As an environmental educator, I encounter folks all the time who do not know what is and isn't recyclable. As part of my job, I work to help teach our students and employees what can and cannot be recycled; however, there have been several instances when even I have been stumped and had to look up whether an item was recyclable.
The problem is that the rules are complicated. They change depending on where you live and the capabilities of the specific recycling facility. More confusingly, certain things are recyclable, but just not in your single-stream recycling bin. Plastic bags are one such item. Many individuals place their recycling in plastic bags and then bring them outside to their bin; however, this causes a problem for the automated sorting machines.
A few years ago, our Environmental Club was able to visit the Waste Management Recycle America facility in Elkridge, Md. It was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea how the process worked, and I guess I never really thought about it before that time. It really is amazing when you stop to think about it: What kind of machine would you design to sort out the cardboard, paper, glass, plastic and metals from all of the trash that ended up in there by accident?
It is a pretty elaborate setup — almost like a Rube Goldberg machine. Once the materials have been emptied from the trucks and fed onto the conveyor belt system, non-recyclable materials (including plastic bags) are removed from the mix. When we visited, we were told about all of the strange things people put in the recycling bin that shouldn't be in there. Things such as string lights, extension cords and, of course, those ubiquitous plastic bags. These items get stuck in the rotating disc screens that help sort the items. When this happens, the whole system must be shut down and the items that caused the jam removed. The confusing part is that items such as electronics and plastic bags can be recycled — just not through this single-stream process.
Recycling isn't that hard if you remember these six tips:
1. DO recycle your soda cans — always. Aluminum can be recycled over and over again, and it is far more efficient to recycle aluminum than it is to mine bauxite and make new aluminum. Don't put large pieces of metal (e.g. old gutters, pots and pans) in your single stream bin. That should be taken elsewhere for scrap metal recycling.
2. DO recycle your glass. It is better if you rinse it out, but the waste management folks told us on our visit that it doesn't have to be squeaky clean.
3. DO recycle hard plastics. Most hard plastics can be recycled, but I only recently learned that not everything can go to your single-stream recycling facility. In general, only plastic containers that are larger than two inches in diameter but are five gallons or smaller can be recycled at many of the facilities. The best thing to do is figure out what plastics your specific county can recycle.
4. DO recycle clean paper and cardboard. DON'T recycle it if it is greasy (e.g. pizza boxes). Your napkins, tissues, paper plates and paper towels are made of paper, but they are not recyclable.
5. DON'T put plastic bags in your recycling bin. They are recyclable, just bring them to your local grocery store.
6. DON'T put cords or electronics in your recycling bin. Electronics are recyclable, but you have to bring them to a recycling location. Best Buy, Staples and other retailers accept these items. Many counties have drop-off locations, as well.
If you are not sure, either look it up or don't put it in the bin. You could be doing more harm than good. I created a list for my Maryland neighbors which contains links to each Maryland county government website with information on what materials are acceptable for recycling.
Although reusing items is best, we can't be completely waste-free. Recycling helps to reduce landfill waste, and it reduces the amount of energy needed to create new products. I hope my tips will help you to be a little "greener" just in time for Earth Day on Saturday.
Kimberly Pause Tucker is director of the Stevenson University Center for Environmental Stewardship and an associate professor of biological sciences. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.