Is recycling a myth?

You’ve decided to collect your waste separately. You do a short research and start – you place two or three bins next to the one you already have, and you throw away the plastics, paper, and glass separately. It goes well, until one day you see the waste collection truck emptying the garbage bins. Is everything you diligently separated being mixed and collected together?

The system for separate collection of waste has been functioning in Bulgaria for years, but the distrust the efficiency of the process remains quite high. Official statistics show that Bulgarians are recycling more and more. However, there is still the feeling that we are far behind Western standards. Why are we slower in building these habits, and are the myths of separate garbage collection true?

In Bulgaria, garbage collection is paid by local taxpayers and the price is usually high. We are not paying for the waste thrown in the multi-colored recycle bins. Well, not directly at least. The system relies on self-support, and thus it must function efficiently. The resources collected in the bins are valuable materials which can bring-in money. This is the first step in disproving the conspiracy behind recycling. No company would have an economical benefit to simulate activity and eventually work at a loss.

The second misconception is related to the collection of garbage in one place. The recycling system in our country collaborates with several companies. The biggest two operate in similar ways – the first collects garbage in three different bins, while the other collects it in two bins. In the first company, the trucks collect garbage from bins of the same color during the whole day. For example, on Monday, the trucks collect the green bins that contain only glass materials. With this approach, there is no risk of making a mistake. And no, the garbage is not being mixed, nor is it stored together.

But why do so many people believe that garbage is being collected together, ruining the purpose of the whole process? Probably because another large company collects municipal waste. The company uses only two bins – green for collecting only glass material, and orange for plastic, paper, and metal. In this case, garbage is indeed mixed. However, this happens only during transportation. Once the waste arrives in the factory, a process of manual separation of waste begins. Yes, you read that right – there are dozens of people standing in a long assembly line, and everyone is responsible for a different type of waste. In Western countries, this is done by machines, which makes the process faster but not very precise. In our country, this is still done manually. Nonetheless, there is one conclusion – even though waste is partially mixed at the point of collection, it is eventually separated and used as a raw material.

There is one final reason why waste should not be mixed – to prevent contamination. According to unofficial statistics, , less than 10% of the mixed waste in the gray bins in Sofia is recycled. Actually it is about 3-4% due to mixing recyclable waste with municipal waste which is contaminated. The rest is landfilled or burned. You have probably wondered why the opening of each colored container is so small and narrow. The answer is quite logical: small openings lead to fewer mistakes, therefore the waste is separated properly. Materials in these bins are already quite clean and the possibility of their further utilization is enormous.

This system exists so that waste can be reused instead of thrown away, thus also bringing in economic benefits. However, the separate collection system is not funded only by this. While most of the waste comes from large shops and supermarkets which are throwing away a huge number of boxes, plastics, and other recyclable materials, there is one more source of income. Everyone is paying an indirect tax, which we often don’t even realize exists. For example, this happens when we are buy a bottle of water or some fizzy drink. Manufacturing companies are obliged to recycle the majority of plastic bottles they put on the market. In order to not do it themselves, they pay the recycling organizations. The price paid is included in our purchase when we buy the product in a store.

What happens to the materials afterwards? After sorting, they go to different factories for recycling and utilization. For example, 98% of the paper in Pazardzhik’s factory is secondary. Glass goes through sorting and crushing factories and is sent back to a factory where new bottles are produced. Typically, 30% of every bottle we buy is made from recycled material. Plastics are also broken down and made into new products. Nonetheless, it is important that they are properly cleaned beforehand.

The recycling system in Bulgaria is far from perfect. In Western countries, people are encouraged by paying a waste tax depending on the amount of waste thrown out. However, if you separate the waste this is no longer the case – this garbage collection is not taxed, and you only pay for your mixed household waste. That is how you can end up paying for 5 kg of waste a year, period. In the West, separating your trash demonstrates good manners. This is already becoming the case in our country as well. People are increasingly paying attention to what, how, and why something is recycled. Generally, we should try to separate everything that seems to be utilizable. Yes, there is some metals and plastic in the milk carton, but 70% of it is paper. There are technologies that can separate materials and reuse them instead of letting them rot in a landfill, polluting the surrounding environment. Even some waffles packaging can be recycled, and if for some reason they can’t they burn it for energy. In the next couple of years, we will be required to dispose of our food waste separately, with textiles following closely behind. This is the EU directive, and it is truly coming. So even though it has its flaws, the system of separate waste collection can be useful in helping us develop habits which will soon become our obligations.

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