Recycling Part 1 – Wait! Are you sure that’s recyclable?
Since I started this project, I’ve run across many misconceptions (including my own) about what is and isn’t recyclable. What makes the issue so confusing is that every city has its own rules about what can and can’t be placed in curbside bins. Some areas require more separation of recyclables than others. Even among a few environmental activists I’ve met, there is confusion about recycling. If they can’t figure it out, how is the average person supposed to? So, here are a few clarifications about recycling that might help:
1) A triangular “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on an item, especially a plastic one, does not mean that it can be recycled! Many, many people make this mistake. The number inside the triangle simply indicates what type of plastic the item is made from and may sometimes be helpful in determining which plastics are and are not recyclable. BUT NOT ALWAYS! For example, my city of Oakland accepts plastic narrow-necked bottles, regardless of the number inside the triangle. And that is the ONLY type of plastic that they accept.
FPF reader Radical Garbageman says, “I’ve seen people who have completely deconstructed their old electronics and meticulously placed all of the non-recyclable hard plastic in the bin. ‘A’ for effort, but putting non-recyclables in the bin is just a REALLY expensive way of putting them in the landfill.”
2) The fact that the word “Recyclable” is printed on an item does not mean that it can actually be recycled where you live. Manufacturers love to make their products look green by advertising them as recyclable. But if there is no recycling market for the item, and if your city will not take it, then it’s not really recyclable, is it? For example, few places will accept those black plastic #1 food trays that frozen meals come in. Yet they are advertised as recyclable because theoretically, they could be.
3) Be sure you know not only what plastic numbers are accepted by your city, but also what shapes of items. The fact that your city accepts number 5 plastic does not necessarily mean it will accept anything with a number 5. For example, San Francisco accepts #2, #4, and #5 tubs and lids. Those are the types of containers that hold yogurt or cottage cheese or various spreads. But the city would not accept, for example, my little eye drops containers just because they have a #4 on them.
4) Generally, plastic bottle caps should be removed. I’ve heard that some facilities will not recycle the bottle with the cap left on. In Oakland, they prefer the cap to be removed, but leaving it on will not stop the bottle from being recycled. So what do you do with those caps? That’s a good question. We don’t want them ending up in our waterways and inside the bellies of marine animals, so we should be careful when disposing of them. Make sure they are secured in a bag so as not to fly into the street when the garbage bin is dumped. I’m trying to avoid them altogether and collecting the ones I can’t for later use in a possible art project. But I realize most people aren’t as extreme as I am.
5) Food containers should be rinsed out. You don’t have to scrub with soap. But especially in single-stream systems, food left in containers can contaminate paper and render theoretically recyclable materials useless. To quote the May 2007 issue of the Marin Sanitary Newsletter, “Simple mistakes like letting pickle jar juice drip on your newspapers makes recycling nearly impossible.”
6) Not every type of paper can be recycled. Generally, paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, and napkins cannot be recycled, whether they are clean or dirty. Michelle at Conserve Plastic Bags informed me (and Will Crowder at Oakland Recycling confirmed) that the reason has to do with the low quality of these types of papers. The fibers are too thin and short to withstand the recycling process. But these types of papers can often be composted.
7) Cardboard milk cartons may or may not be accepted for recycling. Some cities accept them, rinsed out, with the paper recycling. Other cities may accept them in a compost bin. Oakland accepts them in either bin, and according to the representative I spoke to today, they don’t have a preference of which bin to put them in.
8) Other types of food-soiled cardboard or paper cannot be recycled with the regular paper, but they might be composted in areas that will accept them. Oakland allows its residents to put ice cream cartons, milk cartons, paper plates and cups, pizza boxes, and any other type of paper that has been food-soiled into the green compost bin. At the end of the composting process, the material is put through a very fine screen which filters out any plastic coatings or other contaminants from these items.
Other cities don’t have the facilities to allow paper in the compost bin, preferring only yard waste or possibly food scraps. Radical Garbageman suggests that when disposing of a pizza box, check and see if the top has food on it. If not, take it off and put it in the paper recycling. “Voila! Your non-recyclable solid waste instantly reduced by half!”
