Recycling has been on the rise across the country. As consumers, we have learned a lot about what and how to recycle. At the same time, technologies and methods are constantly evolving, so there is always more to learn.
At a recent meeting of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO), I learned some new information from experts in the field. Three members of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority (SCARRA) shared helpful information about how to best participate in recycling initiatives. Even though I consider myself well informed, I was surprised by a few things they told us. Did you know…
- Trash and recycling programs differ by state and municipality. There are some universal guidelines, but the best place for information in your location is your local town government and/or trash company.
- In some areas (like much of the state of CT), landfill space is no longer available. In many cases, collected trash is taken to a location where it is sorted by next step. Whatever can be recycled/reused/composted is separated out, and the remainder is either trucked to other locations (where landfill space is available) or burned. [Note: I learned that the technology for burning is very sophisticated, releasing primarily steam as the output. In contrast, waste in landfills is decomposed by bacteria, which release methane gas and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.] What used to be known as your “town dump” may now be more of a “town transfer station.”
- Items collected for recycling go through a very technologically advanced sorting process. Since trash haulers compact collections, the first step of the process is to toss items up in the air to loosen them up.
- Small plastic items tend to “fall through” the sorter and end up back in the trash during this process. For example, medicine bottles are too small, so even though they are plastic, they are unlikely to be recycled. Bottle caps, straws and disposable drink lids are other examples. There is no hard and fast rule, but plastic items larger than a yogurt container are most likely to end up recycled. That said, very large plastic pieces (such as storage bins and plastic toys) may not qualify for recycling in your area, so check before pitching them into a recycling bin.
- Shredded paper and plastic grocery sacks should not go into the recycling bin. Although they are made of recyclable materials, they clog up the sorting machines, often requiring the whole system to be shut down so that someone can climb inside and pull the bits of plastic out. Instead, compost shredded paper or take it to a commercial shredder. Since commercial shredders have large quantities of shredded paper, they can compact it together and it can be recycled without having to go through the sorting machines. For plastic bags, check with local retailers. Many grocery stores offer collection bins. As with commercially shredded paper, these bags can be bulk packed together and recycled without going through the sorter.
- Unused medications should never be trashed. Remove labels or ink out personal information, and then drop off at your nearby police station. Sharps also need safe disposal. A simple solution is to drop them into a large, plastic laundry detergent container. Be sure to the label the container “do not recycle,” so the trash hauler won’t toss it into the recycling sorter. To be extra safe, tape the lid of the container shut before trashing it.
- You are probably contributing financially to recycling efforts for specific items. Towns or states often allow a tax on new mattresses or paint to help fund recycling of the old product.
- Food containers need to be at least “mostly” clean. Peanut butter containers are often rejected because they are too soiled for reuse. The greasy part of a pizza box is another common culprit, as is dirty aluminum foil.
- Some items seem recyclable but really aren’t. For example, large paper bags used for pet food are rejected because they have a waxy liner to block grease between the inner and outer paper layers. One option is to use the empty ones as trash bags, giving them one more use before being thrown away. Wax paper, Tyvek envelopes, potato chip bags, single cheese wrappers, zip-top bags and dryer sheets should also go into the trash.
- To increase the odds of an item being a candidate for recycling, always separate unlike materials. For instance, remove the shrink-wrap label from plastic water bottles or the spout from a detergent bottle. The more “pure” a batch is, the greater its value and recyclability.
- Recycling programs are constantly improving, but there are still some items that do not qualify, including pillows, clothing, sheet rock, wood, electronics, garden hoses and metal pots/pans.
- Hazardous materials (e.g. paint thinner, drain cleaners, photographic chemicals, nail polish remover, oven cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, gasoline, kerosene, insecticides, pool chemicals, moth balls and rat poison) require special treatment. (One common pollutant in water sources today is used motor oil from DIY-ers pouring it into storm drains.) Most towns have one day a year for dropping off such materials, and many towns now offer year-round collection.
- Just because an item can’t go into the recycle bin doesn’t mean it can’t have a second life. Used towels and blankets are often welcomed by veterinary hospitals, metal hangers can be returned to dry cleaners and yard waste can often be chipped up and used as mulch.
* * * * *
Perhaps one of the most important things to know is that the rules and guidelines are constantly being updated. An item that was acceptable last year may now be off the list and vice versa. Professionals in the industry try and keep the public informed, but we should also take responsibility for doing what we can to use the systems properly.
Does any of this surprise you? Does your town follow similar guidelines?