Guest column: Recycling FAQs

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By Ryan Call, Outreach Coordinator, Eco-Cycle

This week, we are addressing frequently asked questions about Zero Waste. The trick to knowing what is recyclable is to know why it is or is not recyclable. Knowing the answers to these questions is an important step to  “Recycle Right!”

Question: “Should I bag up my recyclables as I do with my trash?”

Answer: Plastic bags, whether they are single-use carryout bags or larger garbage bags, are the No. 1 most common recycling contaminant and cause serious problems at recycling facilities. Recyclables aren’t garbage, they are feedstock for future product production and will be processed and sorted by both mechanical sorters and staff. There is no “unbagging” process, so please keep your recyclables loose and unbagged in your bins so they can easily be sorted at the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC).

When recyclables are bagged, the recycling machines can’t automatically sort them, so an employee must grab the bag off the conveyor belt, rip it open and shake out the recyclables. This puts workers at a greater risk of injury if there is something sharp in the bag. It also slows down the whole process, which makes operations less efficient and more costly. Plastic bags that get past sorters on the conveyor belts get caught in recycling equipment. We have to turn all equipment off twice a day to cut them out by hand. Again, this puts workers at a preventable risk and seriously slows down operations. Take clean and dry single-use plastic bags to Eco-Cycle’s Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM). To avoid plastic bags piling up in the first place, we recommend reusing plastic bags or better yet, switch to durable, reusable tote bags.

Question: “I’ve heard that food and liquid is another recycling contaminant. Why is that? How clean should my recyclables be?”

Answer: Most of the material in your recycling bin is likely food and drink packaging. Unfortunately, leftover food and drink put recycling workers at risk and ruins the value of the recyclable material. Even though we use automatic machines at the BCRC to sort materials, recyclables come in contact with several human workers as well. When food and liquid are leftover in recyclables they attract rats and stinging insects, as well as expose workers to harmful molds. The value of recyclables can be ruined because companies who buy recycled materials want them to be as clean as possible. Always pour out liquids and scrape food off your recyclable containers and give them a quick rinse. Recyclable containers don’t need to be squeaky clean, but this simple step helps recycling systems tremendously.

Question: “What do I do with caps, lids and labels on food and beverage containers? Are they recyclable? Do I leave them on or take them off?”

Answer: There are different rules for different materials. First, anything smaller than a credit card will not pass through our recycling machinery. Metal bottle caps are too small for recycling machines to catch, so you can collect them as scrap metal and drop them off at the ChaRM. Plastic lids can be left on empty plastic bottles and cartons, but you should separate lids from larger plastic tubs, such as a cottage cheese container and recycle them loose in your bin. Metal lids for glass jars should be separated so that magnets can sort them from the glass and send them to their respective markets. You can keep labels on all recyclable materials.

As always, we are happy to answer more of your Zero Waste questions. Contact us at 303-444-6634 or recycle@ecocycle.org. Visit ecocycle.org for curbside guidelines, info about the CHaRM and more.

Eco-Cycle is one of the oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers and Zero Waste organizations in the U.S. Eco-Cycle innovates, implements and advocates for local and global Zero Waste solutions to foster a more regenerative, equitable and climate resilient future. For more information: www.ecocycle.org