can’t go into the single-stream bin,” Aldridge said. The plastic is recyclable and can be returned to grocery stores. But at the recycling center, the bags get wrapped up in the conveyor belts.

“The best thing to do is use reuseable bags,” he added.

Earth Day, which has been celebrated on April 22 for the past 47 years, will focus nationally this year on the environment and climate education. Locally, it also will shine a light on the benefits of recycling.

SCRRRA offers educational programs year-round for schools and attends regional fairs to educate the public. They will be at an Earth Day celebration Saturday at Mystic Aquarium.

“Earth Day is fabulous,” Aldridge said.

Phetteplace agreed.

“But the goal is to celebrate Earth Day year-round,” he said.

If you go

What: Nature Play in the Green

Where: Mystic Aquarium, 55 Coogan Blvd., Mystic

When: 10 a.m.-noon Saturday

Cost: Free

To celebrate Earth Day, participants will build boats from scavenged materials and test the seaworthiness. The Southeastern Regional Resources Recover Authority will be there with interactive games and information on recycling.


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