Doing recycling wrong can endanger the whole process. Including the people who work in it.
But we all make mistakes in recycling. We put materials out to the curb that don’t belong there. Or we neglect to put things in that do belong. Or we put them in the wrong way.
Recycling is a good thing, but it’s expensive. At first, it appeared that municipalities could break even by selling the material they collected. Not so any more, if ever. Commodity prices have plummeted.
These recycling mistakes make the process more expensive. Some municipalities have had to stop accepting some traditionally recyclable materials, like glass.
So how can we recognize how we’re doing recycling wrong so we can correct our mistakes?
Single stream recycling came about to increase recycling rates. People became “aspirational recyclers,” putting everything in the bin they think should be recyclable. They’re doing recycling wrong because they don’t look at easily available instructions. Municipalities struggle to educate the public.
Des Moines, Iowa has started to conduct “curbside audits.” If they find too many non-recyclables in a can, they won’t pick it up. Similarly, Lowell, Massachusetts is inspecting containers and leaving “oops” tags to explain what shouldn’t have been put in them.
I’m sure much of the public considers these measures an invasion of privacy, unfortunately. People are doing the best they know. And much of the best they know is obsolete advice. That might explain why they’re doing recycling wrong.
Plastic recycling mistakes
Paying attention to the numbers
Not long ago, those numbers mattered.
Typically recycling programs accepted only polyethylene terephthalate (PET, number 1) or high density polyethylene (HDPE, number 2).
Polypropylene bottles (number 5) look to the untrained eye just like PET. But a single one of them can ruin an entire batch. We had to look at each bottle to understand whether to put it in the recycling or in the trash.
Many municipalities can now accept plastic with any number on it. But not every kind of plastic. Styrofoam, for example, is number 6. It breaks apart in the processing machinery and contaminates everything else. So if you look at the number and not the kind of container, you’re doing recycling wrong.
Mixing plastic bags with other recycling
Plastic bags usually don’t have a recycling triangle printed on them. But they’re plastic. Aspirational recyclers enthusiastically make mistakes in recycling when they mix bags with everything else they take to the curb.
I toured the material recovery facility (MRF) in Greensboro, North Carolina and interviewed Tori Carle, the city’s recycling education specialist. She told me
When I started this job I was really disturbed to find out that I had been doing the wrong things. Because I honestly thought plastic bags were recyclable.
And I was trying to be a good steward of recycling, and I was putting all of my plastic bags in the recycle bin, like, oh yeah, this is great. And then my heart was crushed when I found out that I was doing something that was not only not recyclable, but terrible for recycling.
How is it terrible?
The machinery depends on many rotating parts. Not only plastic bags, but table cloths and anything else that can’t hold a shape get tangled. I saw a plastic table cloth fluttering from the first rotating part we came to in the tour.
It wasn’t causing trouble at the moment, but the plant has to shut down its equipment as many as ten times every day so someone can climb up and remove tanglers. I also saw a picture of how a plastic bag broke a roller on one of the conveyor belts.
Broken parts cost money. The time when the entire plant shuts down so someone can replace them costs money. In this case, doing recycling wrong raises costs at the MRF and lowers profits.
Not replacing plastic bottle caps
You might remember being instructed to recycle plastic bottles (number 1 only) and either discard the cap or put it in recycling separately. No more. Not replacing the cap has become doing recycling wrong.
Formerly, different manufacturers used different plastics to make lids. And at the same time, recycling centers accepted only two kinds. Now, not only do they accept more plastics, but the Plastic Bottle Council has standardized the caps. They’re all made of HDPE.
Modern MRFs have optical scanners that can at least separate PET and HDPE from everything else. But why leave an HDPE cap on a PET bottle? Carle explained:
The plastic bottles and the plastic caps together are the only way both are going to be recycled. If you put the cap in the recycling separate from the bottle, it’s not going to get recycled because it’s going to end up in the wrong place and eventually end up at the landfill after a couple of trips. So we need to have the bottle and the cap end up together at a bottle washing facility. And at that bottle washing facility, they’re not just washing it. They’re also chopping it.
The chopping process produces very small bits called flake. Washing the flake also sorts it. PET is denser than water. It sinks. HDPE is less dense than water. It floats. It’s easy to skim it off the top and send it on to where it’s a useful raw material.
So empty the bottle and replace the cap when you add it to your recycling.
You don’t have to rinse so much any more
Sometimes doing recycling wrong means only going to unnecessary work, although this mistake winds up wasting water.
It used to be that recycling instructions said that everything had to be rinsed, but not delabeled.
It’s still not necessary to remove labels from cans or bottles (whether glass, metal, or plastic). But in single-stream recycling, it’s not strictly necessary to rinse them thoroughly, either.
Plastic recovery facilities chop and wash plastic. Glass containers break in the sorting process, and a lot of other stuff—including discarded food—drop out of the stream with it. So it must be washed before any further processing can occur.
Recycling metal requires such high heat that any carbon residue gets burned off before the metal melts.
That said, food residue will ruin the value of the paper in your recycling. Rinse that ketchup bottle enough that no ketchup can contaminate the paper. But it doesn’t have to be really clean.
Metal and glass recycling mistakes
In single-stream recycling (where you don’t have to separate materials), the glass processing facility that buys from the MRF can use optical scanners to separate different colors of glass.
But not all glass is chemically the same any more than all plastic is. Window glass, glass bakeware, light bulbs, and so on melt and cool at different temperatures. Adding them to recycling is one of the recycling mistakes of aspirational recyclers.
A molten mixture of incompatible types of glass will break before it becomes cool enough to touch. It becomes useless, because it’s impossible, or at least unreasonably difficult to separate them again.
