Contamination can’t be recycled

Recyclable materials falling loose into a curbside binContamination is the term used by the recycling industry to describe anything in a recycling bin that shouldn’t be there. Contamination decreases the value of recyclables, increases processing costs, can be dangerous for workers and can cause your recyclables to be sent to the landfill. The average contamination rate among communities and businesses is currently about 25 percent. That means that roughly one in four items placed in a recycling bin is not actually recyclable.

So how can you fight contamination? Prepare recyclable items correctly, and don’t recycle unacceptable items.

Proper prep

Give a quick rinse to all cans and plastic containers and keep items loose in your recycling bin — not in bags, not in boxes. Plastic bags aren’t recyclable curbside. Plus, anything in a bag is assumed to be trash and goes straight to the landfill. Recyclables can get stuck inside boxes and may not get properly sorted and processed.

Never in the bin

The following items should never go in your curbside recycling bin:

plastic film bag

Plastic bags and film — Recycling processing facilities are not set up to process plastic film, whether it be shopping bags, product overwrap, air pillows or bubble wrap. It gets caught in the sorting machinery or disposed of on the sorting line. Instead, recycle plastic bags and film at your local grocery or big box store.

A great way to reduce single-use plastic bags is to use durable, reusable bags.

Photo of group of fast food containers: take out box, hamburger box, french fry container, Chinese take out container and fast food drink cup.Food & liquids — Food and liquids can ruin an entire load of recyclables and send them straight to the landfill.

Though made primarily of paper, coffee and soda cups, paper plates, frozen food containers, takeout boxes, and fast food containers cannot be recycled for two reasons. The first is because they’re all coated with a thin layer of plastic, not wax as is commonly believed. The second is they are heavily contaminated by food and beverages.

Pizza boxes can be iffy — you can recycle the clean part (usually the top), and compost or dispose of the greasy part (usually the bottom). The only parts of disposable cups that are recyclable are the plastic lids and cardboard coffee cup sleeves.

Paint can with brush resting on top

A great way to reduce single-use food containers is to go durable.

Hazardous waste — This includes medical waste such as sharps, and prescription drugs, personal hygiene items such as diapers and toilet paper, and household hazardous waste (HHW). HHW is any item with Danger, Warning or Caution on the label including paint, automotive fluids, lawn and garden chemicals, cleaners, and many beauty products.

diaper-400px

Properly dispose of sharps and prescription drugs. HHW can be properly disposed through your local HHW program. Everything else should go in the trash. And toilet paper? Only in the toilet!

For the most complete list of items that should and shouldn’t go in your curbside recycling bin, download the Recycle More, Recycle Better flier.

Image of full curbside recycling bin on a curb, with Recycle More Recycle Better logo. Text reads: "recycle more, recycle better".

To bin, or not to bin? Now, there’s no question!

At times, you may find yourself confused about what you can and cannot put in your curbside recycling bin. Why? It’s possible that the information you’ve been given is outdated, hearsay, or just flat wrong. The Recycle More, Recycle Better guide solves this problem by listing the most up-to-date information on what can and can’t go in your curbside recycling bin.

 

Recycle More, Recycle Better flier. Pictures materials that can be recycled curbside or drop-off, and materials that can be recycled through other means, and that cannot be recycled in our area (Greater Kansas City).

The buck stops at the MRFs

We collaborated with the Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to develop this guide. MRFs are the facilities where all your recyclables are taken to be sorted, baled and shipped off to be made into new products. The buck stops at the MRFs because they have the final say in what is and is not acceptable in all Kansas City metro area curbside and drop-off recycling programs.

That’s recyclable?

While the flier lists items most people know are recyclable such as cans, paper and plastic bottles, it also identifies some recyclable items that may surprise you:

  • Aerosol cans — Wasp spray, whipped cream, spray paint, or sunscreen— if it’s a metal spray can, it can be recycled. However, it must be empty and no longer make a “hiss” sound when the trigger is depressed.
  • Aluminum foil and pans — As long as they’re rinsed off, they’re recyclable. Scrunch foil into a ball shape to prevent it from accidentally mixing in with paper.
  • Paper cartons — Milk, soup, broth, juice boxes and wine cartons are all recyclable, even if they have a plastic lid. Rinse carton and put lid back on before recycling.
  • Planting pots and trays — As long as they’re rinsed off, they’re recyclable.

That’s not recyclable?

Unfortunately a lot of what you thought could go in your bin, should not. When items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclable items, the result is what the recycling industry calls “contamination.” Some non-recyclables can contaminate an entire truckload of materials by lowering their value, if not negating it entirely. Less contamination means less waste sent to the landfill, and it can also mean less downtime for sorting equipment that can easily be broken by materials it was not meant to handle.

