Skip To Content
Recycled2 Recycle3 Recycle4 Recycle5
Recycled2 Recycle3 Recycle4
 |<  < 1 - 2  >  >| 
Recycling at Christmas Can Be Tricky
Published: 12/27/2022
Featured Image

The holidays aren’t so happy in the recycling world. Workers see literally tons of stuff at this time of year that Santa would say is naughty. Top of that list? Strings of old holiday lights, the most common contaminant streaming on recycling conveyors this time of year. The Free Press watched this week as workers at one of Michigan's largest recycling processors, in Southfield, shut down their mill for half an hour because strings of lights, along with plastic wrap and lengths of bright-red ribbon, had clogged machinery.

Shift leader Tristan Porter, of Warren, used an electric saw to slice off the offending trash, then handed piles of it out to Matt Van Benten, operations supervisor for Detroit's recycling program. Strings of lights "wrap around our equipment and they're just generally a nuisance item with no true recycling value. They contain recyclable materials but we can't recover them due to the nature of their construction," Van Benten said.
Same goes for truckloads of other holiday trash, including plastic gift bags, tissue paper, wrapping paper with glitter or foil, package ribbons and bows, electronics of any kind or size, and batteries of all kinds. All of these must be yanked from fast-flowing conveyor belts by crews of workers, laboring in a dusty chill because the plant's huge doors stay wide open 24/7 to accept truck deliveries. Other recycling no-nos include old plastic Christmas trees, ornaments, large plastic children's toys, and especially all plastic bags, from supermarket to dry-cleaning size — another material that clogs machinery. If left in the mix, such items contaminate the plant's output and render it unsalable, said Mike Csapo, general manager of RRRASOC — the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County, whose member communities send their recycling to the big plant in Southfield.

At this time of year, Csapo is a special fan of the Free Press because he loves hearing that people wrapped their holiday gifts in old newsprint. "Believe me, that is so good for the environment and so good for us, too," he said.

Recycling, like most everything else, observes the seasons. During the winter holidays, picture bales of excess cardboard, recycled from the region's consumer shipping and gifting. At Thanksgiving, food contamination is rampant. During spring-cleaning time, clothing and furniture pop up, and "we even see fireworks during the summer,” Csapo said. Of those, only the cardboard — if it's clean — can be recycled. Paper, if it's at least the size of a holiday card, gets sold. Scraps that are smaller? Shunted to landfills, where taxpayers pay for each ton that's dumped.

Michiganders not only recycle the wrong stuff, they don't recycle enough. The state is using small grants and technical advice as it tries to boost Michigan's recycling rate from 19% toward the national rate of about 34%. The numbers represent the portion of trash that households recycle out of the total tonnage going to landfills, said Tracy Purrenhage, a recycling specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Pushing up Michigan's recycling tonnage, while also teaching Michiganders what not to put in their carts and bins, will create jobs in the recycling industry, and it also avoids filling landfills with valuable raw materials, such as plastic milk jugs, said Purrenhage, who lives in Royal Oak.

At SOCRRA's recycling facility, also in Royal Oak, workers are dealing with the same holiday contaminants, said Lucas Dean, operations supervisor.

"We're seeing more volume, just from the cardboard, and we're getting a lot of Christmas lights," Dean said. Things could be worse, though, because some people recycle things you couldn't even imagine they'd try.
"During deer season a month or so ago, we had a deer carcass come through — the whole thing. We really didn't appreciate that," he said.

Contact Bill Laitner: