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Recycling best practices: A Q&A

October 7, 2018

Mixing trash with recycling can create problems all the way down the line, from the disposal bin to the landfill.

“There’s a five-fold negative effect of putting garbage in the recycling,” said Bill Moore, owner Moore & Associates, a paper recycling consulting firm in Atlanta.

It adds to the cost of transporting the trash to recycling facilities. It adds to the cost of sorting.The sorted recycling is more contaminated.The final, recycled product is more expensive to produce. There’s the cost associated with disposal.

“It directly affects people’s bill,” he said.

We reached out to waste management professionals, industry experts and the Washington Department of Ecology for tips to help keep recycling clean.

Should I take the tape off cardboard boxes before I recycle them? If I don’t, what happens to the tape?

Yes, you should. If you don’t, it can become caught in the processing machine that boils recycled paper and filters out the trash, taking a longer route to end up in the incinerator.

Given Spokane’s existing recycling system, is it more environmentally friendly for me to buy my beer in cans?

It’s complicated. No glass is recycled in Spokane. It’s all used as alternative cover in landfills, but in place of gravel that would otherwise have to be mined. Aluminum cans are most often sent to the Midwest for recycling.

There’s also an environmental cost to shipping glass, which is much heavier and takes more fossil fuels to transport than lighter materials like plastics.

My plastic recycling cart is big enough to fit a big cardboard box inside without breaking it down. Should I break it down anyway?

Yes, because the sorters separate three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional objects, and boxes need to go with other recycled papers and cardboards. Also, if there are objects inside the box, they won’t get separated.

What about little pieces of paper (often made from plastic) like receipts or, say, fortunes in fortune cookies?

Throw those little pieces of paper away. They can’t be sorted. The general rule is if the piece is smaller than 3 inches, throw it away – and that goes for plastics, too.

Should I recycle my glass at transfer stations so it doesn’t burn in the incinerator? What happens if it burns in the incinerator?

Spokane’s single-stream system is designed to handle glass, although it doesn’t get recycled in Spokane; it gets used to make road beds in landfills. If glass ends up in the trash in the city of Spokane, it will get burned to ash just like the other trash, but it doesn’t help generate electricity. The ash is taken by train to a landfill. If you take your glass to recycling stations at transfer stations, then it won’t contaminate other recyclable materials at the sorting center and will still be of some use when its turned into landfill roads.

Should I throw away the lids to milk jugs? What about lids to cottage cheese containers? What about metal lids on pickle jars?

Yes. Lids can pop off and become projectiles in the sorting plants.

Should I remove the plastic on envelopes?

It would help if you did, but machines can sort it out.

I hate cleaning out peanut butter jars to recycle them. How much peanut butter can be left in the jar before I recycle it?

As much should be cleaned out as possible, but the processing plants can handle small amounts of food. Especially for paper, the more contaminates in recycled materials, like peanut butter, the more chemicals have to be added to clean it up.

Should I recycle Keurig coffee containers in my blue cart?

No. They’re trash, because there’s paper in them and coffee grounds, and they can’t be separated. They are also smaller than three inches long.

Should I recycle pill bottles in my blue cart?

No. They’re smaller than 3 inches and are much more difficult to sort because they’re so small. Big bottles like bulk vitamin bottles are OK.

Should I recycle used tin foil in my blue cart?

No. It’s a different metal than what’s used to make cans, and foil often gets mistaken for plastic by the sorters.

What should I put in the recycling bin?

Paper: clean, dry paper (not shredded)

Cardboard: flattened, dry and clean (no oil-stained pizza boxes)

Plastic: Bottles and jugs. Thin-film plastics (like plastic bags) can’t be recycled

Metal: Steel and aluminum cans with no lids (the lids can’t be sorted out and are a safety hazard to sorters)

Glass: Glass can be put in recycling, but it’s a major burden to machines and a safety hazard to workers. All glass that Spokane puts in the recycling ends up in the landfill because it’s too costly to transport it to a processing plant.

What should I never put in the recycling bin?

Plastic bags.

Ribbon.

Caps and lids.

Shredded paper.

Food-soiled or greasy paper.

Wet cardboard and paper.

Plastic cups, trays and “clam shell containers” (like take-out boxes).

Scrap metal pots and pans.

Aluminum foil and trays.

Clothing.

What should I be careful putting in the recycling bin?

Paper cups and cartons: They’re layered with plastics that cause machines to work harder to separate it, and the lining becomes trash, and they’re often contaminated with food.

Frozen- and refrigerator-specific cardboard.

Paper egg and berry cartons: They’re often contaminated.

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