Contaminated recycling: Noncompliance in Lawrence system creating trash

A half-dozen sorters — human, not robotic — plucked garbage Wednesday from among the recyclables moving along a conveyor belt inside the Hamm Material Recovery Facility, where Lawrence’s recycling goes to be separated, smashed and shipped.

The trash — a mix of Styrofoam, small pill containers, plastic bags and other materials the facility can’t recycle — was tossed down chutes and landed in heaps that would eventually be taken to the Hamm landfill.

Plastic Recycling
Contaminated recycling: Noncompliance in Lawrence system creating trash

“We’re looking for plastic bags. We’re looking for trash, polystyrene, all linear things like pencils, pens,” said Charlie Sedlock, a division manager for Hamm. “And oddball things, like windshield wipers. You’ll see he just threw down some yellow strapping tape.”

The heaps of garbage were among the other, separated mounds of newspaper, plastic bottles and cans, though Sedlock said the trash piles took much longer to accumulate than the recyclables. After about a week or two, the trash is taken to the landfill.

The scene highlighted a hiccup in the city’s year-old, single-stream recycling program: people aren’t always complying with what goes into it. And that means — especially at places like apartment complexes and downtown — the contents of entire recycling bins are sometimes being taken to the landfill because of the actions of a few.

The noncompliance also causes items that could be recycled elsewhere, such as plastic bags, to not be.

“You never know whether they’re trying to do the right thing and they don’t realize it, or they don’t care,” said facility operator Tom Boxberger.

“I call them ‘wish-cyclers,’” Sedlock said of people throwing items in, hoping the facility can do something with them.

Both Sedlock and Kathy Richardson, the city’s solid waste division manager, said that overall, Lawrence is doing a good job with recycling. But it takes constant education and communications.

“Most Lawrence residents are trying,” Richardson said.