Keep in mind that much of what I say here is geared to the Portland, `Oregon, Metro area. Processes and rules will vary in your area. Contact your local garbage & recycling collector for detailed information about your recycling services.
Just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it can be recycled in your curbside or work recycling program. Some of the biggest contaminants of local collection systems are from overly enthusiastic patrons adding the wrong types of recyclable materials to their recycling streams.
The Metro area has two-stream, commingled recycling in our curbside and work programs. This means we mix plastics, paper, and metals in the same bin, but put glass on the side. Glass is a huge contaminant that can reduce the amount of recovery of your recycled materials, and pose a threat to the haulers and handlers. In some areas, like Seattle, there is a one-stream, commingled system in which they put glass in the same container as their paper, metals, and plastics.
The Metro area has created a standard list for plastics that are accepted curbside/at work, and it is not based on the # appearing on the plastic container. (The number system was created by the plastics industry and is not regulated. More on that in the Plastics page.) Only the things with a long-term, viable aftermarket are added to recycling collection lists; the lists are not updated every time a market goes in or out to avoid confusion among patrons of the system.
Although the bin systems and signage have gotten simpler, patrons still throw away a very high volume of curbside recyclables. About 24% of the Metro trash collected could have been recycled at the curb 😦 Education through notes from waste carriers, locals like Master Recyclers, and people you know like neighbors and family will reinforce a greater recycling rate. If you understand your recycling system well, be sure to share the news in an upbeat, inspirational way to help out those you know!
We have a huge roll cart for our recycling, and I really mean huge. I think both Chris and I could fit in it. It is huge for a few reasons: 1) less frequent need to put it at the curb; 2) no need to smash items before putting them in the bin (makes for better sorting).
Several years back our recycling providers told us we didn’t need to remove labels from cans, but in doing that the paper will not end up getting recycled. It will get burned off when the steel is recycled…
Aluminum should not be mixed with steel (i.e. don’t put a blob of aluminum foil in a steel can), as it will not get recycled that way. Not sure if something is steel? Hold a magnet to it, and if it sticks it’s steel! Small metal items like bottle caps may not get recycled because they are small and can fall through sorting machines. If you can, put steel pieces in a can, then crimp the can shut to recycle. With aluminum, try to wad multiple pieces up together into a larger piece to ensure it will be sorted properly at your Material Recycling Facility (MRF).
Items like coffee cups and frozen food boxes cannot be recycled anywhere. They have plastic linings or plastic infused in the paper that prevents them from breaking down properly in the paper recycling process.
“If in doubt, throw it out.” I know that sounds counter intuitive, but feeling guilty about throwing something away or just giving the item the benefit of the doubt means you may be contaminating the recycling stream.
There are plenty of depots that collect recyclable items that aren’t collected at the curbside. Metro has a great directory of these depots, and will tell you where to go based on what materials you have to recycle. In our community there are also plastics roundups (yup, just like they sound), and other events to help recycle items.
No matter where you live or what recycling systems exist in your area, the best method is to precycle and prevent getting the waste in the first place. The next time you go to the store, think twice before grabbing those individual pack yogurts, applesauce, chips, frozen goods, etc. Also, are there things you could make yourself, avoid completely, or is there a greener alternative? I’ll talk more about this under Waste Prevention.
In the mean time, keep recycling as much as you can, and reducing what you buy to begin with! You are setting a great example for everyone around you–keep up the good work 🙂