Are you confused about what you can put in the recycling bin and what you can’t? Do you wonder why only certain materials can be recycled? If so, you are not alone. As the Waste Reduction Enforcement Coordinator in Amherst, I get asked these questions a lot, so let me try to clear up some of the confusion.
It is important to understand that while just about any material can be recycled, many are not because the demand is just not there. Spending a lot of resources to collect, haul, and sort material is pointless if no one is willing to purchase the material. Historically, much of U.S. recycling has been sold to Chinese processers and manufacturers, but China has recently limited what it will accept and set a very high standard of quality for materials. While our local Materials Recycling Facility in Springfield sells mostly to domestic markets, it is very important that we produce a high quality of recycled material to keep the U.S. recycling market strong. Keeping undesirable items out of your recycling bin will help make that happen.
I suggest following the “if in doubt, leave it out” strategy to improve the quality of your recyclables. It’s tempting to throw items in the recycling and hope for the best, but that just causes more problems downstream. It can be confusing because some items with recycling symbols are not currently recycled by manufacturers, so it’s important to know what’s not accepted and leave these items out of your bin.
Here’s a list of common items that cannot go in your household recycling bin. Visit http://www.springfieldmrf.org for more detailed recycling information.
• Plastic bags and plastic wrap: These can get tangled in recycling machinery. But you can recycle them (empty, clean and dry) at local grocery and big-box stores. Also use reusable bags whenever possible.
• Styrofoam: This is #6 plastic (polystyrene) that cannot be recycled with other household plastic, and there is not a big market for it. It is also a major pollutant, and many municipalities are banning its use.
• Frozen food packaging, and beer and soda cartons: These are cardboard covered in a thin layer of plastic for water resistance, and this combination of materials makes them hard to recycle.
• Single use plastic cups (clear and colored): These are also polystyrene, with the same issues as Styrofoam. Use reusable or compostable cups instead.
• Hot drink cups (cardboard): These are coated with a thin layer of plastic, making them difficult to recycle. Use a reusable cup instead.
• Straws: The plastic they’re made with and small size make them hard to recycle. Don’t use them, or use paper or reusable straws.
• Black plastic: Recycled plastic manufacturers can’t use black plastic because of its color limitations.
• Food or liquid: These reduce the cleanliness and quality of recyclables. Empty and rinse containers (a little residue is fine).
• Electronics and light bulbs: These can contain toxic material like mercury and heavy metals. Don’t throw them in the trash! Bring them to retailers or take-back events (check https://earth911.com/ for drop-off sites).
By realizing that we can’t just recycle everything (especially plastics) we can focus on not using them in the first place — reducing packaging and single use plastics can prevent a lot of waste. And remember, everything you can do to improve recycling quality makes a big difference!
Miriam Kaplan is the Waste Reduction Enforcement Coordinator for the Town of Amherst, and begins a new column on waste reduction this month.