Here are the top offenders that should not go in your curbside bin:

  • Plastic bags and film — They clog up equipment and cause shutdowns at the recycling facility. These can be recycled at your local grocery or “big box” store. For a complete list of plastics that can and cannot be recycled in the metro area, including bags and film, visit our Plastics Recycling page.
  • Paper food containers and tableware — Whether its paper plates and cups (including paper coffee cups), or fast food, takeout and frozen food containers, they should not go in the bin. All of these items have a thin plastic coating that can’t be separated from the cardboard. This coating makes them neither recyclable nor compostable. For more information about paper food containers and tableware, check out our blog post on the subject.
  • Styrofoam — No type of Styrofoam product should go in your curbside bin. Foam has very low economic value. It also has a tendency to disintegrate into smaller pieces during transport that cling to other recyclables.
  • Pizza boxes — The clean top is recyclable. The greasy, food-covered bottom is not. However, you can compost the bottom if you have a compost bin.
  • “Tanglers” — This is an industry term for long, stringy items such as VHS tapes, shower curtains, extension cords, and garden hoses. Like plastic bags and film, tanglers clog up equipment and cause shutdowns at the recycling facility.

Over the next year, the MARC Solid Waste Management District, will be promoting this flier to area haulers, cities, and homeowners associations. In the meantime, download it and share with your friends, family, co-workers and neighbors who live in the Kansas City metro area. It is available for download in both 11 x 17 and 8.5 x 11 sizes.

For more information on recycling, visit RecycleSpot.org.

 

Image of female blowing a dandelion gone to seed, with blowing seeds morphing into recycling symbols/chasing arrows. Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, CC 2.0.

When NOT to recycle

Have you ever put something in the recycling bin that you’re not sure about?

  • If you don’t know if it’s recyclable, but hope it is…
  • If it has a recycling symbol or label on it, so you assume it must be okay…
  • If you’re pretty sure it’s not recyclable, but hope that somewhere down the line someone will be able to recycle it…

…You might be a wishful recycler! You may have the best of intentions, but improper recycling can hurt more than it helps. Take time to learn what CAN be recycled in your area.

If it has a symbol, is it always recyclable?

In a word, no. Just because something has a recycling symbol on it, or says “recycle,” “recyclable,” or “recycled content” does not mean you can definitely recycle it in our metro area.

ChasingArrowQuestionMarkArtboard 1_RSblog-350pxThe numbers you see inside the recycling symbol on plastic bottles are resin codes developed by the plastics industry to help them properly sort plastics for recycling. In the Kansas City metro area, for example, milk jugs (#2) and yogurt containers (#5) are recyclable. However, Styrofoam takeout boxes (#6) and antifreeze bottles (#2) are not. Contact your hauler to find out which types of plastic can be thrown in the bin.

Some items that say they’re “recyclable” may be in other parts of the country, but it might not be true in our area if there is no local end market for reuse, too little value in the material, or both.

“Made from recycled content” doesn’t always mean an item can be recycled again. For example, you may find a ballpoint pen that says it’s “made from recycled bottles.” That’s great— buying recycled is essential to closing the recycling loop — but it doesn’t mean you can recycle the pen.

The unintended consequences of wishful recycling

When you put an item in your recycling bin that isn’t accepted by your curbside program or drop-off facility, you’re merely relocating your trash: now someone at the recycling facility will have to throw that item away. You may also inadvertently contaminate other recyclables in the bin, which can lower their value or negate it entirely.

How? Let’s say you throw a glass pickle jar in your curbside recycling bin, even though your program does not accept glass. As the glass gets crushed in the recycling truck, glass shards and dust contaminate all the other recyclables they touch, lowering their value. Or, let’s say you throw a half-full can of paint thinner in the bin because it comes in a metal can, and your program accepts metal cans. Once that can is crushed in the recycling truck, the paint thinner could contaminate enough of the recyclables that the whole load has to go to the landfill.

What’s the solution?

So, what can you do to avoid “wishful recycling”? Only put items in your recycling bin that your program accepts. To find this information:

  • Contact your hauler or check the label attached to the top of your recycling bin.
  • For plastics, check out our Plastics Recycling page which clearly explains the type of plastics that are and are not recyclable in the Kansas City metro area.
  • Give us a call: (816) 474-8326.

For more information on recycling, visit RecycleSpot.org.

Pendleton Heights Curbside Compost Program – powered by bicycle!

The MARC Solid Waste Management District administers an annual grant program that awards funds to local communities and organizations for waste reduction and recycling-related projects. From time to time, we publish updates about recent grant recipients.

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Jerusalem Farm, a nonprofit and intentional community, was awarded a 2013 grant to provide weekly curbside collection of compostable materials to the Pendleton Heights neighborhood located in northeast Kansas City.

Volunteers collect compostable materials once a week from participating residents using buckets and bicycles. The buckets were diverted from local grocery store bakeries and would have otherwise been destined for disposal. They were cleaned, spray painted with the program logo and provided to participating households. Revolve KC, another SWMD grantee, supplied the bicycles at a reduced cost. The farm plans to use a truck during the colder months.

Jerusalem-Farm2The collected material will be composted on farm property. Finished compost will be given to participating residents or used in the farm’s community garden lots.

The collection program began in June and has diverted nearly 2.5 tons of material (including the buckets).  To date, the program has 41 residential participants.  More information about the program is available on the Jerusalem Farm website.