Notes from the Field - June 2020

Notes from the Field - Recycling on BHI: What are the facts?
By Brianna Fragata

Have you ever had questions about what can and cannot be recycled? Oftentimes we are trying to be responsible stewards in our communities, but we can find it difficult to do so. You are not alone, even environmental scientists, like myself, struggle with this! 

My name is Brianna Fragata and I am an Education and Conservation Intern at the Bald Head Island Conservancy. When I started my internship in August, I had heard that recycling rules were changing, and we were not sure at the Conservancy which items were recyclable and where to find this information. I decided then to focus my intern project on sustainability which included investigating recycling procedures on Bald Head Island to answer common recycling questions to help the Bald Head community become better stewards of our island environment! 

I started my investigative journey by meeting with staff from BHI’s Public Works. Staff acknowledged that because the population on Bald Head Island is so transient, recycling can be a challenge. They had the great suggestion of having magnets on refrigerators that explain what can and cannot be recycled and where to take their recycling. This would be especially useful for rental properties to educate island visitors and vacationers! 

BHI residents are responsible for dropping off their own recyclables at the island Recycling Center. On BHI and in Brunswick County, there is single stream recycling, meaning all the recycled items (paper, plastic, metal, and glass) are collected together. If you have other items you are looking to recycle such as batteries and electronics contact your local convenience center. Each day an employee from Public Works takes out any non-recyclable items they see from the recycling bins. While televisions and other large items are not going to pass by, small non-recyclable items on the bottom of the bin can easily sneak through to the next phase. 

After the recycling leaves BHI on the barge, it is sent with Brunswick County’s recyclables to Sonoco Recycling where the commingled items are separated using machinery and by hand. 
I toured the Wilmington facility, and watched as again, employees had to take out non-recyclable items as they all passed through on a conveyor belt. It is important to realize that what you recycle matters and it makes a difference if you recycle properly or not. Improper recycling causes problems down the line including machine jams from plastic bags and small items contaminating recyclable products. When recycling becomes  too contaminated, it loses its value and cannot be sold, and will often end up in a landfill.  

My next step was to reach out to Brunswick County to clarify a few things. In recent years there has been a lot of change with the types of plastics that can be recycled, because China is no longer accepting most recycling from the United States 

With these changes, it can be difficult to determine if certain plastics are recyclable. Most plastic containers have a recycling number on them inside a triangle indicating the type of plastic they are, and are typically numbered 1-7. Brunswick County prefers not to tell people what number plastics to recycle, as plastic recycling is determined by shape now. If a resident insists on needing a number then only numbers 1 and 2 are recyclable. They also must be the right shape: bottles, tubs, jugs, and jars only. This is because the sorting machines identify items based on shape, so plastics 1 and 2 of the wrong shape will not be recycled. This is also the reason that crushed cans are not recyclable. Since they are flat, they end up with the paper and cardboard recycling, which contaminates the paper recyclables.  BHI had old signage on their recycling bins which showed plastic items, such as yogurt cups, as being recyclable when they are in fact no longer recyclable. I made a few calls and discovered that a new sign has been ordered for BHI, it is just not updated yet. With education being such an important piece of recycling properly, this misinformation made it even more confusing for residents to recycle properly. A good reference for what can and cannot be recycled is shown below.


I polled the Bald Head Island Conservancy’s Instagram followers to see what they knew about recycling in Brunswick County and the results were quite shocking! Only 30 percent of people knew that only plastics numbered 1 and 2 can be recycled, and 64 percent of voters thought that number 5 plastic yogurt cups could be recycled when they cannot. It validated my hypothesis that many people are unsure about what can and cannot be recycled. 

With increased education, there will be more effective recycling. The BHIC will be posting a recycling presentation to the website to act as a resource for visitors and residents of BHI. With recycling rules varying from county to county and state to state, it is important to continue to educate yourself and ask questions when you are unsure if something can be recycled. Even if something cannot be recycled, it may be able to be donated and reused or repurposed. North Carolina has started a Recycle More campaign to help educate people as well and is a great resource if you are confused about what can and cannot be recycled. For more information visit

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