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Are Your Recyclables Really Being Recycled?

As a sentient, media-consuming citizen of Planet Earth, I am a natural cynic. You can hardly blame me for thinking, while watching the recycling truck trundle down the road, “I bet those recyclables end up in the landfill.” It would be easier to simply tip the recyclables into a landfill than pay extra to sort, bale, and ship it overseas to China. Right?


Well, mostly wrong. Turns out that unless there’s a vast, as-yet-uncovered conspiracy (always a possibility, but so far only in the U.K., according to the Daily Mail) our recyclables are recycled. Count me somewhat surprised, given that my giant single-stream recycling bin groans under more weight each week than my trash bin, due to my city’s awesomely comprehensive recycling program. (Note to City: It’s the trash bin that should be picked up every other week—not the recycling.) Perhaps part of my perception is due to the fact that the garbage trucks and the recycling trucks are identical. I’m rightly suspicious for wondering if they actually serve different purposes.

In fact, when it comes to recycling fraud, the most common shenanigan is hauling returnable bottles and cans across state lines to reap a higher bottle return. In California recently, several out-of-state haulers were indicted for this practice. Bottle deposit laws are incredibly effective in getting people to recycle.



Turns out that the biggest problem with recycling isn’t fraud; it’s contamination. This is when nonrecyclable items are mixed in with the recyclables. Sorting out the offending materials takes time, costs money, and can gum up delicate machinery. Recycling contamination is a growing problem due to the switch to single-stream recycling many communities have made over the past decade or so. This is when you place all your recyclables together in the same container rather than pre-sort them. All recycling programs have lists of acceptable and unacceptable items. The trick is to get people to read them and keep their recyclable steam top-notch quality. According to, here are the Dirty Dozen things to avoid when recycling:

  1. Plastic bags. They’re not recyclable.
  2. Recyclables lovingly placed in plastic bags. Just don’t.
  3. Shredded paper. It mucks up the conveyer belt. Either compost it or put it in the regular trash.
  4. Scrap metal. Like a faucet you’ve replaced or an old car part. Food cans only, thankyouverymuch.
  5. Hazardous waste: Paint, batteries, antifreeze, pesticides, etc. Hold on to these until your county’s household hazardous waste day.
  6. Diapers, needles, and syringes. This is garbage people.
  7. Nonrecyclable plastic: This includes polystyrene, plastic lids, and anything with a forbidden number on it according to your community’s guidelines.
  8. Flattened containers. You’re not helping; you’re only confusing the sorting equipment, which thinks flat items are paper. Keep containers in their original shape.
  9. Lids on bottles and jars; take them off. Throw plastic lids out. Recycle metal lids.
  10. Rinse and dry. Don’t leave a sticky mess to gum up the machinery.
  11. Ceramics and non-recyclable glass. No light bulbs, dishes, mirrors, broken drinking glasses, etc. This stuff can contaminate a whole load of recyclables and result in them being sent to the landfill.
  12. Frozen food boxes. They contain plastic-coated cardboard that doesn’t break down enough to be recycled.

Mickey Mouse is not recyclable!

Mickey Mouse is not recyclable!

The Environmental Protection Agency has created guidelines and standards to ensure a quality stream of commingled recyclables at the nation’s materials recovery facilities, or MRFs. Now, I’m not about to recommend that you read the entire 100+ page document, but it’s pretty comprehensive and will help allay your fears, if your fears are about how fluctuating commodities prices might dry up the market for shipping our recyclables overseas.

I didn’t find a smoking gun, but one sentence in particular gave me pause:

The original concept of “diversion” assumed that if recyclables were not being landfilled, they must be being recycled in a manufacturing system. There was no contemplation that the materials might be diverted but then not be usable by manufacturers. In fact, many recyclables are diverted from the local jurisdictions where they are collected, but still end up landfilled near manufacturing sites.

Yikes! So, yes, your community delivers recyclables to the MRF, and the MRF sends them back where they belong. By then the materials are long considered “recycled,” but perhaps they never make that final step to be reborn into new products or packaging. Sounds like a job for VICE Media instead of yours truly (of course, Shane Smith et al. would undoubtedly discover that not only are manufacturers landfilling perfectly good recyclable material, but they’re also using orphans as slaves to tamp down the dirt with old-timey shovels covered in lead paint.)


Okay–maybe that’s too cynical. Here’s a viewpoint that’s just cynical enough: Recycling is based on good intentions but structured around a somewhat rickety capitalist framework. Creating markets for recyclables, recycled products, and the MRFs to cater to them has been one of the great environmental success stories of the last couple decades. The system employs lots of people, has a high rate of civic participation, and has made our landfills last much longer than they were initially projected to. No system is perfect, but this one is actually working pretty well!



Posted on: November 12, 2015, 3:00 pm Category: Admin

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