What We Don’t Know…

Plastic recycling
On Friday I published a list of what can theoretically be recycled, cleverly titled “What Can Be Recycled.” I must reiterate the fact that it’s all down to what your local Materials Recovery Facility, (MRF) can and cannot accept.

Almost everyone I know assumes that they know the rules of recycling and almost no one I know does. Plastic recycling can be especially tricky and we can’t just throw things into the blue bin willy nilly. I’ve noticed that many of my friends put things in the recycling bin based upon what they think should be recycled. Sample conversation:

Me – “This can’t be recycled.” Holding a number 6 plastic container.

Friend – “Sure it can. It’s plastic. Look, there’s the little arrowy thing.” Holding a number 6 plastic container.

Me – “It’s plastic, but it’s number 6 plastic, which they don’t take.”

Friend – “I put those in all the time. Obviously they take them.”

Me – “How is that obvious? If it’s something they don’t take they just send it to landfill.”

Friend – “Fine, if they want to send it to landfill, it’s on them.”

And there is the crux of it. We want to believe that it’s being recycled and if it’s not, we don’t really want to know. It’s like cheating on our taxes, here are my receipts do what you want with them. We’re willing to recycle maybe even compost, but please lay off the details just tell me where to wheel the bin on Tuesdays.

Look, I know it sounds hair-splity, but things that seem perfectly benign can cause recycling facilities endless headaches. The Boulder County Recycling Center in Colorado can’t take shredded paper because there is no way for their conveyor sorting system to recognize it. Once it’s wet, it actually jams their whatsis. Other MRFs have no problem with it. I used to flatten my tinfoil, but that actually makes it far less recognizable to the sorting machines. It’s better to ball it up. Don’t flatten plastic containers completely either. If they lose their third dimension, they are mistaken for paper by the machines. These are just examples. Find out if your MRF has rules about colors of plastic and/or glass, standards of cleanliness – should all yogurt be rinsed from the plastic container? How much shampoo residue is ok? Obviously, if it has to be too clean you may end up wasting more water than it’s worth.

Getting back to the imaginary conversation that opened this post:

This is the universal recycling symbolInternational Recyling Symbol
This is the resin identification code PETEwhich is used to indicate the predominant plastic material used in manufacture. The purpose of this symbol is to assist recyclers with sorting the collected materials, but it does not necessarily mean that the product/packaging can be recycled through domestic curbside collection.

What’s my point? The resin identification code doesn’t tell you that the material is recyclable, but it does provide the information you need to know if your local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) will take it. MRFs usually provide detailed instructions on what they can and cannot recycle. It is then up to us to keep our recycling free of unsuitable materials.

Not enough education is provided to consumers about the specifics in their area and we consequently throw things in the recycling bin that not only don’t get recycled, they contaminate the sorting process and cause reusable materials to be land filled. Let’s not do that.

6 thoughts on “What We Don’t Know…

  1. We get a publication each year identifying what can and cannot be recycled. Our town takes all plastic containers, but not plastic wrap. Also, no waxed paper, but food boxes that are shiny or coated are OK. ETC. These are some of the regs. for our community. I’ve been to the recycling plant across the river in Westchester County and they have different rules. Everything is local.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. The City of Chicago distributes refrigerator magnets with info on what they accept. I’ve interviewed some Streets and Sanitation workers to find out about plastic bottle caps and such. If you have any interest in finding the answers to such picky questions in your area, I would love to post information for other cities.

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  3. Pondering these picky questions might be what’s needed for the time being, but as packaging moves toward being more recyclable and/or biodegradable, along with the occasional effort to just use less of it, maybe what’s needed most is consumer pressure to keep things moving in that direction.

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  4. We sound almost exactly like your friend in the conversation above, I sheepishly admit. Does any jurisdiction anywhere have recycling for the items that typically aren’t locally recyclable? It would be nice to have that option, even if it meant making a periodic (short) drive somewhere to drop off the non-acceptable items.

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