Portions of this article were originally printed in Lane County’s Recycling News School Edition.
Have you ever put a clamshell container, plastic bag or other item in your curbside recycling bin with the thought, “I’ll give this to the experts. Surely they’ll know how to recycle it”?
While we applaud your commitment to recycling, putting anything in your curbside bin that doesn’t belong there can actually undermine the recycling process and make it harder to recycle items like paper, plastic bottles and tubs, and aluminum cans.
Tossing something into the recycling bin with the hope that someone will sort it out is called “wishful recycling.” This inclination can cause serious damage to the recycling sort machinery.
If you’re not sure whether something can go in the recycling bin, put it in the trash. Remember this mantra: When in doubt, throw it out. Otherwise you may be doing our recycling system more harm than good.
It’s also a good idea to educate yourself about exactly what can be recycled in the commingled bin that goes to the curb every other week. “How recycling is accomplished and collected can be very different from community to community,” says Kelly Bell, Master Recycler coordinator for Lane County Waste Management. “It’s important to find out what can be recycled in your community.” (For more information about commingled recycling in Lane County, and to see videos about how sorting technology works, click here.)
In Lane County, the materials that can be recycled curbside have remained pretty consistent since the 1990s. Paper, some plastics and aluminum cans can go in your recycling bin. Glass can go in a separate container for pickup. Grass clippings, twigs, weeds and other plant material can go in the green waste recycling bin.
Anything else should be consider suspect. One way to determine if you can recycle something in your commingled recycling bin is to check your hauler’s app. Both Sanipac and Lane Apex, our region’s two largest haulers, have cell phone apps you can download. “Recycling information is literally as close as your smartphone and your pocket,” Bell says.
You can also learn about these three worse recycling offenders – and tell others about them – to help stop wishful recycling.
The #1 most damaging items in mixed recycling:
Plastic bags, clothing and stringy things like Christmas lights and extension cords. These wrap around the equipment’s sorting conveyor system, slowly clogging it up so it doesn’t sort effectively and eventually shuts down.
While these items can’t go in the commingled recycling bin, many of them can be recycled if you take them elsewhere, says Sarah Grimm, waste reduction specialist for Lane County Waste Management. “Plastic bags can be taken to grocery stores or the transfer station. Clothing and Styrofoam can go to St. Vincent de Paul. Christmas lights and electrical cords can be recycled as scrap metal or taken to Next Step.”
The #2 most damaging material is:
Paper designed to stay strong when wet. Napkins, plates, cups, freezer boxes – anything intended to hold wet food or otherwise stay strong when wet is either lined with plastic or has been drenched with a chemical agent called wet-strength, or both. These items are NOT recyclable for this reason, and because the likelihood of food contamination is so great.
Worst offender #3: flat plastics act like paper in the sort system
Clear or colored #1 plastic clamshell, lettuce boxes or tray shapes are taking over grocery stores. Lightweight and semi-flexible, they easily flatten when baled or compacted for transport and end up contaminating the bales of paper sold to local paper mills. They are not recyclable in our area.
It may be possible to save up these items and take them to a recycler in the Portland area (check Metro’s website for more details). But the easier thing may be to reconsider your buying habits. Wishful recycling often happens because people feel guilty about throwing things away. If you can avoid bringing those items home in the first place, Bell points out, then you don’t have to grapple with the issue at all.
“What we really want to get to is waste reduction, which is avoiding the waste in the first place,” Bell says. “If you’re continually bringing something home and you have questions about whether its recyclable, or you learn it isn’t, that’s a chance to reevaluate what you’re buying. Can you buy it in bulk? Can you buy it in recyclable packaging? If we stop buying things in non-recyclable packaging, perhaps it will go away and other types of packaging we can more easily deal with will come back. Or perhaps more stores will go to more bulk opportunities.”
There may also be ways to reuse items that can’t be recycled in the curbside bin. Wash plastic bags and use them repeatedly (a bag dryer can make this process less frustrating). Use clamshells to store bulk vegetables purchased at a farmers market or grocery store. Large plastic tubs from lettuce or spinach make good project boxes, while containers with screw top lids can hold screws, nails, craft supplies or small tools.
So remember: Wishful recycling does more harm than good. When in doubt, throw it out. And whenever possible, find ways to reduce the amount of packaging you purchase instead of worrying about where to recycle it.