People have lots of questions about recycling. Should you wash out beer bottles and jelly jars? Paper is good — but what about shredded paper? And what about light bulbs? Or window glass? What kind of plastic can you put in the blue box? And then there’s the big question: is recycling really worth it?
The Washington Post recently reported that recycling isn’t profitable any more. Whether recycling turns a profit is the wrong question. As a recent Mother Jones article points out, recycling succeeds financially if it just costs less than burying stuff in landfills. But financial success isn’t even half the story. Recycling succeeds by keeping trash out of landfills.
Trash in all its forms, from uneaten food to ubiquitous (and still mostly unrecyclable) plastic packaging, costs money when we buy it and more money when we get rid of it. is just one part — though a crucially important part — of the reduce/reuse/recycle solution.
1) DO rinse food containers. From WBFO:
“Every few days, the vast recycling machinery at the Sims Municipal Recycling plant in Brooklyn is shut down and cleaned. In part, this is because of all the vile, putrid sludge that accumulates from flakes of dried yogurt and banana peels and whatever else we put into our recycling bins because we are either lazy or overly optimistic about the power of recycling.”
You can keep the plastic lids on bottles, but remove the metal lids from glass jars.
2) DON’T put non-recyclable stuff into the recycling collection. WBFO reported that recycling centers have found everything from guns to wedding gifts to a bale of marijuana and a bowling ball.
3) Shredded paper is accepted in Minneapolis, if it’s in a closed paper bag. Some other cities say no to shredded paper.
4) Ceramics, light bulbs, window glass, aerosol cans, toilet paper tubes, egg cartons, wrapping paper, napkins, and any kind of plastic wrap or film are NOT recyclable.
What happens when non-recyclable materials get mixed in? Aside from the machine shutdown problems, these materials can contaminate bales of recycling material, making them less saleable.
The Plastic Problem
Plastic poses particular problems for recycling, and for the environment. Although they are relatively lightweight, plastics make up a huge part of our trash stream, and present an even bigger challenge for recycling. The EPA reports that:
“Plastics make up almost 13 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, a dramatic increase from 1960, when plastics were less than one percent of the waste stream. … The recycling rate for different types of plastic varies greatly, resulting in an overall plastics recycling rate of only 9 percent, or 2.8 million tons in 2012. … Contrary to common belief, just because a plastic product has the resin number in a triangle, which looks very similar to the recycling symbol, it does not mean it is collected for recycling.”
In St. Paul, Eureka picks up many kinds of plastics for recycling, but plastics cause problems. The Eureka website describes the problems with plastics, beginning with this stark warning:
“When plastics are used, recycled, or disposed of, or left in the environment as litter, they break down and release harmful chemicals. These pollutants include heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and chemicals such as benzene, dioxins, and other pollutants, which all release harmful toxins into our air, water, and bodies. … In the short term, recycling can be better than burning or burying plastics, and it can replace the use of virgin petroleum in making new products. However, even the plastics recycling process is not without harmful effects on human and environmental health.”
Non-recyclable plastic bags can literally gum up the works in recycling plants, requiring time-consuming shutdowns to clean machinery.
Reducing waste keeps those problematic plastics out of landfills and recycling plants. Minneapolis took a big step toward reducing plastic waste last year, banning single-use, disposable polystyrene and styrofoam food containers.
Bottom line: Recycling works — by keeping trash out of landfills, by turning old paper into new paper and old glass into new glass and even old plastics into new plastics, and by saving money for cities. To make recycling work better, check the specific local rules for recycling — here for Minneapolis and here for St. Paul.