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Recycling is a regional business. Each city has its own rules. This makes it difficult for those who want to learn how to recycle properly. Recycling can be confusing.

Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications for Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, says that there are many rules. “When communicating all this, it’s important to strike a balance between making recycling easy for people and making it difficult enough that they won’t recycle.”

Here are some recycling best practices:

1. No bags. No bags.

 Grocery bags can dissolve into potentially dangerous microplastics; ingestion or entanglement can harm and even kill. These bags are the worst. These bags can be recycled technically, but you need to take them to a drop-off location and not to your curbside.

Plastic bags are the most common contaminant in recycling loads. Plastic bags can act as “tanglers”, catching in machinery and shutting it down.

According to Griselda Guillen, the recycling center in Montgomery County, Maryland, workers are not permitted to open plastic bags containing recyclables. This means that the bag is considered trash, even if it contains water bottles.

Although grocery bags are the poster children of plastic pollution, sandwich bags and bubble wrap that fail the poke testing (where the plastics are flexible enough to be pushed through your finger) are prime candidates for commercial drop-off areas.

You shouldn’t bag your recyclables. Instead, just dump them in your blue bins.

Solution – Buy a few canvas bags and get some reusable containers.

2. Even small things can cause big problems.

Anything smaller than a credit-card size can’t be recycled. This includes straws and coffee pods, cup caps, plastic cutlery, paperclips, and many other small things that can sneak into our everyday lives. These small objects can block recycling equipment and are difficult to sort.

Guillen says that these contaminants can cause machines to stop working at Montgomery County’s Recycling Center 10-15 times per day.

What about metal caps and plastic lids? You might ask.

Helen Lee, Alexandria, Virginia’s Resource Recovery Division, points out that “if the plastic cap is removed from the bottle, it will become larger than a business card, so it would be captured by the sorting equipment.”

According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers, plastics can be easily separated after being ground into pellets.

This is not possible for metal bottlecaps which can easily fall off glass bottles. Sometimes, you can bring the metal bottle caps to companies that take scrap.

Solution – Be mindful of what you put in your recycling bin

3. It should be clean, empty, and dry

Whole loads of recyclable material are made useless by food waste. They can also be quickly towed to landfills. The U.S. has 25% of its recycling loads contaminated by food waste.

Lee says, “The message that we want residents to remember is clean and empty and dry.”

But how clean is it?

Howard Lee, Washington, D.C.’s Office of Waste Diversion, says, “I always tend not to tell people that their recycled material should be clean enough for them to use again.” If you are concerned about rodents, rats, or any other pests, you should not put your recyclables in the bin.

Keep this in mind when advertising at your local fast-food restaurant. Recently, I saw a taco bowl made of paper that said, “Please recycle.” It’s false news. It’s impossible to recycle anything that has been stuffed with salsa and beans. It’s possible to compost that bowl with more success, but it’s difficult.

If they aren’t covered in grease and cheese, you can recycle them. You can always take out the grease and dispose of it.

Solution: Make sure that your recyclables are empty, clean, and dry. It will take only seconds, and it will save tons of recyclables from going to landfill.

4. Combinations of materials can be thrown away.

Recycling works best when similar materials are paired together. Items such as plastic-coated coffee cups and laminated papers, along with paper-bubble wrap envelopes, can’t be separated. This makes them trash.

Solution: Avoid buying materials that aren’t recyclable. To reduce the carbon footprint of your products, you should shop locally if possible.

5. Know what your plastics are

Plastics can be treated differently. Rigid plastics can be recycled by following resin codes 1 to 7. The higher the number, generally speaking, the more recyclable it is. Plastics 1 and 2 can be recycled by most recycling centers without any problems. It gets more complicated beyond that.

A lot of plastic is not recyclable curbside. Plastic bags and films can’t be recycled, as we have already mentioned. You can’t also recycle any material that can be ripped, like paper. This means that cracker bags, chip bags, and cereal bags are not allowed to be recycled.

Erin Hafner, Baltimore’s recycling coordinator, says that plastics can be confusing. It shouldn’t.

Solution – Check the recycling website of your city to find out the number it takes.

6. Stop Wishcycling

Wishcycling is one of the most harmful things that you can do when it comes to recycling. This is when we put non-recyclable items in recycling bins. This can contaminate entire loads of otherwise recyclable materials.

Helen Lee says that many people wish this material could be recycled. It seems like it is made from materials that could be recycled, but it sometimes isn’t.”

When sending recyclables to third-party waste management companies, cities must meet certain criteria. The entire recycling load could end up in the landfill if they exceed these thresholds.

You can also screw up the whole system if you wash cycle.

Solution: Don’t wash cycle.

7. Teach yourself

We don’t have all the answers. We accumulate a lot of stuff over our lifetime — paint cans, batteries, toys, clothes, and wood — which, unfortunately, all have their own drop-off centers or instructions for recycling.

Solution: Visit your local recycling site and learn what you need. This article will only take you so far.

Demand Change

You can make changes in your own behavior. Clean your containers better, recycle only what is recyclable, and reduce your overall consumption.

Howard Lee says, “[Be] conscious of how you buy products.” Reduce the amount of waste that you produce. Once you are comfortable with reducing waste, such as not having to buy so many water bottles, you can reuse and recycle items that you already have.

The industry is not exempted from responsibility. Manufacturers and lobbyists created an industry based on the false narrative that recycling is the only way to improve our consumption habits. Get crazy. Make some noise. Do not delay. Demand solutions. It is not your fault that plastics and other materials are necessary for today’s market economy.

End Plastic Pollution Campaign – EARTHDAY.ORG Find additional ways to reduce plastic waste, and Make a pledge to reduce plastic use.

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Jane S. King

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