10 tips for recycling with the confidence of a Seattleite without an umbrella
Curiosity about recycling is a renewable resource.
We recently answered a bin full of recycling questions, but there’s still more to say.
We’re not going to address the recyclability of everything under the sun (although you might argue otherwise), so here are some nit-picky resources:
Seattle Public Utilities' "Where does it go?" tool.
Waste company Republic Services also has a guide to simplify recycling.
Every community has different recycling guidelines. You can look up what Waste Management advises for your location on their website.
RULES OF THUMB
Nothing smaller than your fist.
“Anything really small is very difficult to sort,” said Karissa Jones, education and outreach coordinator with Waste Management, which runs facilities that sort recyclables.
They use conveyor belts that run materials through a series of machines with spinning discs, magnets, electrical currents and puffs of air.
Small things you think are recyclable will literally slip through the cracks.
“That ends up going to the landfill anyway,” said Kevin Kelly, general manager of recycling facility Recology CleanScapes, speaking to KUOW’s The Record.
Jones advises not to put anything in your recycling bin that smaller than your fist. Garbage and recycling company, Republic Services, uses a credit card a measurement.
Small materials can also mixed in with the wrong material, such as glass. In recycling facilities, glass bottles and jars are intentionally broken into a stream of glass shards that later get sorted by color.
Itty-bitty bits like wine corks, pencils, and small medicine boxes end up where they don’t belong. Individual tea bag wrappers look recyclable, but alas, they don’t belong either.
So how about those tiny circles from a three-hole punch?
“Those are way too small to recycle,” Jones said.
You can compost paper if it doesn’t have plastic coating, though. In Seattle, wooden coffee stirring sticks and chopsticks go in compost, not recycling.
Clean, empty, and dry
This is a major focus for the recycling industry. They want you to get ALL the food residue off your food containers and dry them before you recycle.
“What we don't want is half a can of Coke that's going to spill onto paper and render the other materials unrecyclable,” Jones said.
Use old newspaper or a dirty paper towel to wipe off the residue, in case you don’t want to use soap, Jones said. (Then, throw the newspaper or paper towel in the compost or trash.)
“One of the biggest questions we get asked: “Tell me about a pizza box,’” said Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association. “A greasy pizza box? No. Any wet paper? No! And, ‘Should I take the time to rinse out a jar or a can?’ Yes, it has to be clean, empty, and dry.”
That means no dirty paper coffee cups in the recycling bin either. Food waste can weaken paper fibers, harming its ability to be reused, Kelly said.
“If that material is being shipped over an ocean, let's say, think about food waste in a container for a long cruise voyage,” he said. “It turns into a really interesting science experiment.”
The end markets for recyclables are demanding higher and higher quality materials. For them, it’s not trash but fodder to transform into new products.
“Moisture is a contaminant and that can reduce the overall quality of the material,” statewide recycling coordinator with the Washington State Department of Ecology, Alli Kingfisher said. “In the Pacific Northwest, there is a great chance of things getting wet and so try to keep your materials as dry as possible keep your lids on your carts closed.”
Ignore the recycling symbol on plastic containers.
Yes, ignore it. Focus on shape: bottles, cans, jugs, tubs.
“Things are recycled by shape more than what the material is when it's going through a material recovery facility,” said Kingfisher.
A material recovery facility is the processing plant the recyclables go to after they’re picked up from your home or business. (The Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville run by Waste Management is an example we visited.)
The global recycling market has been in upheaval since China ramped up restrictions imports of our recyclables. Still, some goods have retained their value.
Certain kinds of recyclables have strong markets, namely plastic soda and water bottles, and plastic jugs and tubs. The markets for aluminum and steel cans are also still chugging along.
“It's pretty easy to find homes for that material.” Kingfisher said.
Reduce and reuse before you recycle
Try to reduce what you're buying, Kingfisher said. “Make very conscious purchasing decisions of whether or not you bring something new into your home.”
Bottle lids and caps
Bottle lids and caps are so small they can mix in with other streams of materials where they don’t belong.
Instead, once your containers are empty, clean and dry, you can put the lids back on and then put the whole thing in the recycling bin.
What about caps from those boxes that liquids come in? Like broth or soy, almond, and coconut milk containers? Screw it on or trash it?
“If it's the same sort material on the same sort of material, screw it on,” Jones said. “Otherwise, toss it.”
A plastic lid from a paper container goes in the trash.
Lids from metal cans
Same thing goes with lids from metal cans, you know, the ones that come off with a can-opener. Jones gets asked about this a lot at Waste Management.
“Either keep it connected to the can, that way it's going to all stay together,” Jones said.
Or, in case it comes off, put the lid back into the can and give it a squeeze to crimp it shut, then put it in the recycling bin.
Glass from bottles and jars is OK to recycle if it’s broken, Jones said. But durable glass items that are used over and over again are not.
The kind of broken glass you should throw in your trash includes glass from windows, mirrors, and wine and drinking glasses.
“That kind of glass has a different melting point,” Jones said, so it can mess up the recycling process. Instead, put it in the trash.
Seattle says it's okay to recycle a bundle of baggies. But that's controversial, Kingfisher said.
“Plastic bags should never be put into your recycling cart because they are the number one damaging thing within the recycling system,” Kingfisher said. “There's a lot of conversation going on about plastic bags being on the list in Seattle. But overall industry-wide best practice is to never put a plastic bag into a recycling cart.”
Loose plastic bags are one of the most common problematic items at Recology CleanScapes, a recycling facility that contracts with the City of Seattle, Kelly said.
The bags wrap around the machines used to sort recyclables, preventing them from working properly.
“The impact is more contaminated material can end up in the recycling that we are sending off to end markets,” Kelly said.
Instead, take them back to a grocery store for recycling, Jones said.
Paper towels and napkins
Paper towels and napkins are too flimsy to be recycled effectively. They go in the compost bin or the trash.
“They just don't hold up. They basically disintegrate in that recycling process and they're not able to be turned into something new,” Jones said.
Finally, long skinny olive oil bottles … a modified poem by Karissa Jones
Get as clean as you can / Add some water, shake it up / Yeah, yeah. You can still recycle that.
And finally finally: Bottle must be dry before placed in the recycling bin.