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Understanding “Outthrows” To Avoid Recycling Confusion

Have your recycling markets gotten more restrictive in recent months? Are you struggling to explain the new recycling rules to the public? The answer may be outthrows. In my opinion, one of the greatest fails of the recycling industry/movement over the past 20 years (and thus one of our greatest opportunities going forward) has been our collective failing to explain outthrows to the public. As a result, I think we have caused a lot of unnecessary confusion and undertaken too many “solutions” which fail to address the root problem.

What Are Outthrows?

For years, we have explained recycling to the public in an overly simplistic category of yesses and nos. This stuff goes into the (insert category or color of bin here) and this stuff does not. But here is the problem, recycling is a manufacturing process. The mills who are ultimately accepting this stuff really have three categories that they deal in, not two. There is the stuff they want because they use it to manufacture new products, the stuff they don’t want because it will hurt their process – called “prohibitive materials” in the industry, and something called outthrows. To understand outthrows, it is easiest to picture Larry David from the show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and imagine him saying something along the lines of, “Eh, I don’t really want them. I mean, if it’s just a few I guess I’ll take them, but I don’t really want them.” That’s outthrows. Every mill and grade of material has a slightly different threshold of what “if it’s just a few” really means, but the concept is the same for all recyclables.

Why Do Outthrows Cause Problems?

Outthrows cause so many problems because we have oversimplified recycling. I think part of it dates to the early days of residential recycling when many programs tried to use recycling education for kids as a tool to convince their parents to recycle. We haven’t admitted there’s an, “Eh”category. As a result, we give mixed messages regarding whether outthrows are recyclable. If you’re running your recycling program a little more conservatively and trying to maximize the marketability of the recyclables you collect or are collecting a grade of material that is more sensitive to outthrows, you are likely to lump outthrows in with the no’s (don’t put anything in the bin unless it’s a definitive “yes”). Conversely, if you are trying to maximize your diversion rate, or if you are trying to promote the sorting and marketing capabilities of your MRF, you are likely to lump outthrows with the yesses (put everything in the bin unless it is a definitive “no.”). The result is that the public hears different answers about the same items in different places and gets confused (e.g. different answers at work vs home; or different answers from one town to another). To give a sense of why our failure to address outthrows is such an issue, let me share a story from very early in my career. It involved those paper mailing envelopes with the plastic-windows. The school I was working for was collecting a high-grade office paper. We found that we had so few envelopes, and that the value of the paper we were collecting was so high, and that the program was so new, we didn’t want to risk making recycling “complicated” and risk deterring participation. So, we decided to take the risk and play the percentages and tell the folks on campus that the window envelopes were “OK” in the yes category. At least that’s what we told them until we got our first and second loads of paper rejected for too many window envelopes. I was baffled. What had I missed? So, we tracked the issue down to this one building that had a huge amount of window envelopes compared to the other buildings. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the issue was being caused by my own mother. I’ll avoid the details of the colorful family conversation and even more colorful thoughts and skip to the conclusion. She had a college friend that lived in a nearby town which was telling people “no window envelopes” (they found that they had too many windows and that the resulting paper wasn’t worth taking the risk, so they told people that the envelopes were no’s, even though they were really outthrows for both of us). Because neither program had correctly explained outthrows, she was convinced that the discrepancy was just because my campus was more dedicated to recycling than her town. As a result, this college friend began saving up all her window envelopes, and those from friends and family members and sending them down to my mom to recycle at work. For the longest time, they were baffled as to what the issue was and why I was apoplectic. When I finally calmed down enough to explain outthrows to them, they immediately understood and wondered why no one had ever told them that before. It was my eureka moment that the public really can understand the concept and really wants to. Throughout the rest of my career I have never shielded away from explaining outthrows, often to receive responses of something along the line of, “oh, that totally makes sense now, why hasn’t anyone ever told us that before?”

Time For A Change.

So, I suggest it is collectively time for a change. I think the public can handle the concept of “Eh” if you explain it to them correctly. As I used to tell people in my programs, “we don’t really want it but if one or two ends up in your bin, don’t lose sleep over it. This isn’t something the recycling police will come arrest you for. I also often found that it made people more receptive to my follow up statement, “if you’re ever in doubt, ask, I will never have an issue with you asking.” For the nervous nellies that might not participate for fear of putting the wrong thing in the bin, that explanation has kept them participating in the program, which led to not only cleaner recycling, but more recycling.

From my experience, I found that most people not only could understand outthrows, but more importantly, were finally happy to receive answers that made sense to them. I think we should collectively embrace outthrows and explain them to the public. When markets tighten, and/or foreign outlets impose strict recycling quality standards, embracing outthrows may mean the difference between whether your entire load of recyclables ends up in a landfill or gets recycled the way you want it to.

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Roger Guzowski

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