Aspirational recycling, or wishful recycling, describes people who don’t know what not to recycle. It’s a problem.
At the very least, it increases the cost of your local recycling program. Its employees spend their day sorting recyclables for sale, but when they have to remove what doesn’t belong in recycling, the facility has to pay to haul it to the landfill.
Aspirational recycling ultimately led to the Chinese recycling ban. American recycling programs can no longer sell their output in China. So instead of paying municipalities for the recycling they collect, they charge them to take it off their hands.
Wishful recycling can also contaminate otherwise valuable materials and render it worthless. It can damage the sorting equipment and injure or sicken workers, too.
So here are some recycling do’s and don’ts to help you if you’ve been recycling wrong.
Every local recycling program has its own rules. They have enough similarity that you can trust posts such as this one to give generally correct advice. But your local program may accept materials the next town over does not. Or a neighboring town may accept materials yours doesn’t.
Review your local requirements at least once a year. They might change from time to time. And with the Chinese recycling ban in effect, the changes probably ask you not to recycle something previously acceptable.
In general, you may recycle paper, metal food and drink cans, glass jars and bottles, and plastic bottles, jars, jugs, or tubs.
Plastics probably account for most of the variability in rules, but some places have stopped accepting glass at the curb. It is very heavy and more likely to become contaminated at the recycling facility than other materials. Some places that stopped accepting it at the curb have established drop-off centers where you can take it. Glass left there is less contaminated and therefore brings a higher price when sold.
Put only empty, clean, and dry materials in your recycling container. That applies as much to wherever you keep recyclables in your house until you accumulate enough to take them outside.
Recycling don’ts: materials with no market value
Quite a lot the materials used for containers might look like ordinary paper or plastic. But, in fact, they are composites, made of thin layers of different materials. Places such as TerraCycle can separate them into their component parts and find buyers. Municipal recycling programs can’t.
Other materials simply have no value once a recycling center would sort them. So there’s really no point. They have to go in the trash and, ultimately, to the landfill.
Here, then is the beginning of the list of what not to recycle:
- Coffee cups
- Plastic spoons, straws, and other utensils
- Snack bags and similar multilayered pouches
- Tyvek shipping envelopes—the waterproof kind you can’t easily tear open
- Paper milk or ice cream cartons with a wax coating
- Wax paper
- Paper towels and napkins
- Paper that has gotten wet
Many recycling programs may also not welcome mixed plastics (the kind with the numbers 3-7 in the recycling triangle) or such low-value papers as those coated cash register receipts.
Recycling don’ts: anything other than paper, metal, glass, or plastic
Recycling programs collect, sort, and sell these four materials and these only. They can’t deal with
- Clothing and other textiles
Recycling don’ts: bulky items
Some of the things that I have read about that turn up in recycling centers amaze me. Most of it is not only too big and heavy to go through the sorting equipment, but it is also made of something other than what the center is built to handle.
If it gets past presort and onto the equipment it can both damage the equipment and fall off and injure workers. You’d think everyone would consider these things among what not to recycle.
- Plastic buckets, chairs, playground equipment, etc.
- Scrap metal!
- Propane tanks!
- Bowling balls!
Recycling don’ts: contaminants
Recycling centers separate materials and then bale like materials. So anything that doesn’t belong in that bale is a contaminant. Paper that makes its way into a bale of plastic, for example. The company that buys the bale can’t use these materials. They become a waste. This issue is mainly a sorting problem.
More seriously, something that has grease or other food waste on it can contaminate something else and make it unusable. So can whatever else comes out of containers that haven’t been emptied and rinsed.
Say, for example, a bale of cardboard includes a greasy pizza bos and no one notices to take it out. If a company uses that bale to make new cardboard, a lot of the new cardboard will have grease stains on it. Not only is it not fit to sell, but it represents a waste of all the energy, materials, and manpower that went into making it.
All because someone neglected to remember what not to recycle.
So here are some contaminants:
- Pizza boxes
- Food and food-soiled containers, otherwise recyclable paper with food stains, etc.
- Styrofoam, including packing peanuts. (It breaks into little pieces and gets into all the finished bales)
- Any non-Styrofoam food containers that are not clean—especially if they’re greasy.
- Any glass besides bottles and jars, including windows, mirrors, drinking glasses, measuring cups, or bakeware. These chemically incompatible glasses melt and solidify at different temperatures, for one thing.
- Construction paper anything else heavily dyed
- Covers of hardcover books. The cardboard is recyclable, but not the fabric or glue.
- Shredded paper
- Very small items, such as the closures on a loaf of bread, many pill bottles, and anything else that is likely not to get through the system without getting lost.
- Aerosol cans
- Dirty diapers!
Recycling don’ts: tanglers
Some materials may look recyclable, but they will get tangled in the sorting equipment and maybe break it. At best, all the machinery must grind to a halt while someone climbs into it to remove the tanglers.
- Plastic bags
- Bagged recyclables: That’s right. Put your recyclables loose in the cart, not bagged. Otherwise, the bag will get removed and landfilled.
- Plastic tablecloths, shower curtains, and shower curtain liners
- Bubble wrap
- Hangers (whether metal or plastic)
- Extension cords
- Strings of Christmas lights
Recycling don’ts: hazards
Hazardous materials need to go to a hazardous waste recycling center for proper disposal. Otherwise, they endanger people who collect the recyclables as well as recycling center staff.
- Certain cleaning supplies, such as bleach or ammonia. In fact, put the empty containers in the trash—with the cap on—if any aroma of the material remains.
- Light bulbs—especially fluorescent lights, which contain mercury
- Photographs, which contain silver
- Used syringes or other medical waste—including expired medicines!
Again, check your local regulations. Some municipalities might accept some of these materials, such as aerosol cans or bulky plastics.
Also, you probably have other places you can take plastic films, batteries, and some other items on this list of what not to recycle at the curb.