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The concept of recycling is fairly simple — in theory. But stand in front of a dozen sorting bins with your recyclables in hand, and your mind can feel a little like the “chasing arrows” symbol you see on the bottom of plastic recyclables.
Get in the know and recycle with aplomb. Here are answers to 10 frequently-asked recycling questions:
1. How can I tell which plastics are recyclable?
The numbers inside the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic containers sadly aren’t a consumer guide to recyclability. They cryptically indicate the plastic resin content of the plastic. Your local recycler or pickup service can tell you which numbers it accepts for recycling — but it’s not quite that simple.
Your recycler or hauler may say it accepts any plastics with a certain number printed on the bottom, but actually may recycle only plastic bottles (not other containers, such as yogurt tubs). Bottles typically can’t be recycled together with wide-mouth containers. Many communities go ahead and accept all HDPE (#2) plastics to avoid consumer confusion, then must landfill or incinerate all but the bottles. Ask your recycling collector to be more specific.
Many communities do have recycling programs for #2 and/or #5 wide-mouth tubs such as yogurt, cream cheese and deli containers. For dropoff centers in your area, visit earth911.org or check with your local recycling, solid waste, environment or public works department. Also check out creative #5 plastic recycling programs like the one dreamed up by Preserve, which transforms these pesky plastics into Preserve recycled plastic toothbrushes, razors and the like.
2. How clean do containers need to be before I toss them into the recycling bin?
That dried-on chocolate soy milk or vestige of natural peanut butter might compel you to run your recyclables through the dishwasher before tossing them in the bin. But a good rinse will suffice; a little residue at the top of a bottle, for example, is fine. Just try to remove all food bits.
3. Do I need to take the labels off jars and cans?
No need to waste water and energy struggling with stubborn, gummy labels. They will be burned off during the recycling process.
4. Can caps and lids be recycled?
Generally, removing bottle caps and lids is a good recycling habit, because their recyclability depends on the equipment your local recycler uses and what the lid is made of. Often it’s as much a safety issue as a recycling issue; the pressure that builds up in a sealed plastic bottle can blow a whole bale of plastic and potentially injure workers.
5. Should I step on plastic bottles and crush cans?
That depends on the sorting equipment used by your local recycler. With some sorting machines, flattened items can actually impede the recycling process and give new meaning to eco-guilt. That’s the case for Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colo.
“If you flatten an aluminum can, the blower we use to blow light materials (cans and bottles) off the top of heavy materials (glass and steel) won’t work because they’ll settle down into the glass,” explains Marti Matsch, Eco-Cycle’s communications director. “We need them to be buoyant so they’ll float to the top in the shaker and then be easily blown off.”
Ask your recycling hauler whether to crush cans and bottles before setting out your recycling bin.
6. Can plastic bags be recycled with plastic containers?
It’s a common mistake, judging from the number of plastic bags that end up in recycling centers.
“Our biggest issue is plastic bags mixed in with commingled containers,” says Matsch. “Every time a worker has to pull one of those out, it’s a cost to us in worker time.”
The good news: Most plastic bags can be accepted separately if you’re willing to take them to a drop-off location. Make it part of Saturday errand-hopping so you’re not spewing carbon emissions solely to recycle your bags. To find plastic bag drop-off sites in your area, go to plasticbagrecycling.org. Small, sandwich-sized plastic bags can be reused again and again safely by washing with warm, soapy water and drying them for later use.
Bonus: Toting those plastic bags to the recycling center tends to illuminate how easy it is to keep reusable fabric bags in your car so you don’t need plastic ones.
7. Can aluminum foil be recycled with cans?
Technically it can, but not all recycling programs accept it because of food contamination. Others will accept aluminum foil if it is cleaned first. Ask your local recycling program; if they won’t accept aluminum foil and other foil products, consider cleaning and reusing them yourself.
8. If something is made from recycled paper or plastic, can it be recycled again?
While it’s true that recycling paper and plastic over and over will degrade the quality, that doesn’t mean you can’t recycle it. Many recycled products contain a percentage of both virgin and post-consumer recycled content, and it would be quite difficult for you to know whether it’s “recycle worthy.”
When glass, paper and cans are recycled, they become similar products that can be used and recycled over and over again. With plastics recycling, however, there is usually only a single re-use, according to EcoCycle. Most bottles and jugs don’t become food and beverage containers again. For example, pop bottles might become carpet or stuffing for sleeping bags. Milk jugs are often made into plastic lumber, recycling bins and toys.
That makes plastic a great starting place for reducing your reliance on single-use containers, such as plastic water bottles (carry a cool reusable drinking container such as a metal water bottle instead). Find more ways to rethink, reduce and reuse here.
In the case of paper, the quality of the recycled paper fibers is assessed at the mill. The higher-quality fibers are used to create more recycled paper while the shorter, lower-quality fibers are turned into things like toilet paper, paper towels and cereal boxes. This is why, although some recyclers accept cereal boxes and other paperboard items for recycling, EcoCycle recommends composting them (along with used paper towels and napkins). See how easy it is to compost at home.
9. If a glass or plastic product doesn’t have a recycling logo on it, can it still be recycled?
Possibly. The recycling symbol is unregulated and placed on containers by plastic-container manufacturers for their own use. So you’ll probably end up with containers that are emblazoned with recycling symbols yet are not recyclable, and vice-versa.
Your best bet under the current plastics-recycling systems in America is to “know what your recycling hauler accepts,” says Robin Burton, program director at Eco-Cycle. “If you’re not sure if something is recyclable, it’s probably better to put it in the trash than in the recycling bin.” Burton explains that to keep costs low, recycling processors sometimes toss entire bins of recyclables in the trash because they can’t afford having workers take the time to separate the recyclables from the non-recyclables.
10. How do I find out what to do with hard-to-recycle items?
A surprisingly wide variety of products are recycled by various organizations for free or with a small fee. Computers, CDs, cell phones, cooking oil, yogurt cups, phone books, foam peanuts, light bulbs, batteries and even clothing are just a few of the items you can recycle with very little effort by taking them to a drop-off center — instead of throwing them away. For dropoff centers in your area, visit earth911.org or check with your local recycling, solid waste, environment or public works department.