HomeEnvironmentMassDEP, Recycling Commission encourages 'smart' plastics recycling

MassDEP, Recycling Commission encourages ‘smart’ plastics recycling


Subscribe to our mailing list and consider following WestfordCAT on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram for daily updates from Westford’s hometown source for news. 

Editor’s note: The piece was originally written and published by the Recycle Smart Team at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The Westford Recycling Commission requested WestfordCAT share this piece with residents. 

WESTFORD — The following release was shared to WestfordCAT by the Westford Recycling Commission.

We need to talk. letter

We know you’ve seen the headlines that plastic recycling is a “dead end” or, even worse, “a dumpster fire,” and we know you’ve got questions. This month, we are setting the record straight. Plastics recycling is real and is happening in Massachusetts. News stories that say otherwise aren’t telling the whole story and don’t reflect the reality of recycling in our state.

Recycling in Massachusetts

Massachusetts is home to nine Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) where more than 638,000 tons of plastic containers, paper, bottles, and cans go for sorting every year. 

At a MRF (pronounced “murph”), mixed recyclables travel through a sophisticated maze of manual and mechanical sorting processes. Once the paper, cardboard, metals, and plastic are separated, they’re compressed into 1,000-pound bales and sold to recycling companies to be made into new products and packaging. 

Massachusetts’ first MRF was built in Springfield in 1991 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Recently retrofitted to improve its sorting efficiency, the Springfield MRF (SMRF) uses near-infrared (NIR) technology to identify different plastic resin types and then sorts those resin types into distinct bales. In fiscal year 2022, the SMRF sent 1,752 tons of plastic bottles, jars, jugs and tubs to plastics recyclers, including Unifi and KW Plastics. Plastics recyclers wash, grind and pelletize the plastic into post-consumer resin (PCR) which is sold to the packaging, housewares, textiles, automotive, and agricultural products industries to make new products.

How Do We Know the MRFs Are Really Recycling?

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) regulates the activities of MRFs and our enforcement staff conduct regular inspections. MRFs are obligated to report annually to MassDEP (under penalty of perjury) the tons of material they recycled, and, upon request, where the material was sent for recycling. When our inspectors visit, they look at the outbound commodities (paper, plastic, metal, glass) and inspect the “residue” to ensure that it consists of things that are not recyclable.

Don’t Believe the Naysayers

Here’s where “only 5% of plastics are being recycled” comes from:  If all the plastic products produced in the world – from car bumpers and medical devices to appliances and polyester clothing – are lumped together and compared to the plastic that is recycled from residential and commercial recycling programs, you get a recycling rate of 5% or 9% depending on the data source. 

We argue this number is misleading, because it gives the impression that all of that stuff is designed to be recycled and is meant to be recycled – it isn’t. The only plastics that are recyclable in our residential and commercial recycling programs are rigid plastic containers and packaging.

Where We Agree

We agree that our world is full of plastic and that there’s way too much of it. We need to produce and use less, especially the kind we can’t recycle and for which there are better alternatives (like Styrofoam). We agree that a lot of perfectly good plastic bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs are not recycled. We also agree that recycling rates need to improve (and we truly hope that these reports don’t result in even less recycling)! There are too many areas across the country that do not have equitable access to recycling (40 million U.S. households don’t have a recycling option). We agree that recycling is not a panacea for our waste problem, but it IS a valuable tool in the toolkit and should not be dismissed or disparaged. We agree that everything that CAN be recycled, SHOULD be recycled.

So What’s Next?

We need to do better at recycling ALL of the rigid plastic food, beverage and household products containers we can. The plastics recycling industry not only wants these containers and has the capacity to recycle them, but experts say a shortage of recycled plastics will prevent major consumer brands from meeting their sustainable packaging goals and complying with new laws. 

At the same time, we need to support efforts to design packaging for recycling. Because there’s still lots of plastic packages on our grocery store shelves that aren’t recyclable. And that’s got to change. The most powerful thing you can do is speak out. Email the company whose product you love, but whose package you can’t recycle and ask them to change it. Now more than ever, consumer brands are listening to their customers’ demands for sustainable products and packaging.

Recycle Smart!

Use Recycle Smart’s Smart Recycling Guide and the Recyclopedia to make sure you’re putting the right stuff in your recycling bin. These tools were created by MassDEP and MRF operators to help reduce confusion and “wish-cycling,” and to ensure our efforts to separate trash from recycling aren’t made in vain.

Please don’t let the headlines fool you. Recycling is happening in MA!

Local journalism is vital to our communities. As other publications shift focus toward regional journalism, WestfordCAT continues to provide high-quality hyperlocal reporting to our town, free for everyone to read. So  we have a small favor to ask. Every contribution, no matter how big or small, helps us sustain our journalism and keep our community informed. Please consider supporting WestfordCAT for as little as $1 on PayPal.