Aspirational recycling: what can’t be recycled

MRF tipping floor. Aspirational recycling
MRF tipping floor, Bowling Green, Ohio. My photo

Americans recycle badly. We commit two equal and opposite mistakes: not recycling at all or putting the wrong things in our recycling. Trying to recycle what can’t be recycled has earned the name “aspirational recycling.” Are you guilty?

I took a tour of my home town’s material recovery facility (MRF) with the city’s recycling education director. An idealistic young woman who hadn’t been on the job very long, she told me she used to be proud of all the plastic she put out with her recycling. Until she got her job and learned how much trouble she had caused.

Aspirational recycling causes at least three kinds of problems at a MRF:

  • When it sorts out what it never should have received in the first place, it has to send it all to the landfill. And the MRF must pay the hauler and the landfill’s tipping fee.
  • Some items get tangled in the sorting equipment. The entire assembly line must shut down while someone climbs into the machinery to clean it out. That person may get injured in the process. Or a part of the machinery may break.
  • Some items contaminate the MRF’s output. Some even destroy the value of other materials. A high contamination rate caused China to stop accepting the world’s recyclables. That decision caused our current recycling crisis.

Here are some things that can’t be recycled through MRFs, but that they get every day anyway:

Plastic shopping bags and other tanglers

Plastic bags. Aspirational recycling
Plastic bags. Wikimedia Commons

Plastic bags may have the number 2 in the recycling triangle. So aspirational recyclers put them out at the curb with everything else. 

Big mistake. 

The number only identifies what kind of plastic it is. The recycling triangle doesn’t mean the MRFs can handle it. Plastic bags and other soft, filmy plastics that can’t maintain their own shape easily get tangled in rotating equipment. 

To recycle them, you have to take them to a grocery store or someplace else that has special containers to put them in. From there, they can become plastic lumber. But that container at the store has––or should have––nothing in it except plastic film. It doesn’t have to be sorted from other kinds of plastic.

While plastic bags are the most common items to get tangled in the MRF’s sorting equipment, others cause just as much or more damage. These include bubble wrap, mesh citrus bags, wire coat hangers, extension cords, garden hoses, strings of Christmas lights, and the like.

Maybe you have such things that you want to get rid of but don’t want to burden the landfill. Good for you! Check Earth911 to find out first if they can be recycled at all, and second, where to send or take them. 


Styrofoam food container. What can't be recycled
Styrofoam food container. Wikimedia Commons

Styrofoam is a trademark for a particular brand of polystyrene foam. It has the number six, if any. Aspirational recycling gives MRFs too much of it.

Polystyrene foam is mostly air. It doesn’t get tangled in MRF equipment. It just gets broken up into little pieces that hitchhike through the plant with everything else. Then, it gets mixed with bales of paper, other plastic, or metal that the MRF sells. 

China stopped accepting recyclables from the rest of the world because it was receiving bales with as much as a 25% contamination rate. Not all contamination comes from wrong materials like polystyrene foam, but all polystyrene foam is a contaminant.

In principle it’s recyclable. Like plastic bags, it requires a separate process from your local recycling program. Earth911 will tell you if any processing facility exists reasonably close to your home. 

Compound materials

disposable coffee cups, what can't be recycled

A lot of packaging is made of thin layers of a lot of different materials. Sometimes they’re different kinds of plastic and may include aluminum foil.  Sometimes they’re mostly paper with layers of something else. 

It’s impossible either to separate them into their original ingredients or do much with them. Aspirational recyclers don’t stop to think about that.

Here are just a few compound materials that can’t be recycled:

  • disposable coffee cups 
  • coffee pods
  • single serve juice boxes
  • bags for potato chips and other snacks
  • twist ties

Small plastics

Speaking of twist ties, if something is smaller than a credit card, it will fall through the system even if it’s an otherwise recyclable plastic. So that plastic tab on your bread belongs in the trash. So does that plastic pill bottle.

The glass pile I saw at that MRF I mentioned didn’t look like a pile of glass. Among other contaminants, I saw lots of pill bottles and other small plastics. The glass literally fell out of the system early in the sorting process. So did anything else either too heavy or too small to pass over the gap the glass was designed to fall through.

Plastic straws, although bigger, likewise get lost in sorting equipment or fall out early. Get out of the habit of using straws at all unless you are in the small part of the population that can’t otherwise drink anything. 

