Growing up, our family started recycling because my frugal father received a small pittance for our aluminum cans and newspapers, so we had special bins in the garage for each. We’d crush the cans to optimize the space requirements, and haul them off to a specialized facility that would weigh them and pay us by the pound. It might only be enough to go buy another six pack, but it was incentive enough to help rationalize recycling.
These days, rather than getting that small reward, we actually pay to recycle. But that’s because recycling is easier than ever. Most waste haulers offer single stream recycling to enable customers to put all recyclable items into a single container. The waste hauler collects everything together, and hauls it to a central Material Recovery Facility where recyclables of all kinds are sorted, compressed and baled, then sold and shipped off to be reused. Smaller MRFs use a lot of manual sorting, but these days there’s a lot of expensive equipment to expedite the sorting process. After touring a $20 million facility operated by Republic Services, one of largest waste haulers in the country, I was amazed at the speed and immensity of their operation.
There are five major categories of recyclable products:
- Metal includes tin steel and aluminum. The mining of raw materials is an energy intensive process that creates a lot of pollution, so it’s much more cost-effective and environmentally responsible to recycle materials. Aluminum is the most easily recycled, and can be back on the shelf as another can within 30 days of being thrown in the recycling bin. Using magnets and electromagnetic eddy currents, the aluminum cans are separated from the ferrous metal cans. Tin cans can be recycled regardless of whether or not they have a protective lining, and do not have to have labels removed. You don’t even have to wash them out, though the trash will attract fewer pests and smell better if you do.
- Glass is easily recycled, but because the sand from which glass is made is so plentiful, the commodity price for recycled glass is not very high. But glass takes a million years to break down, so it’s important to recycle. You used to have to sort glass by color, but these days there are special optical machines that can detect the color of glass fragments and sort it into homogenized bins. Again, it’s not necessary to clean or remove labels – just put the lid back on and put it in the recycling bin!
- Paper includes newspapers and magazines, copy or notebook paper, junk mail (including those with plastic windows), and cardboard. Recycling paper reduces the number of trees cut down to make virgin paper. It’s important to note that napkins, paper towels and tissues cannot be recycled, and are best off being composted.
- Plastic can come in many forms. We’re all familiar with the recyclable logo on the plastic containers; most all plastics are made using a recyclable material. The most common are #1 (soda bottles) and #2 (milk jugs), but there are a total of seven different categories, all of which are commonly recycled except #6 (polystyrene). This is usually Styrofoam, but can come in other more condensed forms, like plastic plates and cups. While some recyclers are beginning to accept this, most do not.
- Aseptic packaging is commonly used to package milk, juice, liquid eggs and boxed soups. These materials are all recyclable, regardless of whether they have a lining or plastic spout.
Sadly, only about 25% of our trash is recycled, when as much as 75% is actually recyclable. The rule these days is, if in doubt, throw it in the recycling bin! You are putting people to work sorting out the true waste, and reclaiming valuable reusable materials from being wasted in landfills. And it couldn’t be easier!
Interested in learning more? Here’s Good Housekeeping’s guide to figuring out what those recycling codes on plastics mean.
This will be published in the Going Green section of the November 2014 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.