Recycling is a wonderful thing. It declutters your living space, keeps items out of landfills, and even helps communities save money. Many areas have gone to a process known as “single stream recycling,” which allows residents to put different kinds of recyclables into one large bin. This technology for managing recyclables is constantly evolving, and so are the guidelines for what should and shouldn’t go into a single stream bin. In general, single stream means you can put paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal objects together. However, there are a few particulars that are helpful to keep in mind.
AVOID PUTTING THE FOLLOWING INTO SINGLE STREAM BINS
Soiled paper and cardboard
While paper and cardboard are recyclable, the paper needs to be “clean” enough to be recycled. A pizza box that has grease stains or a paper towel that has been used to wipe up a spill are not recyclable and should be put in the trash can.
Paper that has been fused with a wax coating, such as many take-out coffee cups and milk cartons, are not easy to recycle. Check with your collector to see if these can go into your single stream bin.
While mirrors are made of glass, the reflective treatment renders them unfit for recycling.
Photographs are made of paper, but photos that were chemically developed are not eligible for paper recycling. Photos that have been digitally printed are safe for single stream.
This is the shiny and reflective paper that is used for some balloons, chip bags, and candy wrappers. Mylar looks like aluminum foil, but it isn’t the same material. If you aren’t sure, try crumpling it up. If it stays crumpled, it is aluminum foil and safe for single stream. If it quickly unfurls, put it in the trash.
Tyvek, a malleable material you might receive in the form of a FedEx shipping envelope, is not recyclable. Cardboard shipping envelopes are safe.
If an empty plastic container has held a contaminant (such as weed killer) put it in the trash. Also, if it has held a greasy substance (such as cooking oil), only put it in the bin if you have thoroughly rinsed it out. If the plastic is too greasy (like the peanut butter container in the photo below), it will be rejected.
Pyrex looks like glass, but it is actually a special material that has a very high melting point. This makes it great for baking, but unsuitable for single stream.
Neither incandescent nor fluorescent bulbs can go into the recycle bin. Incandescent bulbs are safe for the trash, but fluorescent ones require special handling. Check with your town for specific instructions.
Ink Jet Cartridges
While ink cartridges are made of plastic, they can’t be tossed into the recycling bin. The good news is that they are now widely collected by office supply stores for reloading, often in return for store credit.
Some people wonder if ceramics, such as old coffee mugs, are recyclable. Unfortunately, they are not. If you have pieces that are in decent shape, consider donating them.
Single-stream is mostly designed for metal that has been used to hold food and beverages. Larger pieces of metal should be dealt with separately, and are often collected by town refuse centers. Wire hangers are best recycled to the dry cleaner.
Cloth items do not belong in single stream. Donate items in good condition, and look for textile recycling bins for stained/torn items.
Items made of multiple materials – even if the materials are individually recyclable – may not be appropriate for recycling. An object that is simple in construction, such as a spiral notebook, can go in the bin. But if there is a complex assortment of materials – such as an old coffee maker – it will not be eligible for the single stream process.
TAKE THESE STEPS TO MAXIMIZE THE EFFICIENCY OF THE PROCESS
Ball up aluminum foil
Flat foil may be confused for paper and may not move properly through the sorter. Simply rinse it off and ball it up before dropping it into your bin.
Avoid flattening plastic bottles or cans
The sorters separate flat from 3-dimensional objects, so put them into your recycle bin in their original shape.
Dump contents out of plastic bags
The single stream sorters need to deal with each item individually. Placing a closed plastic bag full of cans into your bin may result in the entire bag being plucked out and put into the regular trash. Instead, if you collect or transport recyclable items in plastic, be sure to dump the contents out into the receptacle. Plastic bags themselves may or may not be acceptable. If your town allows them, scrunch them up before you drop them in your bin. Alternatively, you can often return these to your grocery store (many have collection boxes) or simply reuse them.
Corral shredded paper
Shredded paper – especially when it gets wet – can become sticky and clog up the sorter. The best approach is to put the shredded pieces inside of a paper bag with an open top. Some of the pieces may slip out, but most of them will stay in the bag and end up in the proper area of the recycling center. Another great alternative is to compost the paper.
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The technology for separating and processing recyclable items is impressive. If you’d like to get an idea of how it is done, watch this clip. This was filmed at a recycling center in Boulder, CO. Always remember to check with your local facility to know what is and isn’t recyclable in your area.
Has your community gone to single stream recycling? Have your learned any helpful tips about what can and can’t go through the process?