Can you recycle greasy coffee cups or pizza boxes? If you put things in the recycling bin out of sheer hope, you could be an "aspirational recycler."
We've all done it: a greasy pizza box, a disposable coffee cup, a weird plastic bag. Sometimes we want things to be recyclable, so we put them in the recycling bin.
Waste managers often call it wishful or aspirational recycling. But, unfortunately, putting these items in the rest of the recycling can do more harm than good. Although the regulations differ in each municipality, we have selected some keys to consider.
Too many of these items will contaminate a recycling lot. That means waste managers may not find buyers for the materials, especially now that China, one of the world's leading importers of recyclable waste, has said it will reject shipments that are more than 0.5 percent impure. Contaminated loads could be sent to landfill instead.
It may look like your disposable coffee cup can be recycled, but most single-use cups are lined with a thin polyethylene film, which makes the cups liquid-proof but also difficult and expensive to reprocess (because materials must be separated). Most waste management facilities will treat the cups as garbage.
If you put these mugs in your recycling, they are likely to contaminate the rest of the materials, said Jim Ace, a leading advocate for Stand.earth, an environmental group. In an experiment this year, the group put electronic trackers inside Starbucks cups, put the cups in recycling bins in Denver, and then tracked them to a landfill.
"There's no way a consumer will know if a cup was lined," said Mr. Ace, so it's best to throw it away. (You can also check to see if your local recycler has special equipment to handle coffee cups - some do, a Starbucks spokeswoman said. The New York City Department of Sanitation says it accepts “paper cups with no liners. of paper").
The plastic cap may be recyclable in your area; check the number inside against your local recycling guidelines.
Greasy pizza boxes
Pizza boxes are among the most common offenders when it comes to contamination, say waste managers. The problem is that the oil often seeps into the cardboard. The oil cannot be separated from the fiber, making that material less valuable and less marketable to buyers.
But that's not to say that a pizza box can never be recycled, said Marjorie Griek, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, which promotes recycling in the United States. "If you have some crumbs there, that's not a problem," he said.
Pizza boxes with “small amounts of fat” are O.K. for recycling in New York City, said a spokeswoman for the department of sanitation. If grease seeps through the cardboard, the box should be placed in a compost bin or thrown away, she said.
Remember, there are also two sides to a pizza box. If there is a non-greasy side, rip it off and recycle it.
Yogurt cups (and other non-recyclable plastics)
After China banned used plastics this year, many municipalities in the United States no longer accept plastics numbered 3 through 7, which can include things like yogurt cups, butter tubs and bottles of vegetable oil. Look at the bottom of a container at a number inside a triangle to see what type it is.
Without China, there is little market for this type of plastic, said Will Posegate, chief operating officer for Garten Services, which manages waste in parts of Oregon. "It's expensive to get rid of it right now," he said.
Should you keep the caps on your bottles? Some waste managers say it is okay (as long as they are tightly packed), while others advise throwing them away.
Check your local recycling website to see what types of plastic are still acceptable in your area.
Even if a container is properly labeled for recycling in your area, another culprit contaminant is food residue: leftover Thai pie on a plastic tray, or those few drops of bad milk at the bottom of the jug.
Disposing of food scraps from recyclables can be as important as putting the right thing in the recycling bin, said Jackie Lang, a spokeswoman for Waste Management in Oregon. You don't have to scrub the containers until they are clean, which could waste water. But too much food and liquid waste can contaminate a load, which could then be sent to a landfill, Lang said. As much as possible, "keep food and liquids out," he said.
If you have a garbage dump in your building or a long walk to the recycling bin, you may have gotten into the habit of collecting paper, plastics, and glass in used plastic bags, but it's important to note that Bags should not be put in the recycling cart.
While we might wish that plastic bags - notorious for dissolving into microplastics and killing wildlife - could be sent to processors with our other recycling, they shouldn't be. They create a nightmare for waste managers by clogging machinery. So remember to throw your recyclables out of the plastic bag when you put them in the recycle bin. Some areas offer plastic bag drops, which send these non-rigid plastics to special facilities for recycling. Other cities and states have decided to tax, limit or ban the use of plastic bags.
Dirty diapers (yes, people do this)
O.K., we do not accuse you of attempting to recycle used diapers. But people are trying. Waste managers in the United States say they show up at their recycling facilities often.
In some cases, people may think that a diaper should be recyclable because it is made primarily of plastic, said Garry Penning, a spokesman for Rogue Disposal and Recycling, which operates throughout Oregon. But diapers are made from a number of materials, and generally more than one type of plastic. Of course, once they are used, they also fill up with human waste.
In other cases, Penning said, the recycle bin has simply become "the garbage can overflow." While there have been some attempts to recycle diapers, most single-use dirty diapers are not considered recyclable and are best put directly in the trash.
"As a result of China's waste import restrictions, we have to educate the public on how to recycle properly," said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. "I think the public can make a big difference," he said.
By Livia Albeck-Ripka
Original article (in English)