While I’m a confirmed, lifelong subscriber to the glass is half-empty philosophy, I’m often awakened from my pessimistic melancholia when I observe people genuinely wanting to do the right thing when it comes to recycling, even if they’re making a small but easily correctable mistake here and there by putting something wrong into their recycling or composting cart. Those recycling souls are not lost and, with a little coaching and education, can be pulled back from the precipice and redeemed.
But then my newfound, yet fleeting, positivity is brought to a screeching halt when I witness behaviors less driven by honest mistakes than by laziness, ignorance, or a misplaced desire to be a contrarian. So, for your edification and entertainment, I present The Top Six Ways to be the Worst Recycler Ever.
Prince entertained us all with his hit, “Party Like it’s 1999,” way back in 1982. Well, maybe not everyone was entertained. Unfortunately, some of us still recycle like it’s 1999, even though Prince is no longer with us.
Our municipal recycling programs have come a long way since 1999, when many of us had to diligently segregate our basic recyclables like glass, aluminum cans, and paper into different containers. Nowadays, everything goes into the same recycling cart or dumpster, also known as commingled or single stream recycling. Many more items are accepted for recycling, and we don’t have to peel off the labels anymore!
Caps, Straws and Toothpicks, Oh My!
It’s funny that we’ve come so far in our recycling programs in the Northwest that we actually have debates over whether straws, bottle caps, and toothpicks should be accepted in recycling. Unfortunately, this debate shifts our focus away from doing the basics well, like recycling paper, glass, metal, and plastics. While we’ve come a long way, still about one in every five pound of materials hauled to the landfill contains perfectly recyclable cardboard, mixed paper, plastics, glass, and metal. So we haven’t quite reached the recycling nirvana we think. Keep your eye on the prize: do the basics well, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
The Serial Shredder
No, this isn’t about your favorite breakfast cereal. It’s about people who shred every piece of paper that comes into their lives, confidential or not.
We all know that we have to be careful about identity theft and keep our confidential papers away from thieves. In fact, we strongly encourage people to avoid putting bank statements, medical records, and other confidential records in their recycling bins and admit that shredding these documents is the best way to prevent them falling into nefarious hands. Unfortunately, we also have some who shred or try to shred everything under the sun, including junk mail, newspapers, credit cards, and lettuce.
While shredding can be oddly therapeutic, it’s a little known but important fact that shredded paper can’t be reconstituted back into a new paper products because the shredding process cuts the fiber strands too short. The shred, particularly the confetti-style, also makes a huge mess at the recycling center – so much so that we ask customers to put their shredded paper into their yard waste carts.
EXTRA CREDIT ASSIGNMENT: If you want to earn bonus points toward your Worst Recycler Ever Certification, shred your plastic credit cards and put them in your yard waste cart along with the shredded paper. Just like the circle of life, pieces of the credits cards will come back to you in the bags of finished compost you purchase for your garden. There’s nothing quite like biting into a potato and finding a piece of someone’s expired Visa card.
The “They’ll Sort it Outer”
Recycling processing centers like Waste Management’s Cascade Recycling Center (CRC) in Woodinville are modern marvels, using all kinds of conveyers, magnets, air sorters, and gravity sorters to sort the recyclables…and, unfortunately, sort out big piles of non-recyclable garbage. (Take a tour of the CRC and see for yourself!)
In the solid waste business we call this garbage pulled out of the recycling “residual.” Residual is essentially all of the things that should not have been put in recycling carts or dumpsters like plastic bags, chip bags, broken glass, beer bottle caps, Styrofoam, hypodermic needles, engine blocks (seriously) … I could go on and on. When I see residual, I don’t just see garbage – I see dollar signs, because Waste Management has to pay to dispose of this garbage, with the cost ultimately passed on to you and me.
Some err on the side of putting a questionable item in the recycling cart rather than throw it away, working under the theory that if it’s not recyclable, then “they’ll sort it out.” Some of the trash is pulled out, but some makes it through the sorting process and contaminates the bundled recyclables, making them less valuable for making into new products.
Our suggestion is, when in doubt, throw it out.
(You can also call our recycling hotline to ask: (425) 587-3812.)
And then there are items that could be recycled with a smidgen of effort, but have to be thrown out because they’re mixed with trash. My teenage boy has a penchant for throwing half-full fast food drink cups in our recycling bin. He got the cup part right, but there’s no recycling center in existence that wants the plastic lid, the straw, or the liquid.
His response: “They’ll sort it out.”
Clean recyclables are appreciated by the recycling center. A half-full bottle of ketchup or an unclean jar of peanut butter can make for a smelly mess, so we encourage you to empty and rinse your recyclables. But running your recyclables through the dishwasher is overkill, and wastes the water and energy spent cleaning them. So, don’t worry about over-washing your recyclables – if the recyclable is so gross it can’t be cleaned to a reasonable standard, please throw it in the garbage.
Recycling centers are dangerous. The contents of your recycling cart or dumpster are dumped en masse and pushed toward a high speed conveyer belt system. Standing next to the conveyer are workers who reach into the chaos and pull out obvious, non-recyclable items, as well as sorting certain recyclable items. While they wear personal protective equipment like safety glasses, dust masks, and gloves, there is still a risk of getting cut or poked by sharp items. So please don’t put sharp items like scissors, nails, jagged soup can lids, or needles in your recycling cart – throw them in the trash.