It Doesn’t Just Disappear – Becoming Aware of the Waste Stream: an interview with Kyle Winkler (Part 2)

Kyle WinklerCreative Commons License

Kyle Winkler currently works for Zero Waste Pittsburgh, a project of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, Inc. and can be reached at 412-488-7490 x243 or at

DCHP: When you’re working an event, you encourage people to put aseptic packaging in the recycling bin or the garbage bin?

KW: At each event or business, we have to have that conversation with whoever is in charge of the ultimate processing of the recyclables. For example, at Schwartz Market, we ended up putting aseptic packaging into recycling because after having a conversation with the local materials recovery facility we found out that this was an acceptable material for recycling.

If you ask the folks at Greenstar (now Waste Management), which is the only materials recovery facilities in this area (as of January), and they will say, yes, they definitely want that material.

So as far as I know at this moment [aseptic packaging is accepted.] It’s important to think of putting materials in a blue bin or at your curb more as recyclables separation and collection than actual recycling. Recycling is the act of the turning that aluminum can into a new aluminum can or that plastic bottle into a new plastic bottle. Very few of us are actually involved with the making of new products out of old ones and therefore few of us actually recycle. With this definition and understanding, it’s easier to imagine why some materials fall out of favor as markets drop and others are accepted when technology improves.

The confusion comes in when trying to communicate those nuances and changes to the public. To circle back to the aseptic packaging, there is a fair amount of good clean paper fiber that can be recovered from those containers, but the plastic coatings and foil interior layers are still trashed when pulped. It’s up to each individual to decide whether or not that is what they consider “Recycling”. In my mind it’s not, but it’s still resource recovery. The inevitable outcome of this question, “Should I put that in recycling?” is can you avoid having this problem in the first place. Recycling wasn’t meant to be the be all end all. There are still two other options to consider before one gets to the option of recycling. Reduce and reuse are the first two in the waste handling decision tree that should be considered before one gets to recycling as an option.

DCHP: What’s the difference between those terms? Recycled, down-cycled, burned?

KW: Most people think that the story’s over when they put a plastic cup, say, into the recycling bin. They figure that it’ll be used to make another plastic cup or plastic bottle or what have you. In actuality, it may not be recycled. It might only have a one term lifetime. It might be turned into something larger like a garbage can or a bumper. Those things are probably not going to be recycled at the end of their lives. So those things are down-cycled.

Things that are down-cycled get one more use before they get turned into landfill. They might get turned into a piece of lawn furniture or a picnic bench. In my mind that material is down-cycled because there is no option for that picnic bench. No one is going to recycle that material. There are very few municipalities that are equipped to take large size rigid plastics. So even if you put that rigid plastic chair in the recycling bin, they are probably going to pull it out at the materials recovery facility and throw it away.

They simply don’t have a good process for capturing those rigid plastics. 5 gallon buckets, garbage cans, bumpers, lawn furniture, etc. are all just thrown away.

DCHP: Whereas, things that are recycled, have a longer life span. Is it unlimited?

KW: It depends on the material and how it’s collected. Specifically, how well it’s [kept separate from other materials.] For example, aluminum can be recycled infinitely. So can glass, if it actually gets recycled.

Paper can be recycled about 7 times, I think, before the fiber lengths become too short. Then you’re back to virgin paper. You can only cut it and smash it so many times before there is no fiber length left and you’ve just got mush. That can be composted, but it won’t be made into paper. The same is true of cardboard. Anything with fiber can only go through a limited number of cycles before becomes useless.

Plastic, on the other hand, could be infinitely recycled, if it didn’t have little pieces of other types of plastic in it, if there weren’t little pieces of paper in it, that kind of thing. It depends on all kinds of little things that. If they get on the [processing] line somehow [they can drastically shorten the plastic’s useful life.]

Plastic allows us to do things in a very convenient way for sure. It has enabled us to do things without thinking about the consequences.

[Take] bottled water. That’s probably the biggest thing to avoid if you can. If you’re worried about the environment, if you’re worried about the quality of water in your community, you should worry about how that is processed, what is going into the water, the regional issues with fracking – if you’re concerned about that you should be paying attention to that, any types of discharge into the water, what is your municipality pulling up, how is your municipality treating that water, how are they conveying it, how old is the infrastructure, where are your taxes going? These are the things that you should be worried about. If clean water is your concern. Don’t use bottled water as a way out of your responsibility as a citizen.

Hm. It all has to do with the energy put into it, both on the front and the backend. Have you ever taken a tour of Alcosan? They spend almost half $1 million a month just treating the water from the city of Pittsburgh and other municipalities. That’s a lot of energy just in the electric bill.

DCHP: As I understand it, one of the reasons fracking has been controversial is that fracking operations have overwhelmed municipal waste water treatment facilities. Fracking produces so much waste water that when they have shipped this water off to supposedly free municipal waste water treatment facilities, they’ve been overwhelmed.

KW: With the frack water, there’re a lot of salts in there, there are some radioactive elements in there. Those radioactive elements may be in small amounts, but as soon as you start treating the water things start to concentrate. And those types of materials are not necessarily what municipalities are used to dealing with.

They are used to dealing with rainwater, seepage, blackwater, toilet paper, human waste, and stuff like that. Certainly, there are some chemicals in there, but it’s mostly organic. They’re not used to having large amounts of salt water in their waste.

What drilling companies are doing with it, that’s the concern. Are they discharging it illegally? If they are that’s putting an extra burden on the waterways. It all comes back because someone is going to try to pull that water up and now there’s additional cost to treat it because it’s out of whack.

DCHP: My personal assessment is that everyone will be more aware of those things, of those questions, as time goes on. Either that, or we’ll bury ourselves. The planet doesn’t care.

KW: No. We’re not saving the planet. We’re saving a quality of life for human existence. [As far as the planet is concerned,] we could all die and the planet would keep going. We could kill half the species alive and die and the planet would keep going.

So it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about how do you want to spend your time on this planet? Do you want the human race [to be at the end of its rope?] Do you want the human race to just run to the end and run out of resources and die in some cataclysmic post-apocalyptic shuffle for the last can of beans?

Or do you want to improve life and the environment for everybody and live at a level that doesn’t compromise that for all the planet?

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”Becoming Aware of the Waste Stream: an interview with Kyle Winkler (Part 2)” at by DCH Park is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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