We all want to take our part in treating our home (earth) well. We've begun using reusable straws, finding alternatives to plastic storage for our food, and recycling. In recent years, I've gotten into a lot of conversations with people about how to recycle - Whether you need to wash the food out and peel the labels off, whether all plastic and paper is recyclable, etc. I did some research to answer some of these same questions I was having myself!

In the 90's, what is known as single stream recycling began being implemented. And, by 2012 almost all collectors were using this method. The goal was to encourage more people to participate in recycling by making it easier for them (allowing all types of recyclable items to be put into one single bin vs. needing to separate your paper into one bin, your plastic in another, your glass in another, and so on). Other advantages of the single stream method are that less space is needed to store multiple recycling bins, further increasing participating. And, it is easier and cheaper for the recycling to be collected since the waste haulers don't need to come multiple different times to collect, or have a way to separate the items in the truck.

There is limited data, and therefore research, on recycling, however, the benefit of getting more people to recycle may have been overtaken by the cost - On average, about 25% of the stuff we try and recycle is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill. For the past 25 years, much of what was left of the paper, metals, and plastic that were able to be separated and baled, we had been sending to China instead of recycling it on our own. However, beginning in January 2018, China refused to take any more unless it is 99.5% free of contaminants. It was never never a good solution to off-load our recycling to China. But, now that cities are faced with the task of coming up with solutions here at home, in some places the recycling we're separating out is going to the landfill. Some other cities in the US (as well as other countries) are switching to dual-stream collection

Whether or not your city has single-stream collection or has (or is moving to) a dual stream collection, what is most important is the quality of the recycling you are putting out. Remember we spoke about how roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container is actually not recyclable through curbside programs? This significantly raises the costs to process the recycling and in some instances makes the recyclables now trash, even if some of the load is not contaminated. For examples, Waste Management says, "when food or liquids are placed in a recycling container they will ultimately saturate tons of otherwise good paper and cardboard that they come into contact with. When paper and cardboard loses its quality, it also loses its ability to be recycled. It becomes trash." Waste Management also shares a lot of this is because, "Products and packaging have become more complex. This complexity has in many ways altered consumers' understanding of what they think is recyclable. More and more, non-recyclables are finding their way into single-stream containers - things like plastic bags, organic matter (food, liquid, and yard waste), rubber hoses, wires, and low-grade plastics." 

I found this fantastic resource listing out the most common contaminants to recycling and how to avoid them...

1) PLASTIC BAGS - Plastic bags and items made from their plastic material (i.i. shrink wrap, bubble wrap, Ziploc bags, newspaper bags, trash bags, etc.) are the worst recycling contaminator of all. Keep them out of the bin to save the sorters at your local recycling facility a huge amount of extra work while also saving their machines the hassle of getting clogged. Helpful hint! - Drop your plastic bags (if recyclable) off at the grocery store collection bins (specific for just bags) so they are still recycled, but don't contaminate any other recyclables.

2) FOOD WASTE - Otherwise recyclable items quickly become garbage when they carry the remnants of the food they once held. Some great examples of food waste contamination can be found in paperboard take-home boxes full of food and the recyclable jar/can that hasn't been emptied or rinsed out. 

3) LOOSE SHREDDED PAPER - While shredded paper is not considered a contaminant as a whole, loose shredded paper can cause many recycling issues. When shredded paper is mixed in with non-shredded paper, it is difficult to recover for recycling. To fix this, keep it in a separate paper bag that is clearly marked. 

4) BRIGHTLY COLORED PAPER - The problem with brightly colored paper is the analogy of the red-sock-in-the-white-load. That paints a pretty good picture of what happens when brightly colored paper manages to spoil a batch of good paper recycling. If you tear the colored paper in question and you see white in the center it is recyclable. If the color dye goes all the way through then you're unfortunately out of luck.

5) SOME BEVERAGE CARTONS - Some municipal programs accept beverage cartons as recyclable while others might not. When in doubt you have two options - Check with your specific municipal recycling program's manager to find out if the carton is on their 'yes' or 'no' list or add the cartons to your recyclables since they are easy to separate out. 

6) THE WRONG PLASTICS - Some recycling programs might accept plastics #1-7 but the final rejection is decided at the sorting facility. Rejection of plastics usually comes down to the type of plastic being recycled and what it once contained. Food containers are usually ok. Containers that once held non-food items should be checked to determine the type of plastic it's considered. For instance, the most common recycled plastics are #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE). Plastics #3 through #7 are sometimes recyclable. To see if your item is one of the above mentioned locate the chasing arrows symbol (usually on the bottom of the bottle). 