9) Be careful recycling plastic bags! Most cities do not accept plastic bags for curbside pickup. But in those that do, it’s important to follow the procedures for proper disposal. DO NOT use them to hold your other recycling and don’t put them into the bin individually. Plastic bags cause all kinds of problems for the sorting machines, jamming them up and causing delays. Scott from Least Footprint sent me this enlightening article (PDF) about the trouble plastic bags can cause in the recycling stream.
So what should you do instead? If your city really does accept plastic bags in the bin, they will probably have a rule that you must stuff many bags inside one bag and knot it closed so that they cannot escape. That’s the way it’s done in Daly City, where my office is located. That way, the people sorting the materials can easily grab out the plastic bags before they go through the machine.
10) Despite Tetra Pak’s propaganda, aseptic packages are very difficult to recycle.
Some cities accept them. Others do not. Examples of aseptic packages are juice boxes, wine boxes, some soy and rice milk containers, some soup containers, etc. They are containers that allow normally perishable products to be stored unrefrigerated on grocery store shelves. Tetra Pak promotes them as being better for the environment because they are much lighter than glass and therefore require less fuel to ship. They also may save the energy of refrigeration. While these things might be true, this post is about recycling, and easily recyclable they are not.
Policy associate, Bryan Early, from Californians Against Waste wrote me in an e-mail, “the truth is that Tetra Pak containers contain aluminum and other materials that contaminate the paper recycling stream. Tetra Pak has a lot of literature on their method of extracting the various metals and plastics from their aseptic containers, however as far as I know there is only one place in the country that actually does that, in Florida. Therefore, if you toss an aseptic Tetra Pak container into the recycling it will probably either get picked out of the recycling stream and landfilled or will spoil the batch of paper it is recycled with.”
Another waste management insider told me that it’s very important that cities sell the collected aseptic packaging “to the right mills — ones whose processes are relatively insensitive to contamination.” So his facility includes Tetra-Paks with their low-grade bulk papers rather than with higher grade materials and the boxes get processed. But if these containers are sold to the wrong kinds of mills, they can indeed contaminate the waste stream and end up in the landfill.
As for Oakland, I got differing stories from the two representatives I spoke with. One indicated that yes, Oakland accepts them, but they are a problem in the waste stream. The other told me that Oakland doesn’t accept them at all.
My gut feeling is that we should avoid them as much as possible. They are, after all, made up of layers of paper, aluminum, and plastic, the last component being a non-renewable resource. And they just seem to me like more trouble than they are worth.
11) Just because a new bio-plastic is touted as compostable doesn’t mean your city will accept it in the compost bin (if you have one) or that it will break down sufficiently in your small, backyard compost. Ask your facility if they will accept bio-plastics made from corn, sugar, or potato starch. These products are new and may not show up yet in the recycling guides provided by your city. Oakland’s guide does not list compostable bio-plastic as accepted in our green bins. Yet when I called the city, I was told that we can in fact put the new compostable plastic food containers in there.
12) Just because your city accepts certain items for recycling does not necessarily mean that they are actually recycled. My insider also told me that single stream recyclers (those that pick up all recycling in the same bin) sometimes claim to accept more things than are actually recycled because doing that can increase the recovery rate. They figure that if folks don’t have to figure out which plastics, for example, to put in the bin, they will put everything in and the recyclers will remove everything that they can use. What they can’t use gets landfilled.
I understand the reason for doing this. They’d rather get too much than too little. But my feeling is that understanding which items are actually recyclable might have an affect on people’s purchasing decisions. If we know that a particular type of packaging is not recyclable, we might be less likely to buy it. On the other hand, if our recycling facility leads us to believe that everything is recyclable, we may end up creating more landfill waste through our purchasing decisions than we otherwise would have.
The bottom line is that we all need to be educated as to what items each of our cities and towns actually accepts for recycling and composting. This information is readily available online, usually through your city’s web site. Just a few weeks ago, I helped my sister figure out what gets recycled in her town in Maryland and how she could go about getting herself a bin. If you would like help figuring out what your city will and will not accept, e-mail me or leave a comment. I am very happy to assist!
If you have time, find out if your recycling center gives tours of the facility so that you can see first-hand how your recycling is handled. This morning, I made an appointment to tour our Davis Street Transfer Station. I’ll be going there on October 8, and I hope to take pictures and gain an even better understanding of what happens to the items we toss in Oakland’s gray bin.
