Are You an Aspirational Recycler?

When in doubt, find out.

View from Inside Recycling Bin Showing a Hand Tossing in a Can

Do you ever toss questionable items in your recycle bin hoping they will be recycled? I do. Unfortunately, this practice probably does more harm than good.

I am an avid recycler who evaluates every item before putting it in a recycle bin or trash can. We compost our food scraps, buy in bulk to reduce packaging, and responsibly dispose of e-waste, hazardous waste, and unwanted medications. Yet, I finally had to face it—I am an aspirational recycler. Sigh.

Aspirational recyclers are well-intentioned people who put things in our recycle bins that do not belong there. We believe recycling is good for the environment and we want to do our part to reduce waste going to landfills. We feel good about ourselves when we recycle items instead of putting them in the trash. If we do not know if something is recyclable, sometimes we put it in our recycle bin just in case it is.

If any of this rings true for you, you might be an aspirational recycler, too.

Unfortunately, our wishful thinking method of recycling can cause problems at recycling facilities like endangering workers, jamming equipment, and contaminating recyclable materials making them unusable.

The 30-second video below will give you a glimpse of what workers who sort recycling are up against.

I do not think you or I or anyone else is purposefully trying to cause harm or trouble.

We are just people doing the best that we can to deal with the constant stream of single-use containers, excess packaging, and disposable products that infiltrate our homes even though we try to prevent it. This stuff consists of hundreds perhaps thousands of different materials, some toxic, some permanently fused together, and most without any sort of labeling to help us figure out whether it is recyclable or not.

Complicating matters is that the United States does not have any federal laws mandating recycling so it falls on states and local governments to address recycling or not. This means there is no consistent recycling program across the country. Your recycling facility may accept things that mine does not and vice versa. The capabilities of recycling facilities vary, too. For instance, it is possible to recycle plastic bags but many if not most facilities do not have the necessary equipment to do it.

Is it any wonder that you and I became aspirational recyclers? I do not think so.

Okay, let us say that you agree that you are an aspirational recycler. A reasonable question is “What is wrong with aspirational recycling?”

Ramifications of Aspirational Recycling

Putting items in your recycle bin that your local recycling facility does not accept or contaminating recyclable materials leads to a number of problems.

People’s Safety

The people who work at jobs collecting, transporting, and sorting recycling have to contend with whatever you put in your recycle bin regardless of whether it belongs there or not.

I cannot imagine anyone putting used syringes, broken glass, or dirty disposable diapers in a recycling bin, but apparently, it happens and not infrequently. This kind of stuff is dangerous and in some cases poses a biohazard to people working in recycling centers.

Another safety hazard is jammed equipment and malfunctioning machines caused by items that are technically recyclable like plastic bags or metal hangers but that your local facility is not equipped to handle.

Everyone needs and deserves a safe working environment.

Contamination

Substances like grease, food particles, and unrecyclable materials attached to recyclable materials are forms of contamination. Recycled material buyers will not purchase contaminated materials so they usually end up in a landfill.

For instance, a cardboard takeout pizza box is recyclable unless is it greasy or has cheese stuck on it because these substances soak into the fibers making them unusable.

One of Two Workers Sorting Recycling Holds a Half Full Glass Jar
These two workers are sorting recycling on a conveyor belt in a recycling facility. See the half-full jar of something like chili sauce in the hand of the worker on the right? How recyclable do you think that is? Photo Credit – iStock/SeventyFour

Supposedly empty containers like plastic yogurt cups, glass spaghetti sauce jars, and aluminum soda cans that still have food residue or liquid in them can spill on other items in your recycle bin contaminating them, too.

Other forms of contamination include glitter on a paper greeting card, the plastic sneeze shield inside a facial tissue box, and a shipping container covered in tape.

Other Consequences

If some or all of the contents of your recycle bin are rejected during sorting at the recycling facility because they are unrecyclable or contaminated or both, it increases costs unnecessarily. This includes workers stopping what they are doing to unclog and repair machines and making extra trips to the landfill.

If you and I truly want to be more responsible recyclers, we need to do some homework and then change our behavior.

I am in. What about you?

I Want to Be a Responsible Recycler

Transforming from an aspirational recycler to a responsible one will take effort and commitment. Fortunately, like any habit, I think once we get the hang of it, responsible recycling will be easy and routine.

I decided to begin by visiting the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority website to see what resources they have available to help me figure out what I can and cannot put in my recycle bin.

Front and center on the website is a search field called “What do I do with…” For fun, I typed in the names of a variety of items and looked at the information for each one. Below are a few examples of what I learned.

Campaign Signs

We just removed our “Vote Yes on Measure G” sign from our yard. (Sadly, this ballot measure to stop future oil and gas expansion and fracking in our county did not pass).

Vote Yes on Measure G Campaign Sign

Technically the metal frame is recyclable but our recycling facility does not accept it. The website suggested taking it to a scrap metal facility. If the sign part had been made of paper poster board it would have been recyclable, but our sign is made of corrugated plastic so it is not.

Interestingly, I saw a notice on social media that the local beekeeping association uses old campaign signs to make boxes for collecting bee swarms.

We decided to keep our sign for possible future reuse.

Shredded Paper

Although shredded paper can be recycled its shorter fibers make it less useful so only certain buyers will purchase it. In our county, the shredded paper needs to be put in a clear plastic bag before placing it in the recycle bin. Oops, I had been putting mine in a cardboard box and labeling it as shredded paper.

Takeout Containers

Takeout containers present a dilemma because there are so many different types and it is often difficult to determine if they have coatings that make them unsuitable for recycling. In many cases, the materials that make containers leak-proof also make them unrecyclable because the lining cannot be separated from the container, like the invisible plastic film lining of a disposable coffee cup.

Our county is working on banning Styrofoam takeout containers but many restaurants use them. These go in the trash. Clean plastic containers can be recycled if they are labeled #1-6. Clean cardboard containers are acceptable as long as they are not wax coated (test by scraping with your fingernail).

The two key things I took away from this exercise are:

  1. Our county website contains a lot of useful information and is a good resource. I should have been using it before now, but I am not going to beat myself up about what I did not do. I will use it going forward.
  2. I need to be more careful about rinsing out containers. However, I live in a drought-prone town so if it would take an inordinate amount of water to clean a container, like a gooey plastic almond butter jar, I am going to put it in my garbage can.

Of course, guidelines for your recycling facility could be significantly different from mine so check it out. Responsible recycling may require a bit more effort but I think it is worth it and I hope you do, too.

Can we make a pact that when we do not know if something is recyclable or not that we will find out before tossing it in our recycle bin or trash?

Featured Image at Top: View from Inside a Recycling Bin Showing a Hand Tossing in a Can – Photo Credit iStock/Janine Lamontagne

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information, spark conversation, and convince people to take action to keep earth habitable for all. She believes our individual actions do matter—it all adds up.

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