Recycling in Little Rock Takes All Sorts (Aside From Glass)

Sorting through Little Rock’s recycling restrictions

IT SHOULD BE pretty simple—a short choreography of tossing this in here, tossing that in there. Plop, thump, clank and voilà! You feel good about doing your small part in saving the planet. In reality, recycling is a heckuva lot more complicated than that—especially in Little Rock, given the city’s recent decision to remove glass from curbside recycling, which left a bunch of us wondering, Why? And also, What now? What do we do with the bottles of vino we emptied at our backyard shindig last weekend? For some much-needed trash talk, we reached out to recycling educator Faith Mullins, Little Rock’s sustainability educator and Plastic Free Little Rock steering committee member. Founded close to a year ago, the organization works on educating themselves and the public about issues related to waste and our single-use society, as well as influencing policies at both the city and state level. The main goal? Building a more eco-friendly city. Here’s how Faith says you can really pitch in.

On why glass was taken out of curbside recycling

“There’s a variety of reasons. The first is that glass breaks. It breaks sometimes when you put it in your cart. It definitely breaks when the cart gets emptied into the truck, and it also breaks even more when that truck empties all of its recyclables out at the recycling facility. Not only is the glass dangerous to the workers out there—they do wear really thick gloves, but it still can pose hazards—[shards of glass] can get stuck on other materials and contaminate those. If you think about it, glass is made out of sand, and it’s really sharp, and it can cut stuff easily. Glass causes major wear and tear on the conveyor belts at the recycling facility and majorly increases their costs of having to replace those conveyor belts many times a year. When they don’t have glass coming through, they don’t even have to replace [the belts] once a year.”

On the impact of China’s recycling import restrictions

“When our recycling gets picked up from our house, it goes through a sorting facility, or what’s called an MRF, which stands for Materials Recovery Facility. After all the commodity streams are sorted, they’re shipped to what’s called the ‘end user,’ the company that actually does the recycling of that item. There are very few end users that are based in the U.S. [After China’s recycling import restrictions, the end users in the U.S.] now have a variety of options to choose from, so they’re trying to choose recycling from the cleanest sorting facilities across the country. They can be really choosy now, which is difficult for recycling companies that can’t get a really uncontaminated stream. They keep getting a lot of plastic bags and stuff like that. It makes it hard for them to sell their products.”

On how to recycle glass in Little Rock

“[Ace Glass is] a local window-and-door company that’s trying to enter the glass recycling market. They have drop-off locations at a variety of places in both Little Rock and North Little Rock. Also, you can sign up for a $10-a-month pickup program from your house. Some people who go through a lot of glass do that. Personally, I just drop mine off. I don’t go through enough glass to have it picked up from my house.”

On the biggest misconception about recycling

“For people who care about recycling and think they’re doing a really good job, the biggest problem—and I used to be guilty of this before I learned more about recycling—is something that we call wish-cycling. Say you went to the grocery store and you bought your produce, and it came wrapped in all this plastic. So you’ve got your fruit that came in one of those plastic clamshells. You’ve got your salad that came in plastic wrap. Then maybe you got a water bottle. A lot of people would look at all of those items and say, Oh, they’re all made out of plastic. They’re all made out of the same thing. They can all go in my recycle cart. But really, the only thing we want in the recycle cart is that water bottle.”

On reducing, first

“I realized, over the past couple of years, we’ve all learned that: reduce, reuse, recycle. The way to be environmentally conscious about all the materials you’re wasting every day is to first reduce. And then reuse what you have. Recycling is the last step. We do not do that here in the U.S. We’re basically recycle, recycle, recycle. We think that recycling is the solution to our major trash and resource problem, but it’s not. It’s like one part of the picture, but it can’t fix everything by itself. I think people think that, Oh, I’m recycling. I’m saving the planet. But the most important thing is to evaluate what you are bringing into your house and the waste you’re producing on a regular basis and try to figure out ways not to make that waste.”

On the potential future of glass recycling

“Glass is very recyclable. We should be trying to recycle as much as possible in this city and in every city. There’s one way that’s the best way to address it. It’s what the city of Conway does. They have their recycle carts, just like we do, but you can’t put glass in them. Instead, you have a smaller—what we call ‘totes’—they’re like 18 gallons, so you pick them up and carry them to the curb. It’s a separate pickup for glass. That way, you’re not experiencing the issues of contamination and the maintenance cost associated with putting glass in your cart, but you’re recycling glass. I think that seems like the best option that any city has. A lot of cities do it this way, where they have a separate glass pickup. Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood will be renewing or creating a new contract with their recycling company in 2021. They’ll start working on that next year in 2020, and I’m really hoping they’ll sign a contract with a company that does it just like I described. We don’t want glass to go back in our carts, but we want to make sure that we’re recycling it and that everyone has easy access to [glass recycling].” 

Want to find the closest glass recycling drop-off near you? Follow this link: