man and woman recycling

Municipal recycling is getting more challenging and costly.

Leaving bits of pizza in pizza boxes, for example, turns out to be a major problem because of grease residue. Another biggie: Plastic bags in the recycling stream gum up the processing machines, and the wrong types, sizes, or shapes of plastic — such as plastic utensils — cause similar problems.

According to the June 5, 2018, Boston Globe:

“The increasing amount of such non-recyclable waste entering processing plants has sparked a backlash in the countries that convert the material into useful products, most notably China, which used to process the vast majority of US recyclables before it cracked down on what materials it would accept this year … Towns that used to earn money from recycled waste are now forced to pay as much as $70 a ton to have it hauled to landfills or incinerators.”

This isn’t just a national or international problem. My town, according to its May/June 2018 newsletter, “… is being fined for recycling non-compliance.” Specifically, “From November 2017 through January 2018, the extra charges for just three months amount to $21,740 to pay for our contamination rate of 18 percent. Major contaminants of recycling carts continue to be plastic bags and film, food and beverage contamination and textiles (clothing).” That translates to more city taxes and fees or cuts in spending somewhere else.

“Contamination” means, essentially, that the materials are poorly sorted. The wrong materials are mixed in or food and oil residue are present. Contaminated materials not only cost us money; they can’t be recycled and end up getting thrown out or incinerated.

With a modest amount of research and organization, we should be able to

  • Reduce the volume of what goes into our recycling bin by taking it to other recycling destinations or reusing it.
  • Redirect some items from trash to non-bin recycling.
  • Improve quality control for what does go into the bin. 

Here’s what I’ve come up with — reflecting my town’s rules and options.

Re-read Those Recycling Pamphlets

First, I’m (re)reading the various recycling instructions, starting with the ones from my town, to make sure I’m following them correctly. In fact, I’ll post a printed copy somewhere where I can easily refer to it.

For starters, I’ll do a better job of making sure that food-related items — like cans and jars — have been washed or rinsed properly: “If your local recycling system collects paper and containers in the same bin, rinsing also keeps that paper recyclable.”

I’ll also pay closer attention to the various types of paper and plastic aimed at our recycling bin. Some, I see as I read carefully about coated paper cups and food trays, aren’t permitted. (This varies a lot from town to town; for example, some accept plastic-coated paper cups, some don’t.)

It also looks like aluminum foil and pans (if clean) are accepted. That’s good to know, but municipal standards vary widely across the U.S.

Recycle Less (Without Throwing Out More)

Some of what has been going into our recycling bin or getting dropped at the town’s recycling center can be redirected, either to non-bin recycling, or re-use.

This is my plan so far:

  • Newspapers: The veterinarian/boarding where we bring our dog will happily take our old newspapers for use in their kennels. Granted, those papers eventually become trash, but they’ve had one more productive use. The facility also takes sheets, blankets, and rags that we don’t want. 
    What I’ll do: I’ll set up a separate bag or box, and bring it when we take our dog in.
  • Magazines: While we don’t get as many magazines as we used to — in particular, nearly all the computer trade magazines I once got weekly or monthly have gone web-only, or folded entirely — I’ll look for places that want this kind of reading material. Our local library used to have a magazine exchange; maybe yours still does. I already found a home for the various photography magazines I get. My next step: post a query to one of the local mailing lists I’m on for suggestions. You can check with your local high school to see if they want magazines.
    What I’ll do: Set up labeled bags or boxes.
  • Deposit bottles: We have so few that it hasn’t been worth the odd change redeem them and the few times I tried to feed them into the redemption machines, the rejection rate was frustratingly high. But I’m willing to do it to divert from the recycling bin. I’d love to find a person or organization who will pick up bagged bottles from curbside.
    What I’ll do: Set up a separate and labeled plastic bin on the back porch for bottles.
  • Re-usable bags: I already have medium and big bags for shopping and for use at our local farmers market and our vegetable CSA, but a lot of bulk produce items, like mushrooms, green beans, and the like need their own bags. I’m trying to shift from thin-plastic to reusable mesh bags. I bought two 3-packs of these from Whole Foods — and that’s helping.
    What I’ll do: Remember to bring mesh and other re-usable bags with me.
  • Plastic that can’t go in the municipal recycling bin: Some things that aren’t allowed, like plastic utensils, are accepted elsewhere. My local Whole Foods, for example, has bins for #5 plastic like these utensils.
    What I’ll do: Set up yet another small labeled box on the porch, and periodically bring it with me when I’m going to Whole Foods.

My guess is that this will reduce our regular bin weekly recycling by at least half, without adding significantly to the thinking or sorting effort, and maybe adding one or two more “drops” every few months.

There are probably ways you, too, can reduce your municipal recycling volume and improve recycling quality control in ways that are sustainable in terms of effort.

I doubt my town will notice we’re being better recyclers. But we’ll know.

By Daniel Dern

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.