Here in Summit County, the High Country Conservation Center helps residents improve their recycling with on-the-ground education. Maybe you saw Christy Turner, the center’s recycling specialist, at one of the recycling centers, explaining what can and can’t be recycled in those massive containers. Or, maybe you received an “oops tag” on your recycling bin, identifying an item that doesn’t belong.
The conservation center’s recycling team has seen all manner of nonrecyclable things — greasy pizza boxes, clothing, bubble wrap, you name it — placed in the recycling bin. Pretty often, the staff stumbles across the same recycling mistakes. Whether you’re new to the county, or a long-time local recycler, watch out for these common items that don’t belong in your recycling bin.
1. Berry containers and plastic packaging
The first unwanted item on the list comes to us (generally) from the produce, bakery and deli departments at your local grocery store. This could be anything from containers for berries, lettuce or tomatoes, to containers for pastries, sushi or single-serve meals. Yep, they might have a No. 1 or No. 2 recycling symbol on the back, but because of how they are made, these flimsy plastics can compromise the recycling process. Plastic packaging (what’s wrapped around toys, hardware items, etc.) falls into the same category, so keep that out of the recycling bin, too. Instead, focus on shape and only recycle plastic bottles, jugs and tubs in your single-stream (mixed) recycling bin.
2. Plastic film and bags
Did you know that, globally, roughly 4 trillion (yes, with a T) plastic bags are used each year? That doesn’t even include plastic films like shrink wrap and bubble-wrap. That’s lots of packaging that, again, can’t be recycled at the drop-off center or at home. While there are specialty drop-offs where residents can recycle plastic bags, they can’t go in the mixed single stream bin with the rest of your recyclables. Why? Recycled items are processed on conveyor belts and plastic film gets stuck along the way. Those pesky plastic bags not only damage the equipment, it stops the entire recycling operation while the film is removed. For those who use plastic bags to sort and transport recycling, just make sure to empty recyclables into the appropriate bin and reuse the bag. Once the bag is no longer usable, take it to one of the specialty drop-offs for recycling.
3. Disposable cups
The U.S. throws away 16 billion disposable coffee cups every year. If that statistic doesn’t have you shakin’ in your boots, an estimated 500 billion disposable plastic cups are thrown out, too. That leads me to another item that belongs in the trash: disposable cups. Coffee cups have a wax lining that interferes with the paper recycling process. Plastic cups fall into the same category as berry containers. Are you really living like a local if you don’t carry around a reusable water bottle and coffee mug? Reusing is better than recycling, and in this case, it’s an easy option.
4. To-go containers
It’s estimated that Americans use nearly 200 million disposable food storage containers each year, and, you guessed it, they generally aren’t recyclable. Now, those white, paper-only, to-go boxes are OK to recycle but only if they are clean and rid of any food debris. However, some paper take-out boxes (like the brown ones offered at salad bars) contain a wax lining, which compromises the paper recycling process, so toss those in the trash. As for pizza boxes, if the bottom is dirty or greasy but the top is clean, separate the top from the bottom and recycle the clean stuff. Pitch the dirty stuff. Like berry containers and plastic cups, plastic to-go containers can’t be recycled for the reasons I mentioned before. If you’re lucky enough to get one of those round, aluminum to-go containers, give it a rinse, toss the lid and recycle it like any other aluminum. You might even consider bringing your own to-go box the next time you dine out.
When you can, avoid disposables altogether by bringing along your reusable water bottle, mug and to-go containers. When you cannot avoid the non-recyclable plastics — for instance in the height of strawberry season — check out BreckCreate’s Precious Plastic program. They collect a variety of plastics that are upcycled into art projects! Still feeling stumped? Ask us your toughest questions at an upcoming Stump the Recyclers event, or visit us online at HighCountryConservation.org.