So far, sorting equipment can’t adequately separate different types of glass. So put only glass containers in recycling. Adding any other kind of glass is an expensive way of doing recycling wrong.
And remove the lids from glass jars and bottles. Metal and glass will automatically go in different directions at the MRF.
You may have heard the instruction not to put can lids in recycling. It’s best, when opening a “tin” can not to remove the lid entirely, That way it can’t get into the wrong part of the MRF. But do put detached lids in your recycling, preferably inside the can. A magnet will pick up most of them at an early enough part of the process not to present any risk to most MRF employees.
Paper recycling mistakes
People make two kinds of mistakes in recycling shredded paper. They comingle it with everything else, or they don’t recycle it at all.
The paper you shred is most likely highly valuable office paper, but the sorting equipment at the MRF can’t separate it into the correct stream. So either recycling it loose or not recycling it at all means it winds up in the landfill (unless you compost it). Doing recycling wrong by landfilling such valuable paper deprives the MRF the income it could get from selling it.
So put shredded paper in a clear plastic bag and put some kind of identifying tag or mark on it.
That’s right. A plastic bag. It’s the only time plastic bags should ever see the inside of a MRF. The presort crew will remove the bags and transport them to the end of the office paper stream for baling.
And I notice that pizzas here come on top of a corrugated insert in the box. We discard the greasy insert, and the box itself is clean.
Almost everywhere else, pizza boxes head the list of recycling no-nos.
Grease doesn’t mix with water. Whatever water cleaning paper undergoes in the recycling process therefore doesn’t remove the grease. So any paper made from a greasy batch will be ruined by oil spots.
Remember that, for bottles, jars, and cans, rinsing is necessary only to protect paper from contamination. Used paper plates or those boxes of Chinese food carry-out are already contaminated. And they’ll contaminate the other paper in your recycling.
If you have a compost pile, compost paper plates, paper towels, and paper napkins. Otherwise, put them in the garbage.
Paper that isn’t paper
You can buy frozen vegetables in either a paper box or a plastic bag. In either case, they have been treated in such a way that renders them unrecyclable.
You can take most plastic bags (including the ones with your bread, noodles, rice, or other foods) back to the grocery store for recycling. But not anything that’s come from the freezer section. It might not be as serious a way to do recycling wrong as putting them out at the curb, but it still makes extra work for someone.
Paper drink cups likewise have a polymer (plastic) coating. Perhaps someday the recycling industry will find a way to process them. For now, they’re neither paper nor plastic. They’re simply trash.
Magazines and other glossy paper
When curbside recycling first became available, no program accepted glossy paper. Those days are long in the past. The recycling industry can process magazines and flyers with no trouble. So tossing magazines in the trash is one of the mistakes in recycling that results from following outdated instructions.
Doing recycling wrong—completely
It’s amazing what some people will put in recycling that should never enter a MRF in the first place.
When I took my tour, there was a large pile of broken glass waiting to be loaded onto a truck for transport. But it didn’t look like a pile of glass.
Plastic lids not properly attached to bottles fell into the glass pit. So did can lids, pill bottles, and other material that simply didn’t make it into the right stream.
But I also saw a lemon, some potatoes, and some mushrooms. (Glass sinks to the bottom leaving lighter trash on top.)
I’m sure no one really thought food belonged in the recycling container. Some people were just careless. Greensboro’s recycling carts are brown and its trash carts are green! The confusion that causes may add to the food contamination its MRF receives, but it’s a widespread problem.
I said earlier that plastic bags don’t belong at a MRF because they tangle the equipment. Other tanglers include
- Coat hangers
- Electric cords
- Strings of Christmas lights
These tanglers don’t come through as often as plastic bags, but they do equal or greater harm to the equipment.
Carle told me that MRF personnel see a constant stream of needles and syringes. Medical waste. It might be metal and plastic, but it presents a health hazard to the workers. They wear gloves, but needles can easily penetrate them.
It also gets heavy scrap metal. A large section of plumbing pipe once fell off a conveyor and injured a worker. If it had proceeded much farther through the plant, it would have destroyed some equipment. You can probably find a local scrap dealer who will buy whatever large scrap you want to get rid of.
Electronic waste doesn’t belong either in the recycling or the landfill. It is hazardous waste. Take it to your local hazardous waste drop-off center.
In my reading for this post, I came across a number of other things recycling centers have encountered. What makes anyone think of putting any of the following in a recycling container?
- Bowling balls!
- Propane tanks!
- Auto parts!
An article at Earth911 describes ten apps to help people live greener lives. The tenth is its own iRecycle app. It tells users the nearest place to recycle specific items. The list goes far beyond what you can put out at the curb. The app shows more than a million and a half ways to recycle more than 350 different materials.
Doing recycling wrong puts workers and machinery in danger. It increases expenses and decreases the value of the end product. Or it sends recyclable material to the landfill.
Doing recycling right requires keeping informed about what your community does and does not accept. Be careful to sort your recycling from your trash accordingly. And look for ways to recycle what you can’t put out at the curb.
7 recycling mistakes you’re probably making / Beth Buczynski, Care2. no date
The 9 biggest recycling mistakes people make / Earth911
An expert reveals why you’ve been recycling wrong this whole time / Fiona MacDonald Science Alert. July 7, 2015
Recycling is in trouble––and it might be your fault / Paul Singer, USA Today. April 26, 2017
Surprising recycling mistakes most people make daily / Mercola. March 21, 2017
Trash and recycling truck. Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Styrofoam food container. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Plastic bags. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Plastic flake. Source unknown
Empty tuna can. Some rights reserved by Rust Wiki
Pizza boxes. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Christmas tree lights. Some rights reserved by TwisterMc