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Rubber gloves and masks are not recyclable. But that’s not stopping well-meaning people from throwing their used PPE into recycling bins, forcing workers at some facilities to put themselves at risk of infection.
“We are seeing more masks and more gloves in the recycling bin, where they really don't belong,” said Glen Hulsenberg, the director of operations at California Waste Solutions, which serves Oakland and San Jose.
At most recycling facilities, employees have to hand-sort trash from conveyor belts. That’s partly why medical waste or any contaminated materials shouldn’t be recycled. Those workers are considered essential in most parts of the country, and the facilities contacted by VICE News say they’re providing protective gear and social distancing at their plants.
But the coronavirus is believed to be able to live for up to three days on plastic and as long as one day on fabric. Handling a steady stream of used masks and gloves could threaten workers’ health.
“We’re all hands-on,” Hulsenberg said. “We don’t have any robotics, so as it goes through, we’re pulling that off the line and putting it in the trash chutes.”
“The items come across in front of the employees and it’s, you know, my brother, my mother, my sister pulling what doesn’t belong off the recycle belt,” he added.
The more sophisticated recycling operations, usually in large cities, run like elaborate Rube Goldberg machines: Robots sort through the materials and filter out the trash from the recycling. At those facilities, people pick through trash by hand as a last resort.
But rubber gloves and masks could jam up the equipment, which would force workers to pull out the clogs by hand.
“A mask with an elastic band — anything that has a tendency to wrap — is just a maintenance headache,” said Tom Outerbridge, the general manager of several SIMS recycling facilities that serve New York City. He said workers at his facilities, which sort recyclables using machines, hadn’t seen a notable uptick in PPE. “An employee is going to wind up cutting it off a shaft during a maintenance shift.”
Most facilities will recycle cardboard — as long it’s not too dirty — cans, bottles, and rigid plastics. Thinner plastics, like the stuff that’s used in plastic bags, isn’t recyclable: It’s too flimsy and too costly to turn into a new product. Only about 9% of plastic gets recycled. So even if they weren’t potentially contaminated with coronavirus, gloves wouldn’t be recycled.
Masks aren’t recyclable either. No one wants to buy a recycled product made from material that may have been splattered with blood or a deadly virus.
Masks and gloves aren’t the only non-recyclable trash that’s ending up at recycling facilities during the pandemic. Hulsenberg’s facility is handling way more garbage than it was before. Normally, about 23% of the stuff people put in recycling bins that ends up at California Waste Solutions is actually trash. Now, he says, as much as 38% of the materials that show up at his facility aren’t recyclable.
“As soon as residents max out their garbage, that bag will end up in the recycling container,” said Emily Hanson, the chief strategy office with GreenWaste Recovery, another recycling facility in the Bay Area.
The pandemic hasn’t been great for recycling on the whole. Since the start of the outbreak in the U.S., recycling facilities in Arkansas, New York, California, and Michigan have shut down or reduced their capacity over concerns that allowing people to come to work might be hazardous.
“There's been concern about potential for the workers at recycling facilities to become exposed to the coronavirus, not just through PPE that they're seeing but also potentially by other recycled materials,” said Jennie Romer, a legal associate with the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative.
Plus, local budget cuts sometimes affect recycling services. “If recycling is not something that's mandated by law, then a lot of the time that becomes the first thing to cut,” she added.
One request made by all the recyclers who spoke to VICE News: Just sort your trash, please.
“Ultimately, people are handling the stuff you throw out, so take a little extra time and put the recyclables in the recycling bin and the other stuff in the trash,” Outerbridge said. “There’s all this appreciation for essential workers right now. Sorting recycling properly is a small gesture of goodwill that you could make, because we’re still going to work every day.”
And though it might go without saying, just because masks and gloves aren’t recyclable doesn’t mean they should get tossed on the sidewalk.
Cover: This photo taken Nov. 19, 2018, shows a recycling facility employee removing plastic that made it through the sorting process from a bale of mixed paper. (Mark Mulligan /Houston Chronicle via AP)