The wrong glass

Glass bottles and jars. Aspirational recycling
Glass jars and bottles. Wikimedia Commons

Just as there are different kinds of plastics, there are different kinds of glass. Among the differences? They melt at different temperatures. 

My father took up glass blowing as a hobby. He eventually became quite good at it. He could mix different colors of glass to his heart’s content, but early on, he mistakenly mixed chemically incompatible kinds of glass. 

When he finished his creations, they were too hot to touch. If they cooled to room temperature too quickly, they would shatter, so he had to put them in a cooling oven. When he mixed incompatible glasses, they solidified at different temperatures. And so when he took those creations out, they were broken. He kept some of his mistakes as a reminder.

Why do I tell you this?

The bottles and jars you can send to the recycling center are all made from the same kind of glass. Most of it is clear. Some is green, brown, or some other color. But it is all the same kind of glass. 

Windows, baking dishes, drinking glasses, measuring cups, and whatever other glass items you have are made of different glass from bottles and jars. I suppose manufacturers who buy recycled glass to  make new bottles and jars have means of sorting out the wrong kinds of glass. And charge the MRF for the expense of removing the contaminants.

So don’t put anything but bottles and jars out for recycling. 

Whatever else you don’t want, donate it to a thrift store. If it’s broken, put it in the trash.

Non-recyclable paper

Aspirational recyclers try to recycle paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates, or tissue paper. 

These items may have post-consumer waste in them. In other words, they have already been recycled. Their fibers are too short to be of any further use in the recycling process.

Also, most often they have food residue or whatever else you used them to clean up. If you can compost, that’s where such waste belongs.

Contaminated paper

PIzza boxes. Aspirational recycling
Pizza boxes. Wikimedia Commons

That greasy pizza box likewise doesn’t belong in your recycling, but for a different reason. If it’s clean, it’s valuable cardboard. But the grease not only makes it worthless, it contaminates the entire bale it winds up in. 

Some company buys that bale, perhaps to make new cardboard. But unless it can somehow sort out every greasy piece, all the new cardboard made from that bale will have the grease in it. It becomes waste instead of a saleable product. So tear off any clean cardboard, but the greasy part can’t be recycled.

Likewise, only aspirational recyclers put that newspaper they spread on the floor while they painted the bedroom with their recycling. 

Any magazine, chipboard, office paper, or any other otherwise recyclable paper that has food waste or other contaminants on it becomes useless for recycling.

Food waste

You really do need to rinse out bottles, jars, and cans before you put them out for recycling. They don’t have to be completely clean, as if you were going to reuse them. But if that ketchup or salad dressing or peanut butter can fall out of the bottle, jar, or can, it will. And it will contaminate whatever paper it falls on. 

That is, even if you or one of your neighbors put good paper out for recycling, that food residue you neglected to rinse will ruin some of it. Also, think of that aluminum can that had a drink in it. It, too, can spoil paper. Take the can to the sink and shake out as many drops of beverage as you can before you put it with the rest of the recyclables.

Some careless people even put food containers out that are not even empty. They still contain several servings of whatever’s in them!

And the other stuff I saw on that glass pile? It included potatoes, lemons, and mushrooms. They never should have been put out for recycling in  the first place.

Miscellaneous surprises

Besides food waste, some of what MRFs have reported having received is simple beyond belief. It’s not aspirational recycling. It’s just plain careless.

Who in their right mind would think any of the following wastes could go in their recycling containers?

  • Dead batteries––properly a hazardous waste.  Don’t even put them in the trash.
  • Clothing—if you want to get rid of something that’s no longer wearable or usable, look for a place that accepts it for fabric recycling––Good Will, for example.
  • Scrap metal––something else that damages MRF equipment and can injure workers. Check Earth911.
  • Needles and syringes––medical waste 
  • Bowling balls!
  • Bicycles!
  • Propane tanks!
  • Auto parts!
  • Mattresses!
  • Dirty diapers!

You may have read that stuff you put in recycling just goes to the landfill, anyway. It’s partly true. Aspirational recycling and otherwise putting out what can’t be recycled is just an indirect and more expensive way to get trash from people’s homes to the landfill. And it can reduce the value of the MRF’s output. 

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