How to recycle the right way vs recycle the wrong way

Recycling drop-off center. How to recycle at home
Drop-off center in Bowling Green Ohio. That man is looking for boxes he can use. My picture

We have a worldwide recycling crisis. For one thing, too many people recycle the wrong way. The way to ease that part of the crisis is for more people to recycle the right way

Once upon a time, China eagerly bought recyclables from all over the world. Not anymore. It had to put too much of what it bought in its own landfills. In January 2018, it clamped down and refused to accept any more shipments that failed to meet stringent requirements. That decision, which came after years of warning, upended recycling worldwide.

We can’t blame China. Many of the facilities that sort and bale our recyclables had as much as a 25% contamination rate. In other words, a quarter of the product they sold was either sorted into the wrong bale or didn’t belong in recycling in the first place. The Chinese had to send it to their own landfills.

Would you keep buying a product if you had to throw out a quarter of it?

Our recycling contamination rate has fallen somewhat since then, but it is still too high. We have a recycling crisis in America in part because we never really learned how to recycle. 

Another big part? China used to buy so much that it priced American companies out of the market. 

When China started to refuse to import most recyclables, it gave American companies a new opportunity to buy them and make new products from them. It will take a while before enough new companies scale up enough to make a difference.

Do you recycle the wrong way?

Most American curbside recycling programs rely on single-stream recycling. People are supposed to separate recyclable materials from non-recyclable materials, but single-stream recycling doesn’t require separating the various kinds of recycling. 

All the paper, glass, metals, and plastic go into the same container. The hauler takes them to a materials’ recovery center (MRF), where people and machinery sort everything out. I have described the recycling process in another post. 

The special problem of the wrong way to recycle plastics

plastic recycling numbers

Around the beginning of this century, recycling programs started to expand what plastics they were willing to accept. Much of the plastic packaging you buy has a triangle with a number in it from 1 to 7. Instead of just one or two kinds of plastic (mostly no. 1 and no. 2), for example, they announced they would accept plastic with any number. We, the public, responded by putting all kinds of stuff in our recycling containers. 

Unfortunately, some of those plastics are completely incompatible with single-stream recycling. 

  • No. 7 basically means “none of the above.” Some of this miscellany is recyclable, and some is not. The MRFs have to sell what they sort, and there is no market for miscellaneous plastics.
  • You won’t find no. 3 (polyvinyl chloride) used for packaging. It’s recyclable, but not through ordinary curbside recycling. Only specialized facilities handle it.
  • The MRFs can’t handle Styrofoam™ (no. 6). It breaks into little pieces and contaminates everything else. But the 6 means polystyrene, which is not always foam. The equipment can handle it if it’s not foam, but it just goes into bales of miscellaneous plastics and earns very little money. 
  • The MRFs also can’t handle plastic bags or other plastic films (no. 4). They tangle and sometimes damage the sorting equipment.

The wrong way to recycle non-plastics

For that matter, so do wire coat hangers, strings of Christmas lights, plastic six-pack rings, electric cords, and so on.

And when I say we tried to recycle all kinds of stuff, I mean things that should have just gone into the trash. Otherwise good paper with grease or food waste on it, for example. It’s impossible to clean it up to make recycled paper from it. And once it gets into the recycling truck, it’s likely to contaminate more paper.

As another example, that plastic ketchup bottle is recyclable, but not if it still has a lot of ketchup in it. Too many people fail to rinse out bottles and jars. Even a bottle with water in it causes trouble.

If you buy coffee or other hot drink to go, you might get it in what looks like a paper cup, but that cup has a plastic liner to keep your drink from soaking through the paper. That’s just one example of packaging with thin layers of different kinds of materials. So far, we have no way to separate any of that into its component materials. 

These kinds of contamination lie at the root of recycling the wrong way. The MRF has to sort out all the non-recyclable stuff and send it to the landfill. 

But it gets worse. 

Recycling centers have reported having to deal with bowling balls, scrap metal, food waste, clothing, and even dirty diapers! Do some people even care how to recycle?

How to recycle the right way

First, check your town’s rules

They have probably changed over the last few years. 

For one thing, towns used to get money for the recycling they collected. Now, they have to pay so much a ton for the MRF to take it. Many towns have stopped taking glass at curbside, simply because it’s so heavy.

Many have started to restrict the kinds of plastic they’ll accept, too. In part, that’s because without restrictions, too many “aspirational recyclers” put too many of the wrong things in their recycling containers. By limiting to bottles, jars, tubs, and jugs, for example, municipalities can simplify their rules.

For another thing, China stopped accepting some low-grade plastic and paper entirely, regardless of how clean they are. It just doesn’t have a market. And, of course, too many municipalities remain dependent on selling to China. It will take a while for the American market to grow enough to end the recycling crisis. Low-grade plastic and paper will probably never find a market.

Once you’re clear on what can go in your recycling, make sure it’s clean. That doesn’t mean clean enough to eat from. Just rinse it out to make sure that nothing it contained can leak out and contaminate something else. Or spoil enough to be a health hazard for recycling workers.

In short, learn what your local MRF accepts. Don’t put anything else out to the curb. 

The right way to recycle, including what you don’t put at the curb

  • You can probably take plastic bags and other plastic films to a grocery store and put them in recycling containers there. 
  • If your municipality doesn’t accept glass at curbside, it may offer a drop-off center for it.
  • Really small things easily cause problems at the MRF. At best, they’ll wind up in the wrong place. At worst, they’ll jam the equipment, or maybe even damage it. The whole production line will have to stop. Any paper smaller than a credit card and the pill bottles your prescription medicines come in are among the items that will cause problems at the MRF.
  • Aluminum foil is a special problem. Sheets of foil are likely to get mixed in bales of paper, but if you wad it up, it’s probably too small. If you drink anything from aluminum cans, stull foil into the can where it can’t get loose.
  • If you have a choice of curbside recycling and a drop-off center where you can sort the various kinds of recycling, use the drop-off center. Curbside recycling is more convenient, but if you clean everything properly and sort it at the drop-off center, you eliminate contamination. What’s more, you can put little stuff like pill bottles there. The MRF will get a higher price for whatever it gets through the drop-off centers.
  • If you’re not sure if something is recyclable—that coffee cup or that paper bag where the fries leaked oil on it, for example—throw it out (or compost it). It’s better for you to send something to the landfill directly rather than send it there through the MRF. 

When people recycle the wrong way, everyone pays in terms of higher city utility bills. After all, contamination costs the MRF money in terms of getting lower prices for what it sorts. It has to send all the non-recyclable stuff it gets to the landfill and pay a tipping fee. 

Shop related products

Recycling (MIT Press Essential Knowledge series) / Finn Arne Jørgensen

Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States / Samantha MacBride

What a Waste: Trash, Recycling, and Protecting our Planet / Jess French

POLYWOOD AD5030CR Classic Folding Adirondack Chair, made of composite lumber from recycled plastic.

Earth Ninja: A Children’s Book About
Recycling, Reducing, and Reusing / Jelina Stupar

TerraCycle Circuit Board Coasters, set of 6 — This set of six coasters is made from waste circuit board material. These will not compute, but they will protect your furniture and help keep waste out of landfills.

7 tips to recycle better / EarthDay.org. February 25, 2022 
This is what happens when you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin / Isabelle Tavares, Reader’s Digest. October 12, 2022

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