A May 29, 2018 New York Times article addressed "Can you recycle coffee cups or greasy pizza boxes?" in the article, 6 Things You’re Recycling Wrong.
As a recycler at heart, it is helpful to see the main stream media address some of the questions that consumers have about what to recycle and what to discard. As with many questions, there are multiple parts to the answers. An important point was made in the article- you should check to see what the accepted products are in your area and city. There are differences in each area. Not all recyclables can be sorted into the same recycling container. Keeping informed about what you need to do to ensure that recyclables are prepared and sorted correctly in your area is a great first step. Keeping informed and recycling right is very helpful to processors.
The New York Times article opens with reference to “wish recycling” or “aspirational recycling”, where consumers place items in the blue box at home or at work that they hope can be recycled. It is excellent to recognize that consumers are trying to make sure items get recycled buy placing them into a blue box, as processors we certainly don’t want to punish them for trying. The trick for the recycling industry is to make sure that “flick of the wrist” that deposits the item in the blue box at home or at work is educated and discerning. An effective recycling communication strategy with regards to what to do with a variety of items is critical and a key aspect of any successful waste diversion program.
Urban Impact maintains an Instagram account dedicated to clearly showing some items that should not be deposited into the recycling bin. Please search #recyclingitright on Instagram for updates.
Processors frequently see a variety of items on the receiving floor that cannot be recycled including: food laden paper or containers, Christmas lights, tree ornaments, garden hoses, industrial over sized plastics to name a few. I would concur that people’s good intentions certainly are creating some of the issues that processors are left with handling once the material hits the recycling centre receiving floor.
News on the new policies in China with respect to accepted recyclables has also made main stream media coverage and continues to be a point of contention in the United States especially as trade embargos and trade wars continue between the two countries. In summary, the new policies in China have resulted in 24 materials previously being imported to be placed on a “banned” list. And in addition to these new policies recyclable materials to be imported into China must meet a very stringent new standard of less than 0.05% contamination.
As you can likely appreciate, for processors this level of contamination (0.05%) is very hard to achieve when they are processing post consumer materials. Post consumer materials are those materials or packages that we have used at home or work which is different from materials recycled from a post-industrial environment where these materials are recovered at the manufacture’s floor. To ensure they can meet the new stringent China requirements, all recycling processors are working diligently to add Quality Control staff and or capital equipment. Added staff and equipment is a capital cost and takes time, increasing the cost of recovery of recyclables.
Do you know exactly how contamination affects your recycling program and how to avoid it?
The New York Times article addresses six common items that consumers are “recycling wrong”. The first item that was addressed is Coffee Cups.
A recent CBC article http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-supports-coffee-cup-revolution-as-waste-reduction-strategy-1.4356676 estimates that 2.6 million coffee cups are thrown out in the City of Vancouver every week! The article correctly identifies that the cups are lined with a thin plastic layer making them non-recyclable.
Coffee cups should not be placed into a paper recycling system. Recycle BC asks residents of British Columbia to discard coffee cups into the Mixed Containers portion of their collection program. This means that coffee cups are placed into the same blue bin as the Metals and Plastic containers. In terms of extracting the coffee cups through sortation, this is the right place to place your coffee cup. Remember to empty the coffee cup before placing in the Mixed Rigid Containers blue box – extra fluids are not welcome in any part of your recycling program.
The second item that the article addressed was the infamous greasy pizza box. If a pizza box is greasy it should be placed into the organics bin. The article also suggested that perhaps the whole box is not greasy and if so, consumers can tear the section that is not greasy and recycle it with other cardboard or paper recycling bins. This is a great recommendation and certainly would go a long way in ensuring that the cardboard stream stays clean and ready for reprocessing.
The third item that the article addresses was a small yogurt cup with a foil cover. Look at the bottom of the container- if it has the recycling symbol 1, 2, 5, it should be readily recyclable. Here is a suggestion – avoid using small containers like yogurt cups. Larger containers or tubs of yogurt are more recyclable because of the type of plastic used (usually recycling symbol 2) and the size of the container is easy for the automated sortation process to recover. An important part of the dialogue on recycling is considering waste avoidance- do not create the waste in the first place. Small packages are certainly convenient and the kids find them desirable and appealing. From an environmental perspective, it is important to consider the percentage of the product to the packaging. The less packaging no matter what kind it is, the better.
The fourth item that was identified in the article was oily take out containers. Oily take out containers that have a significant amount of residue will contaminate the recycling process. Having employees rinse and wipe away take out contaminants from recyclables such as plastic food containers will help improve the quality of your recycling stream. You do not have to scrub it clean, but the take out container cannot have a film or oil or contain food matter. Back to the suggestion above, let’s consider avoiding waste all together. Bring reusable lunch containers from home for your take-out meal, or make your own lunch for eating out. Take out containers that have too much residue or oil should be considered garbage.
The fifth item in the article was plastic bags. The article reminds readers to empty the contents of their plastic bags into the recycling bins and not just throw a plastic bag of recycling in the bin. For a recycling processor no plastic bags in the recycling is an ideal outcome. Not all recycling machinery is equipped to take all types of material. Some items, like plastic bags and other plastic wraps if they are thrown into the wrong recycling container can wrap around processing equipment and make it a nightmare (i.e. labour intensive and therefore expensive) to maintain, clean and clear. Ideally, contents of your recycling box should be free and loose. What to do with a plastic bag? Avoid creating it in the first place. Take your groceries home in reusable bags or possibly even a leftover cardboard box at the grocery store. Many grocery stores offer boxes for consumers. Clean and homogeneous plastic bags are recyclable – miscellaneous mixed up plastic bags are most likely to end up in the garbage.
The final item addressed was dirty diapers. You would be very surprised what does arrive in a processing plant, and yes, dirty diapers and other very gross things do arrive. As you can imagine, dirty diapers are not recyclable at a recycling plant and are thrown out as garbage when discovered. Please avoid putting any bathroom waste or hygienic waste in your recycling bin, always. If you would not want to handle it, you should assume that a recycling processor and certainly and end market mill does not want to either.
Contamination can reduce the ability to effectively recycle material or meet the requirements of recycling markets. Contamination also degrades the quality of your recyclables, which in turn lessens their market value. Recycling processors do need the public’s help in ensure that only what is recyclable is placed into the right recycling bins. Over time processing equipment will improve and become more able to sort out multiple items and types of packaging and consumables. As a consumer I am certainly aware that technological improvements can ultimately make life simpler and quicker … however, when recycling we all have to remember to you use good old common sense when diverting recyclables from the garbage stream.
The best way to avoid contamination in your recycling stream is to talk with us about what you can recycle and how these materials should be sorted.