When Recyclable Isn’t Recyclable

In previous posts we’ve talked about some of the finer points of recycling, like where the numbers (1-7) come from inside the arrow loops, which plastics are actually being recycled (1 & 2 if clear or white) and why plant-based plastic messes with all of this.

It occurs to me that some real-world examples of common recycling contradictions would be helpful as well because just when you think you know which bin to toss to, there’s an exception.

close-up of blue bin with white recycling arrows triangle

Non-recyclable: Any filmy plastic, like a bag, dry cleaner cover, peel-off lid, bubble wrap, or anything else that is thin, flexible, and often see-through. Why: Most of this plastic has low economic value and has a tendency to gum up the machines that process it. No one wants to bother.

Non-recyclable: Any object with mixed materials, even if it’s mostly recyclable, can’t be processed. Things like padded mail envelopes, coffee pods, juice boxes, or boxed water to name a few may seem like they’re made of great, recyclable materials. But when you put two different things together the machines don’t have a way to deal with it, so it all gets shunted to the landfill.

Non-recyclable: Soft-sided plastics like tubes and pouches are generally made of low-value plastic that no one has an interest in. Everything from toothpaste, moisturizers, and shampoos to food containers may seem hearty and worth recycling, but they’re hard to clean and not worth the effort.

Non-recyclable: Small stuff. As a rule, if what you’re holding is smaller than 3” in diameter it won’t get recycled – that’s just the way the processing centers are designed. So if you’re holding something 2” wide that’s ideal recycling material, just know it’s not essential that you get it in the right bin.

Non-recyclable: Colors. Plastic that’s been dyed any color except white is not going to be recycled. Two reasons: Brand packaging has specific colors that never vary. Buying recycled plastic means getting slightly different colored materials every time, and then having to correct for it. Also, some dyes are toxic when ingested ‒ which isn’t a problem if the original product is just holding a non-edible item. But if it’s recycled into something holding food it can leach in and, you know, poison us.

Non-recyclable: Residues. Whether it’s food or household cleaners or personal products, if you’ve got something with any sort of stain or, well…residue on it, it’s not going to be recycled. If you think about it, the end product needs to compete with virgin versions. If one is pure and perfect and the other has been processed with food leftovers, soaps or lotions, or who knows what, it’s not going to be very consistent or usable. If you can’t clean your items, just toss them in the trash.

Non-recyclable: Napkins and tissues. “But it’s paper,” you say. True, but every time paper gets recycled the pulp fibers get trimmed a little shorter as they’re formed into their next thing. Napkins, paper towels, Kleenex, tissue paper, and all those light, soft products are the end of the line for the pulp. The good news is that those products will typically biodegrade pretty easily.

chalkboard-like illustration of person dropping item in waste basket

Some of this may be discouraging, but a lot of what you’ve been tossing into your recycling bin has been going instead to the landfill for years and years.

What it points to is that our ability to recycle isn’t as comprehensive as we all hoped. Ideally, we’ll start to reorganize our recycling habits so we only try to process the materials that have a 100% chance of going through, and then reduce or eliminate the stuff that can only go to the landfill.

The more you can improve what you’re sending out in your bin, the healthier the whole system will be.

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