In last week’s column, I explored the city of Sheridan’s efforts to conserve our landfill. There, in that finite piece of land, trash is forever entombed. When it reaches capacity, we have to take over more land. All of this causes numerous environmental problems and costs the city millions of dollars.

Clearly, we should divert as much waste possible. But how do we do that? 

Today, I am focusing on recycling, the process that gives new life to all of our metal cans, plastic cartons, glass bottles and reams of paper that would otherwise take up valuable space — and emit toxins — in the landfill. 

It can be hard to convince folks that separating trash and recyclables is worth the extra time and energy. On top of that longtime struggle, recycling hit a rough patch in early 2018, when China imposed new recycling restrictions. Now, recycling must have a contamination rate below 0.5%.

This is a tough standard. Municipalities across the globe wondered, “Is our recycling being recycled?” Indeed, media outlets reported tons of recycling that went to landfills or was burned.

In Sheridan, however, our recycling is in good hands. Our advanced recycling center follows a hand-sorting process that yields remarkably “clean” bales of recycled materials and “beats the standard,” explained city of Sheridan Utilities Director Dan Roberts. The city then works with regional recycling brokers to find purchasers who will bid the most for our recyclables. The proceeds from these sales are fed back into city programming.

Recycling creates jobs, earns revenue for the city and diverts waste away from the landfill. The savings measure in the millions of dollars. This seems like incentive enough, but what really drives recyclers in Sheridan?

“Most people recycle because it’s just a good environmental thing to do,” Roberts told me. “It’s just a good thing to do. And it does keep us from having to bury things in the ground, apart from the financial aspect.”

My conversation with Roberts last Friday was well timed. That same afternoon, I headed up the mountain to embark on a rewarding recycling project.

My family had volunteered to facilitate recycling during the Antelope Butte Summer Festival. My in-laws, Neil and Hana Hoversten, worked with Paul Larson, the recycling collection supervisor for the city of Sheridan, to obtain official recycle bins and coordinate pick-up. My husband and I designed and laminated signs. Visiting from Portland, my brother- and sister-in-law helped set up the blue bins and signs across the festival grounds. My 15-month-old nephew even threw a carton or two into the bins.

Throughout the festival, the whole family — and some gung-ho friends — monitored the bins, adding cans from the ground and removing nonrecyclables. (Sorry, Sheridan, but you cannot recycle diapers.) Some teased us for our “garbage patrol,” but, really, folks seemed happy to recycle.

By the end of the three-day festival, we had diverted approximately 250 gallons of would-be waste from the landfill.

Yes, recycling feels good. It is a useful tool for reducing our impact on the environment. But I admit that it is not the sole — or best — solution. Some say it gives us false confidence. If we recycle, we can drink all the LaCroix we want and still help the earth, right? In reality, we are still buying single-use products. Each round of recycling and reproduction of new products takes energy and resources (even if much less than that of new production).

Recycling should be something we resort to, not depend on. We should focus on reducing and reusing. Instead of drinking LaCroix and recycling the can, we should drink tap water using a glass (or, hey, invest in a sparkling water machine and add a lime wedge for homemade LaCroix heaven!).

Plus, much of the waste we produce cannot be recycled. Food scraps, contaminated paper and green waste, for instance, still make up a large portion of household waste.

But guess what? There is a diversion option for all of that, too, which I’ll be digging into next week.

 

Author’s note: For more information about recycling in Sheridan, visit sheridanwy.net. The city has a great guide on what you can recycle — and how.