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As the nation celebrates America Recycles Day, how does Delaware stack up?

November 15 is America Recycling Day. Hopefully, by now, you don’t need an official day to practice the behavior.

Quite simply, America Recycling Day encourages people to renew their pledge to recycle. Locally, Keep Delaware Beautiful is asking Delawareans to share and promote the #BeRecycled pledge with co-workers, friends and family. You can find the pledge at KeepDelawareBeautiful.com.

Also this month, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) is launching its Recyclopedia, a definitive recycling resource for the entire state. According to Adam Schlachter, Environmental Program Manager for DNREC, the Recyclopedia will be a guide to both recyclable materials and solutions; differentiate curbside recyclables for non-curbside (drop-off); and differentiate recyclables from items that should be repurposed or donated. The website is Recyclopedia.org/de/state     

DNREC also provides a how-to guide to recycling in Delaware via the website RecyclingDelaware.org. The guide includes what’s accepted in your household recycling bin as well as proper disposal of electronics, appliances, yard waste, and household hazardous waste such as oil and paint.

What Do The Numbers Say?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average person generates 4.5 pounds of solid waste per day. That leads to an abundance of problems if some of that isn’t repurposed.

Fortunately, we’ve made progress as a country. Before 1990, recycling of municipal solid waste in the U.S. did not exceed 15 percent. By 2017, the recycling rate had grown to 35.2 percent. Not exactly reason for a parade, but at least behavior was trending in the right direction.

As for Delaware, it’s above the national average. Boosted by the introduction of single-stream recycling in 2008 (all recyclables placed in the same bin), the state’s recycling rate jumped to 44.5 in 2016, nearly 10 percent above the national average. Those numbers reflect quite a turnaround because for the decade prior Delaware had one of the worst recycling rates in the nation.

Recently, Delaware’s rate has dipped: 38% in 2018 and 39% in the 2019. Why? Well, you can partially blame China.

In early 2018, China enacted its National Sword policy and shut down acceptance of most plastics and other wastes targeted for its recycling processors. Before then, China had handled nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste. According to Michael Parkowski, Chief of Business & Government Services for the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA), China’s decision affected recycling worldwide. Before then, 80% of U.S. recyclable waste went to China, he added.

“What’s important to understand is that locally nothing changed in terms of collection,” said Parkowski. “The residential rate [of recycling] hasn’t gone down, it’s the commercial rate. But because we calculate the rate of recycling by combining the residential and commercial, it caused our overall rate to go down (eg: in 2019 the residential recycling rate was 45%; commercial 32%).

Parkowski says the numbers are beginning to rebound because of more domestic waste repurposing as well as countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia stepping in to fill the gap left by China.

Turning Education Into Behavior

What’s ironic about the difficulty in raising the numbers is that recycling awareness is at an all-time high. Several recent national surveys report that more than 90% of Americans support recycling. And more than 70% say it should be a priority. In other words, like many things, Americans are talking a better game than we play.

Youngsters get a hands-on recycling experience working the conveyer belt at DWSA’s Environmental Education Building. Photo by Sarah Culler.

Then there is educating people on the proper way to recycle. “We need to improve on contamination (things put in recycling that shouldn’t be),” says Parkowski. “That’s the focus of our education process now.”

According to Parkowski, Delaware reduced its contamination rate from 18% to 15% through a combination of education and an aggressive marketing campaign. Now the contamination rate is creeping back to 18%.

For one, the marketing campaign ended. Secondly, says Parkowski, “we think COVID may be moving the needle the wrong way. People are at home more, they’re generating more trash [at home], and when they run out of room in their [recycling] bins, trash can get mixed in with recyclables.”

COVID also impacted one of DSWA’s primary tools for education, school field trips to its Environmental Education Building (1101 Lambsons Lane, New Castle). Prior to the pandemic, DSWA would host thousands of kids, providing classroom instruction as well as an actual conveyer belt in which kids could stand and sort.

“It’s very hands on,” said Parkowski. “The strategy is to teach the kids the proper way to recycle, then they can go home and educate their parents.”

In lieu of field trips, DSWA is providing online tools for teachers to share in their classes.

And overall, despite the challenges brought on by COVID, China’s National Sword Policy, and grabbing the attention of an overloaded populace, Parkowski is proud of the residential recycling progress Delaware has made.

“Delaware is probably one of the best residential recycling states in the country,” he said. “We’re certainly in the top three. Because of the Universal Recycling Law (enacted in 2011), everyone has access to single-stream. Delaware is one of the only states that can claim this.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.