Seven Ways to Keep Your Recycling Out of the Landfill

Two people place a glass and a plastic bottle into a recycling bin
Anything that looks like a bottle, can or carton can usually be recycled. Photo Shutterstock/By spwidoff

Call it "wish-cycling" or aspirational recycling, people with the best of intentions are putting things in the recycling bin that cannot be recycled. Some of the items are simply not recyclable. But worse, other items are snarling recycling equipment, and some are contaminating things that could be recycled to the point that up to a quarter of them have been dumped into the landfill. 

The Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District has been calling attention to the issue for a while, but the issue has come to the fore as China, which has been a major market for recycled cardboard and plastic, has been reducing the amount of recycled materials that it accepts and tightening requirements for what it takes. This has had ripple effects on recyclers around the world, from Hong Kong to Edmonton in Canada to cities across the US. 

Fortunately, as we heard from Diane Bickett, Executive Director, Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District, on the Sound of Ideas, there are some simple ways to make sure that you aren't "wish-cycling."

1. Many plastic, glass, and metal bottles, jugs, jars, and cans can usually be recycled

Diane said during the program that only plastic bottles and jugs can be recycled, and one of the key bits of advice is to make sure to rinse them out. Recyclers have become increasingly strict on the level of contaminants that they will accept. 

It's important to rinse the items and also to replace small caps. Rinsing away food, bleach, soap, or shampoo is a key step in making sure that your recyclables aren't thrown in the trash. 

Major exceptions to the rule are motor oil, plastic bottles and antifreeze jugs. There is simply too much hazardous residue left on these containers to allow them to be recycled. 

2. You can recycle plastic bags, just not in curbside recycling

The plastic bags clog recycling equipment so you can't recycle them in your curbside recycling, but often there are collection boxes at grocery stores where you can recycle these bags. 

But you can't recycle plastic film like cling film or other plastic wraps. Also, if you want to recycle aluminum foil, you will have to do that at a scrap metal recycler. 

3. You can't recycle styrofoam or thermoplastic food trays or brittle food containers

Again, the issue with these containers is that they shatter in the recycling equipment and clog it, so separate them and throw them away. 

4. Greasy pizza boxes are the bane of recyclers

One of the biggest problems that recyclers have is cardboard - like pizza boxes - that are soaked with grease. This issue has been flagged up in stories about China's stricter recycling limits, but it is a local issue as well. A greasy box is simply harder to recycle and less valuable to recyclers. However, if the box only has a few crumbs and no grease, feel free to recycle. But as with a lot of the guidelines, when in doubt, err on the side of caution. You don't want to contaminate items that could be recycled.

5. Get a reusable coffee cup; those plastic, styrofoam, and cardboard coffee cups can't be recycled

Cardboard cups have a plastic lining which isn't easily separated from the cardboard, and styrofoam can't easily be recycled.

The city of Freiburg in Germany has come up with a solution we might to consider. It has created a reusable plastic cup that anyone can get for a €1 deposit. You can use and return the cup to any of 100 businesses around town, where it will be washed, disinfected and reused. The cup can be reused 400 times.

In 2010, U.S. coffee drinkers threw away 23 billion paper coffee cups. We also toss 25 billion styrofoam cups a year, where they will sit in landfills for up to half a millennia, according to the World Economic Forum. 

6. Some things can't be recycled at the curb, but they might be recyclable elsewhere

What is important to remember is that just because something isn't recyclable at the curb doesn't mean there aren't other places to recycle it. For instance, if you have recyclable batteries or computer or audio cables you aren't using anymore, Best Buy often has bins at the entrance of the store where you can recycle these items.  If you've got a used, working bicycle or bike parts, you can donate them to the Ohio City Bicycle Co-op. 

7. When in doubt, consult the detailed guidelines at CuyahogaRecycles.org

This is just a start, but CuyahogaRecycles.org has the Full Monty on what can and can't be recycled as well as top tips on how to reuse and donate things so that someone can get all of the use possible out of something. They have a great red, yellow and blue system. Items with a red ring can't be recycled and sometimes require special handling for disposal, while yellow ringed items can't be recycled at the curbside but might be reused or recycled someplace else, while blue-ringed items can be recycled at the curb. For instance, one yellow item is non-working small appliances - less than 20 lbs - which can be taken to the Solid Waste District located at 4750 East 131 St. in Garfield Heights. Another yellow item is unused arts and crafts supplies, which they recommend you donate to a local daycare or summer camp. 

The bottom line is that it is great to aspire to reduce the amount of waste you send to the landfill, but the best place to do that might not be at your curb. And if you put something in your curbside to recycle, make sure that it is clean of food, soap, or other contaminants to ensure it has the best chance of being recycled. 

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