(TMU Op-Ed) — Since most of us were kids we’ve heard the phrase Reduce, Reuse, Recycle repeated ad nauseam everywhere from on TV to ads plastered on the sides of buses, on recycling bins, on coloring pages, and a host of other places.
However, over the years it seems something was lost in translation. With less focus placed on reducing and reusing, our recycling bins are overflowing week after week. Sure, it might be better to have an overflowing recycling bin than it is to have an overflowing trash bin, but how much better is it really?
At the same time we’re finally seeing an increase of recycling outside of the home at places like schools, gas stations, airports, etc. we’re also seeing a dramatic cutting back of the acceptance of recyclables created in the United States. China recently started restricting the import of recyclable waste including mixed paper and most plastics. The news of this happening was the first time that many people in the United States became aware that a lot of our recycling isn’t actually recycled here. For an act billed as a necessity to saving the environment, the fact that it uses an overwhelming amount of time and resources including fuel to ship it overseas is a little concerning.
But more than that, recycling is only a thing because recyclables are valuable. According to a press release, “The global waste management market size is expected to reach $484.9 billion by 2025.” This means that when you toss something into your recycling bin and it is not able to turn a profit it won’t be recycled. Unfortunately this isn’t rare.
Then there’s also the people that are too hopeful about the abilities of the recycling industry and as a result they toss everything in the bin regardless of what the code on the bottom of the item says or what their local rules say. It only takes a little bit of the wrong thing from a “wishful” recycler to ruin an entire batch of recyclable material. And this too isn’t rare. In fact, according to Waste Management one out of every four items that ends up in recycling bins doesn’t actually belong there.
Here are 11 things that “wishful” recyclers tend to toss in the bin:
- Plastic Bags — To some it may be common knowledge that plastic shopping bags, bubble wrap, cereal bags, food wrap, and more cannot be recycled in your home bin but they still find their way into municipal recycling facilities far too often. These bags can clog up machines and workers must remove them by hand. Thankfully plastic bags are accepted at many stores including local co-ops and chains like Target and Trader Joes.
- Receipts — Unfortunately, most receipts that you receive while shopping are coated in Bisphenol A (BPA). While yes they are paper, the fact that they are coated in BPA means that it contaminates the paper product being made when they get mixed in with the pulp. If you don’t need a receipt just decline it at the store since you can’t recycle it and more importantly because the BPA coating comes off onto your hands and other surfaces. This is especially important information for parents who often hand receipts off to antsy kids during shopping trips. Skip the receipts if you can and if you can’t be sure to wash your hands after handling them.
- Pizza Boxes — Takeout and delivery pizza boxes can’t be recycled, despite their obvious cardboard construction. Any paper product with even the smallest amount of food strains cannot be recycled and this always includes pizza boxes. Thankfully many pizza boxes are now made to be compostable and will say so on the box but remember: compostable does not equal recyclable.
- Bits of Food — Just because you can recycle something doesn’t mean you can recycle it dirty. Rinse out glass and plastic before tossing it in the bin and if the container is still greasy use some soap and water. Even a little bit of food can ruin an entire load of recycling.
- Coffee Cups — Even the greenest among us find ourselves out and about without our own cup when we crave a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, while those cups are paper, they’re lined with plastic film to keep the liquid from soaking into and then out of it which makes them impossible to recycle. The lids and the paper sleeves are recyclable but the cups never are. Next time you’re out without your own reusable cup, ask the barista for a “here” cup and finish your drink before leaving.
- Wrapping Paper — Some municipalities accept wrapping paper but it is important to check your local rules. However, the popular shiny and metallic papers are never recyclable. If you are able to recycle basic, matte wrapping paper be sure to remove ribbons and bows. In lieu of using store bought gift wrap, try transitioning into using newspaper, paper bags, or the brown paper that sometimes comes inside of shipping packages.
- Shredded Paper — There are good reasons to shred certain documents at home but unless you compost it’s better to stick to shredding only that which must be shredded because recycling centers just can’t handle those tiny strips of paper. In fact they can clog up the equipment because they’re so small! Thankfully shredded paper can be composted but make sure not to include envelopes with plastic windows or anything else that isn’t paper. However, some municipalities will accept shredded paper but only if it’s placed in a paper bag and stapled close so please check your local rules for this one.
- Broken Things — Broken plates and glass shouldn’t be placed in your recycling for various reasons. One of the biggest is that they pose a hazard to sanitation workers. If you have broken items wrap them in plastic and carefully put them in the trash.
- Old Dishes — Plates and glassware are not recyclable. If you have items that are in good condition take them to a thrift store instead of throwing them away. Bakeware has a much different melting point and chemical composition than normal recyclable glass.
- Bits of Metal — Some things are too small to recycle. Just like how a piece of paper is recyclable but shredded paper is not, the tab from a metal can isn’t recyclable by itself even though an entire can is. And it’s for the same reason—these small things can clog up the machinery and slow down the entire recycling process. If a soda can tab does fall off, place it inside the can when you’re done. If you have little bits of tinfoil, keep it somewhere safe and add to it until it becomes a big ball.
- Food Boxes and Containers — Most freezer food boxes are coated in plastic, much like coffee cups. And just like coffee cups it makes these otherwise paper products not recyclable. Unfortunately this is the same for cartons that contain nut milk, oat milk, juice, soups, and more. Some municipalities currently accept these cartons but it is not the norm. You can find out more about how to recycle those containers here.
Remember: when in doubt, throw it out. It’s better to mistakenly throw something away that could be recycled than be an aspirational recycler and ruin an entire truck load of recycling. And always check with your local municipality at least once a year to stay up to date on the rules where you live.
Reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order.