Tossing everything in the trash can be wasteful and harmful to the environment. But it is possible to over-recycle.

While Pitt County does a good job of recycling, city and county officials have begun to notice that citizens are, in many cases, are putting items in blue bins that really should go in the dumpster.

To address the issue, educational campaigns are underway with the goal to of teaching residents the proper way to recycle to ensure long-term environmental sustainability.

Currently, all trash and recyclables from the City of Greenville as well as from Pitt County are processed at the East Carolina Vocational Center’s recycling center on Staton Road.

ECVC, which hires workers with disabilities, processes nearly 500 tons of recyclables that can then be sold domestically and internationally as opposed to being sent to landfills.

Workers sort through all the loads that come into the facility, separate plastics, glass, cardboard and other recyclables, then bale them for shipment.

Items that come into the facility that are not recyclable — Styrofoam, food, diapers, bags — slow down production, wasting time and money.

“We have to slow the machines down when (refuse is) contaminated,” operations manager John Coward said. “If it comes here, it’s going to have to be sent back to a landfill as trash unless we can make a market for it.”

Most of the buyers have a very low threshold for contamination in the bales they purchase and are selective of what recyclables they wish to purchase.

China, for instance, requires that non-recyclable items make up no more that 1.5 percent of any bale it purchases, and other Asian countries, including Indonesia, India and Vietnam, have adopted similar policies.

Bales with more contamination than that are rejected, which costs outfits like ECVC, which costs the city and county.

Education campaign

As part of its campaign to educate the public about proper recycling, the city has identified the most common contaminants found in recycling containers that often end up at ECVC.

Those items include Styrofoam, diapers, electronics or batteries, tanglers (cords, hoses, wires, etc.), plastic wrap, bubble wrap or plastic bags, greasy food containers, clothing or textiles, food waste, hazardous or medical waste, household glass, mirrors, ceramics or scrap metal, yard waste, paper towels, napkins, straws, to-go cups, Solo cups or lids.

Greenville received a $37,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. Recycling Coordinator Holly Parrott is using that money for events, signage and social media blasts to encourage city residents to do a better job.

The effort began in August with the release of the first in a series of informational public service announcements. Additional PSAs, along with flyers and other educational literature, will be made available in the coming weeks.

New signage also will be placed at recycling centers to illustrate contaminants that are prohibited.

Long term, the city will move to a cart-tagging system that will continue to educate the public about items that cannot be recycled.

“Re-education is probably the best way for us to deal with this problem,” Parrott said. “What we’re trying to identify are the people who just kind of don’t know.”

Through its re-education efforts, she hopes that people will learn how to recycle the right way and be good stewards of the environment.

John Demary, Pitt County’s director of solid waste, echoed that sentiment and added that everyone must work together to ensure the message about responsible recycling gets out.

Demary said Pitt County, the City of Greenville and other municipalities plan to hold a conference to go over unified messaging, educational efforts and ways to reach the public.

“Everybody should be saying the same thing,” Demary said.

In the meantime, Demary said Pitt County plans to continue educational events like the city’s that encourage and promote recycling.

“We’re going to come out to the different collection sites and spend a good part of a Saturday,” Demary said.

He and his staff also plan to continue speaking to civic groups and schools.

“I go to East Carolina University every year and I preach about what should and shouldn’t be recycled,” he said. “And I’ve spoken to some of the civic groups. We do try to get the word out.”

Without educating the public, Pitt County will run out of eventually options to handle its waste, Demary said.

“Eventually, we won’t have landfills or a place to put our garbage,” he said.

Plastic bags

Single-use plastic bags have become a hot button environmental issue that has led some cities and towns to consider banning them.

Mary Alsentzer, a member of the Cypress Group chapter of the North Carolina Sierra Club, said plastic bags are everywhere and they create a mess.

“We’ve all seen these plastic bags all over the landscape,” Alsentzer said. “They just fly all over the place. People get them at the grocery store and they don’t take care of them properly. We need to bring our own bags to the grocery store, made out of material that we can reuse many times, and not rely on these plastic bags.”

Coward, Parrott and Demary agreed, adding that people who use plastic bags should consider taking them back to local grocery stores and recycling them rather than tossing them in a recycling bin.

ECVC does not recycle plastic bags and often when garbage loads are compacted, good recyclable materials become contaminated, Coward said.

Alsentzer praised the efforts of the city and county leaders to push for more responsible recycling, saying inaction will have devastating consequences.

“Educating people about the use of plastic bags or recycling any materials that we’re still able to recycle is going to improve things for future generations,” Alsentzer said. “It’s not just a matter of money, this is a matter of our future.”

Parrott hopes that with everyone working together, Greenville and Pitt County can become a greener and cleaner place for all.

“We’re hoping that with all these different avenues that we have to get out to the citizens that we can really make a difference,” she said.

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566. Follow him on Twitter @StocksGDR.