And thanks to my readers whose e-mails and comments help my own understanding of these issues. Keep them coming!
And now, for today’s update on Tess’s Trash Challenge.
Thanks for taking the efforts to study plastic. Regards from india
Thank you for the information. A lot of my food storage is comprised of foods in aseptic packaging. I didn’t know that they weren’t recyclable. I will definitely be making a different package choice from now on.
Hi – does anybody know anything about #8 plastics? I just got a take-out order in a brown recycled paperboard carton lined with polyethylene. I have no idea if it can be safely recycled where I live, or safely recycled period! Any knowledge out there? Thanks so much!
You wrote that some types of paper (paper towels, napkins, etc.) are not recyclable, because the fibers are too thin or short. For the same reason, egg cartons and toilet paper tubes cannot be recycled in my home country. I’m from Czech Republic, but currently living in Marin, so I was wondering whether it was the same here. I usually give the egg cartons to the sellers at the farmers market, but I can’t see myself reusing the toilet paper rolls. Can they be recycled with paper or composted? Thanks.
I followed a link to tetrapak’s website for locate a place to recycle those units.
I happen to know that Tetrapak packaging isn’t recyclable anywhere in Alameda County/Oakland/SF yet they listed them as recyclable. I asked them via the contact us email about this. Still haven’t heard back.
Hi Jason. Do you mean that Tetrapak lists them as recyclable or Stopwaste.org lists them that way? As far as I know, they are not recyclable anywhere in the Bay Area. But the gable-top cartons (milk cartons, for example, that must be refrigerated) can be put in either the recycle bin or the compost bin. At least, that’s the answer I got when I called back when this post was written. Let me know what you learn.
Tetra Pak are taking back empty packs for reprocessing at their Swedish base which allows Zero Waste enthusiasts in the UK to use them, while avoiding a landfill outcome. The company aims to improve its own systems to achieve sustainability.
How they address the North American situation is a bigger challenge for them.
Thanks for the info. After a quick search I’ve found that my city accepts “plastic containers or items numbered 1-7”. I can recycle more than I thought! The city I moved here from had stricter rules and I was just following those thoughtlessly. Of course now I’m worried that they are taking the shotgun approach and not actually recycling everything.
Hi Shawn. You can put our BioBags in your green compost bin. That’s what they’re for.
Thanks for all the great information on your site.
I am having trouble knowing what to do with bio bags ….compost pile? green bin? recycle bin? I am in Berkeley and the Ecology center website that runs our recycling program does not seem to mention them. Do you happen to have any current info on this?
Excellent post, recycling sometimes seems so complicated and in fact is. Here, the thing that saddens me most are the cardboard boxes checked into the waste bins when there’s a cardboard recycling bin next to the waste bin. That shows the level of education needed!
Oh, and as far as your compost bin goes, I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure shredding your pizza box and putting it into your own compost bin would be okay. You just have to make sure you have the proper mix of “green” and “brown” materials, a pizza box being a “brown,” regardless of what color it actually is!
Hi Jonathan. If you live in a place where you can recycle cardboard and paper together, then you can put your pizza box top in the bin with the rest of the paper, as long as it’s clean. I don’t think it matters how thick or thin the cardboard is.
But find out the rules for your city. That’s the most important part of this article.
This is awesome information. Thanks so much Beth! I guess after reading all the recyclable know-hows, my conclusion is to try limit the usage of plastic, recyclable or not.
I liked the post too. Never thought that recycling begins in the grocery store. We have one recycling bin in Chandler, AZ. Plastics, glass, paper all go into the one.
It would be great if the city gave talks at the grocery store on recycling. I think shoppers might stop to see visually what’s acceptable to the city.
What a post! I’ll visit the Davis Street Center and the center for those of us in Berkeley because that’s the only way I’ll be able to absorb the mind-boggling information you provided. I’m grateful for the energy of your wonderful mind.
At this point in my New Plastic Consciousness, I’m swamped with plastic bags and containers I collect off the street and find in nooks and crannies in my own home. I wash and re-use them but still long for fresh, non-cloudy, smooth and shiny new plastic and miss those easy, thoughtless days of plastics ignorance, when I didn’t have to make any decisions or think twice. However, I could never go back to them, and your blog is the reason.