7) HAZARDOUS WASTE - Containers for paint, automotive fluids, or pesticides must be disposed of separately or, for some facilities, cleaned out before they can be recycled. Check with your local recycling and/or household hazardous waste program manager to determine the methods necessary to make sure these items can be recycled.

8) BIO-HAZARDOUS WASTE (AND DIAPERS) - If you are trying to recycle something that has any human fluid on it, don't. Syringes, needles, diapers, and any other sanitary product are not recyclable and can be potentially dangerous to handle.

9) FROZEN FOOD CONTAINERS - The shiny, exterior coating that those boxes have to prevent freezer burn actually prevents the paper from being recyclable.

10) UNRINSED OR METAL-CAPPED GLASS - Before you recycle that wine or beer bottle, give it a quick rinse. The excess liquid can contaminate other papers in the recycling and render them non-recyclable. Metal caps on glass containers simply need to be put in the bin separately from the containers they top.

This list also outlines in more detail the do's and don't for each type of material...

  • corrugated cardboard (boxes)
  • magazines
  • office paper
  • newspapers
  • paperboard (cereal boxes)
  • paper cardboard dairy/juice cartons (in limited areas only)
  • unsolicited direct mail (even window envelopes are ok)
  • phone books
  • waxed paper
  • food contaminated paper (such as a cheese-encrusted pizza box)
  • mixed metal and paper (like stapled paper - just remove the staple and the paper can be recycled)
  • aluminum cans
  • foil and aluminum bakeware
  • steel cans and tins (rinsed-out soup cans, veggie cans, coffee cans, etc.)
  • wire coat hangers
  • empty aerosol cans
  • food-contaminated metals (like a half-eaten can of beans - rinse out the beans and the can is good to recycle!)
  • automotive parts
  • plumbing parts
  • paint cans with wet or dried-on paint (inquire how to properly dispose)
  • electronics (inquire for how to properly dispose)
  • clear glass (rinsed mayonnaise containers, pasta sauces, pickle jars, etc.)
  • brown amber glass typically used for beer
  • green bottles typically used for wine
  • any glass contaminated with stones, dirt, and food waste
  • ceramics, such as dishwater, ovenware, and decorative items
  • heat-resistance glass, such as Pyrex
  • mixed colors of broken glass
  • mirror or window glass
  • metal or plastic caps, corks, or lids
  • crystal
  • light bulbs (inquire how to properly dispose)
  • cathode-ray tubes found in some televisions and computer monitors (inquire how to properly dispose)
One important thing to keep in mind as you recycle plastics is cleanliness is essential. One dirty product, or one with food waste still in it, can contaminate an entire bale containing thousands of pounds of collected plastics. Some municipalities accept all types of plastic. Others accept only containers with certain numbers stamped on them. Still others accept only products with specific resin codes that also are bottles (having a neck that's narrower than the body).

  • Make sure it's clean!
  • Products labeled #1 and #2 are widely accepted at recycling facilities. These typically include soft drink and soda bottles, plastic from cereal boxes, containers for salad dressing, vegetable oil, and peanut butter, oven-ready meal trays, butter and margarine tubs, and containers for laundry detergent and some household cleaners.
  • Municipalities differ on whether to accept products labeled with #4 and #5. These typically include squeezable bottles, bread wrappers, frozen food bags, dry cleaning bags, yogurt containers, syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, some straws, and prescription bottles.
  • Plastic grocery and produce sacks are commonly, but not always, made from plastics #2 and #4. Do not put these with your curbside recycling. These bags are often collected at barrels at grocery stores.
  • Products labeled with #3, #6, or #7 are less often accepted for recycling. These typically include window cleaner and dishwashing detergent bottles, some shampoo bottles, cooking oil bottles, clear food packaging, plastics used in most blister packs, disposable coffee cups, polystyrene, plastic egg cartons, aspirin bottles, and compact disc cases.
And, back to the big question of whether labels need to be removed...they do not! The high heat in today's recycling technology will burn away labels and glue. The only reason you might want to remove the labels is to recycle the label themselves! Those can go in the bin with your other paper recycling. And, an even better option is to reuse the containers instead of recycling it!

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