CHESTER, Va. (WRIC) — One local recycling plant has recorded a 20% increase in recyclable materials since the start of the pandemic. But with that extra volume also comes trash that shouldn’t have been thrown into the recycling bins in the first place. Employees are encouraging people to educate themselves on what is actually recyclable before they add to the bin.

TFC Recycling is one of Virginia’s largest residential curbside recycling facility providing services for over 700,000 households and more than 4,000 commercial customers from their three locations in Hampton Roads, Newport News and the Greater Richmond area.

Tad Phillips, Vice President of Business Development, says poor recycling habits, like attempting to recycle plastic bags and furniture, ultimately slow down operations while also costing the facility money in disposal fees.

THE DO’S AND DONT’S OF RECYCLING

Phillips is quick to describe the major things that should be recycled – pointing to a helpful guide to educate yourself on what can and can’t be recycled.

“That’s the way recycling needs to be if it’s going to be successful. You have to value it enough to do the right thing,” Phillips said. “We don’t want bags, we don’t want food waste. We don’t want non-recyclable items like brick and block and chairs.”

He said it actually hurts operations when non-recyclable items are mixed into recycling bins.

“If it’s not on that list, don’t throw it in there.”

Tad Phillips

“It slows us down,” he said. “Our productivity in the last four years has declined about 30% because we are running slower to get the stuff that’s not supposed to be in there — like plastic bags, furniture, clothing, we need to keep that stuff out.”

Phillips says that before you toss something into the bin, make sure you know what you are doing.

“If you pick up something and ask whether it is recyclable or not — if you don’t know then why are you making the decision,” Phillips said.

What can and cannot be recycled (Graphic from CVWMA)

He says that when TFC Recycling first began operations, improper disposal wasn’t an issue. Now, he says the costs are hard to manage.

Showing 8News a battery that caught fire in the back of one of their trucks, Phillips said that the fires aren’t rare. And when the fires do happen, they have to dump the recycling load on to the street as fast as possible to avoid further damages.

Phillips holding a battery that caught a recycling truck on fire

And repair costs don’t stop there. He says that when people throw away plastic bags, it often damages the conveyor belts or causes products like paper to not fall into the production line properly.

“We spend about $25,000 a month in disposal fees throwing stuff away that people put in there that we don’t want. That’s incredible,” Phillips said — regarding the Greater Richmond Area facility. “…it’s an unnecessary cost.”

HOW HAS COVID-19 AFFECTED RECYCLING?

With more people at home due to coronavirus-related government mandates, there has been an uptick in recyclable materials being dumped at the local TFC facility. And with more trash from customers also comes more risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Phillips says the Greater Richmond Area facility has more than prepared enough for the new changes.

“COVID has obviously had operational impacts in terms of people social distancing, having to wear masks, having to take all the precautions to sanitize,” he said. “We have over 400 people working between our three facilities.”

Tad Phillips and a 'bale' of compacted aluminum cans
Tad Phillips and a ‘bale’ of compacted aluminum cans

The amount of recycling has been directly impacted to people being at home, according to Phillips.

“In terms of volume, we have seen about a 20% increase in material that is coming from the curbside collection program,” he explained. “People are at home, they are working from home. They are ordering from Amazon, they are ordering pizza, they are ordering food. They’re generating a lot more, both trash and recycling — pre-COVID.”

He said that the facility has even had to add additional trucks to their daily procedures due to demand.

“Collection needs have increased. I am having to run 20% more trucks than I used to just to keep up,” Phillips said. “It’s been every day since April. It’s not letting up. We don’t see it coming down.”

That is six more truck-fulls of recycling in addition to their fleet of 30 vehicles. And he says as long as there are people stuck at home, the plant will stay busier than normal.

WHY DOESN’T MY APARTMENT COMPLEX RECYCLE?

Apartment and multi-family complexes are contracted directly with a recycling company or their trash vendor, according to Kim Hynes of CVWMA. She says it is not uncommon for those contracts to experience cancellations “due to it becoming costly to process and dispose of non-recyclables in addition to contaminating the good, clean recyclables.”

Phillips said that it is hard to keep people accountable with recycling in a public setting.

“An unstaffed recycling center or a bin that is sitting in a parking lot behind an apartment complex — there’s really no way to control what goes in there,” Phillips said. “The trash bin is full, it’s not being serviced properly — people will just throw it in the recycling bin instead.”

Casually throwing trash into an apartment recycling bin as opposed to doing it properly will often make recycling companies pull the plug on contracts.

“Then a well-meaning, well-intentioned process becomes an attractive nuisance,” Phillips said. “Then the vendor comes by to pick up the recycling and it is full of trash, then they tell them clean it up or we are going to remove it. Then they just say to remove it – we don’t have time to clean it up.”

Phillips added that it is important for apartment leasing offices to offer recycling pamphlets and knowledge to residents so that they can educate people and maintain the amenity.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

According to Phillips, educating yourself about recycling is key. He says there are plenty of valuable resources online to help you understand the importance of recycling, as well as how to recycle properly without causing production issues for the plant.

CVWMA provides free remote educational resources to help and encourage people to learn the meaning behind a phrase we’ve all heard before: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

According to Phillips, with more people learning the benefits of recycling, the environment has no other choice but to end up better off because of it.

Editor’s Note: All references to production rates, disposal costs, routes, trucks, etc. are specific to the operations in the Greater Richmond Area facility.

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