Thanks for this thorough post! I wanted to ask about #8 because I’m always confused by the pizza box thing. Where I live, they prevent them from being recycled with other cardboard and we’re forced to send them the landfill.
As you mentioned, “food contamination” is the reason cited. But what constitutes contamination, because I often have really spotless boxes?
As for recycling the unsoiled box top with paper, are you talking about the thinner, non-cardboard boxes? Finally, I have a compost bin–would you recommend shredding pizza boxes and putting them in there?
A very comprehensive post that I enjoyed reading. You should enjoy your visit on Oct. 8. Here near Chicago, we use what is called a “Dirty Murph”, meaning it is a Material Reprocessing Facility (MRF) that takes recyclables mixed together. I’ve visited the place and it is VERY noisy but remarkable in the variety of methods used to separate all of the things that come in. Good old fashioned manual labor does quite a bit of the fine separating after machinery does the gross separation. Living in a condo with 31 units, I have taken recycling under my wing and I’ve given up on getting people to follow the rules about bagging and what cannot be recycled. Instead, I ride heard on 8 large toters and separate out the no-no’s myself. I tell people it is cheaper than joining a health club and you really get a workout if you work at a fast pace!
Great post – we have two recycling systems in this area, and I could post what each one will take. (Because, of course, they are both different.)
BTW, on your trash tally – Let me help you with that pesky cake problem. Forward all future cake to me at…
c/o Make A Bag
Blogspot, Blogosphere 10101
This is one of your best posts yet. It really lays things out. What I don’t understand is why the rules are so different from locality to locality. Why do things have to be so complicated? As with so many things in our Information Age (hey, I miss the Space Age, and the Atomic Age), the problems are not so much technical as informational, not so much developing procedures as informing people how to use those procedures and getting them to remember. After all, people only have a very finite capacity to take in, process and remember information. It’s so important to make recycling easy for people.
Is the variety in rules because there are lots of small companies doing the recycling, each with its own procedures? I guess it’s good that the industry isn’t dominated by a few megacorporations, and there’s still room for Joe and Sons Recycling Co., but uniformity would really be useful. I’m not thrilled about the idea of the state (or worse, the Federal government) legislating mandatory standards for recyclers. But there must be an industry trade group that could create a set of “best practices” guidelines for all recyclers.
Or do lots of municipalities do their own recycling? Again, one would hope they could get together to adopt common standards.
Or how much sorting out are recyclers willing or able to do themselves? Would it be better just to give them everything, and let them figure it out? I guess the danger of mixing everything one is throwing out together is that some throw-outs (I’m trying to avoid the term “waste”) can contaminate others, like the pickle juice on the paper. And there is the possibility that they materials will end up in landfills or incinerators because the company can’t recycle them, when the individual thrower-out could have, had he or she known what to do.
Is recycling profitable? Which products bring in the most? I wonder about the economics of these companies and programs.
Again, really good post. You should make a flowchart.
Beth-great post. You nailed it on the head when you said you have to be educated on what your county or city takes. If you put the wrong thing in, it could spoil the whole lot. In NJ in my area, you can only dispose of #1 and #2 bottles. So many containers are the same number. I am constantly telling my friends that the food containers are not recyclable, and they are amazed. I wish that all 1s and 2s could be recyclable. It was explained to me by my recycling coordinator that containers and bottles are a different type of plastic. Very complicated.
I did not know about the bio-bags may not be accepted. Good information.
As for plastic bags-take them back to your grocery store and put them in the bag recycling bin or reuse them. Some stores give you some money back if you reuse their bags.
Beth, again another great post. anna http://www.green-talk.com
Great Post, Beth! Learning what your municipality can and cannot recycle is SO important! I considered myself a good recycler, but hadn’t checked to see if anything had changed since I started recycling ten years ago, in a whole different state. So in June, I actually researched my county’s recycling guidelines and was bummed when I found out they only accept #1 & #2 :-( But then I was excited when I found that I could be recycling cardboard cereal boxes and such (Duh moment). Just taking five minutes to check the local recycling website, helped me to reduce my “trash” output by two bags per week!