When it comes to recycling, are we doing more harm than good?
We have the best of intentions when it comes to recycling. But putting *questionable* items in the recycling bin is wreaking havoc on waste management facilities.
Common wish-cycling items, depending on the capacity of your local facilities, include plastic bags and utensils, soiled coffee cups, cartons, toiletry packaging, electronics and appliances, toys, and containers with food residue. A load of recycling containing even 0.5% food or liquid residue will cause the entire load of otherwise clean recyclables to end up in a landfill. And throwing anything with an electrical cord in the blue bin, like a phone charger, could jam up a facility for hours. It's one reason China stopped taking our recycling in 2018 - contamination renders our recyclable content useless.
Whereas we once profited off our recyclables, we now can't even pay the most impoverished countries to take it off our hands. Lack of domestic infrastructure and complexity of 21st century packaging means that less than 9% of our recyclables are actually being recycled - the rest is being burned, piling up in landfills, and inevitably, oceans. Jay Kaplan, NYC's Waste Management Environmental Manager, reports 600 truck dumps per landfill, per day.
The reckoning is here to remind us - recycling is supposed to be the LAST resort, after reduce and reuse. The complexity and lack of transparency around our waste stream made it easier for me to apply a robust "no plastic" rule to my life over a more moderate approach.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! If you do catch yourself taking the crinkle home with you, apply the following rules to your recycling to avoid slowing down the system with wish-cycling! Before tossing, look it up - and if still in doubt, contrary to your best intentions - put it in the trash can.
- Rinse all recyclables from food and liquid residue before recycling!
- Paper coffee cups are often lined in plastic, making recycling unlikely, as with all mixed-material items, including most cartons. NYC claims to recycle the cups when they are separated from lid, rinsed, and put in the green bin. Coffee lids go in the blue bin, but they're also unlikely to be recycled for the same reason as K-pods and bottle caps are not: they are too small to be caught by the sorter.
- Anything smaller than 2x2" will not be recycled. That includes straws, lighters, wrappers, credit cards, plastic lids and caps, pens & markers, plastic utensils, K-cups, disposable razors.
- Flexible plastics like toothpaste, lotion and cosmetic tubes are not curbside recyclable.
- Plastic items without a recycling symbol are NOT curbside recyclable.
- Don't bag your recycling! The bag gums up the sorting machines, and any amount of contamination means the whole bag gets thrown out. Loose recycling is more easily processed.
- Mylar - that silvery plastic popular with snack foods - is not curbside recyclable: that means balloons, chip bags, granola bar wrapping. Acceptable only with Terracycle.
- See my previous blog about recycling clothes and textiles, or visit Earth911 to find a receptacle near you.
- Styrofoam will not be recycled.
- Plastic bags are not curbside recyclable. Most markets have a return program. The bag ban starts in March 2020, NYC! Bring your reusables!
- Plastics 1-6 (as noted on container), as well as clean cardboard, newspaper, magazines, paper, aluminum, and glass are all still accepted recyclables in most US locations.
- Clean plastic bottles are the only dependably recycled plastic item. Make sure to rinse and put the lid back on!
- Pizza boxes are trash unless you tear out the contaminated parts before recycling.
- Choose rechargeable batteries. Click here to find the nearest location to recycle single-use alkaline batteries.
- Local hardware stores like Home Depot, Lowes and Ikea accept items such as lightbulbs and batteries. PaintCare to recycle old paint.
- Electronics and appliances are NOT curbside recyclable. Best Buy accepts most electronics for recycling. Click here to learn how to recycle appliances.
- Recycle plastic razors with Terracycle. Recycle razor blades with Albatross.
- TerraCycle for any hard-to-recycle items!
- Food waste is the biggest stream to landfill. Divert by composting!
Click to watch NYC's recycling stream!