Ending 'wishful recycling'
There's a serious irony to the reality that residents of Portland-area cities — where sustainability is nearly a religion — deposit non-recyclable items in their colorful bins in such volume that they render entire truckloads unsalable in the recycling market.
Dubbed "wishful recycling" by those in the industry, the practice is born from a good place — trying to save the planet by keeping as much trash out of the landfill as possible. Rather than using another popular industry mantra — "when in doubt, leave it out" — folks are erring on the side of less caution and contaminating boatloads of perfectly usable recycled materials.
Adding to the confusion is the spectrum of what is accepted where and keeping track of it all. Your home disposal service may take washed aluminum foil but your workplace service does not. And your in-laws' disposal service will accept napkins in the kitchen compost, but at your best friend's house they don't allow food of any kind in garden debris bins.
"Here in the Northwest we tend to be the region that is particular about recycling," says Therese McLain, municipal manager for Republic Services in Oregon. She encourages cities and counties to be very proactive about communicating with their residents regarding the particulars about what can and cannot be recycled locally, especially curbside.
People dedicated to the mission of recycling need to take responsibility for doing it in such a way as to ensure the items are actually recycled once leaving their home bin, according to Metro, the Portland-area regional planning organization. Trying to recycle things with no resale market drives up the cost for everyone.
Where we go wrong
There are two main ways we can ruin recycling. The first is by correctly identifying recyclable materials but unsatisfactorily preparing them.
Anything that comes into contact with food needs to be thoroughly washed and dried, a step most of us leave out. This means washing out the last of the peanut butter in the jar, rinsing the tomato soup out of the coated carton and tossing the foil in the trash if we can't get the dried-on pot roast off.
A few disposal services will accept food-contaminated paper goods — paper towels, pizza boxes, napkins and the like — in the compost bins. But just as many do not accept these items anywhere.
The next way we trip ourselves up is by not understanding, or not bothering to find out, what items are really recyclable — so we toss them in just in case. Understanding why some items are not accepted goes a long way to making that choice.
Paper manufactured to resist breaking down when exposed to moisture — items like frozen food boxes and disposable coffee cups — are rarely recyclable. Small items like caps from soda and beer bottles, lids from yogurt containers and plastic grocery sacks are not allowed in the mixed recycling bins because they jam sorting machines. And broken glass is a hazard for workers.
The biggest reason not everything made of paper, glass or plastic is recyclable is because there is no market for resale. Our disposal companies need to find sources interested in taking their tons of sorted and (hopefully) uncontaminated materials, and they'll only do that if it's cost-effective for them to do so.
What we can do right
Committing to doing a better job of emptying and cleaning our recyclable items is one thing, but how do we keep track of what to put in our curbside bins in the first place?
The simplest solution is to go to the website for your waste disposal provider, because every company has slight variations. But as a rule, most metro-area services accept the following:
— Glass bottles and jars;
— Milk, soup, juice cartons;
— Office paper, paper sacks, newspaper, junk mail;
— Plastic tubs and bottles (think shampoo, yogurt, detergent, nursery plant pots, etc., but NOT the single-serve coffee pods);
— Tin (cans, foil); and
— Cardboard (cereal boxes, corrugated, etc.).
Items most commonly rejected for curbside recycling:
— Household glass (window glass, decor, etc.);
— Take-out containers of foam, paper, plastic;
— Bubble wrap, Styrofoam, packing peanuts;
— "Blister packs" for packaging; and
— Pill bottles (too small).
Until recently, recyclers could drop off plastic grocery bags and clear plastic containers, such as food clamshells or blister packs, at area New Seasons Markets. But no longer.
"Now, due to new international market restrictions on recycled plastics, local recycling companies have no place to sell them so they are currently not collecting these plastics," said a statement released by New Seasons in October.
McLain highly recommends the website plasticfilmrecycling.org as a resource to find out where to recycle non-curbside materials such as plastic grocery bags, clear film wrap and zip-top food bags.
"It's a good website, intuitive and user-friendly," she says. "The problem with our websites is there aren't enough landing sites to address every detail about every item. If people have questions we recommend they call our customer service."
All is not lost
As in life, location is everything. In Lake Oswego and Portland, coffee filters, napkins and paper towels can go in the yard debris/food compost bins — but not in West Linn or Wilsonville.
Is it hopeless, trying to keep track of it all? Take heart; there are a few things you might even be able to ADD to your recycling, things you overlooked, such as:
— Cardboard rolls inside toilet tissue and paper towels;
— Empty aerosol cans and (dry) paint cans;
— Scrap metal like old pots, hardware (put small pieces inside larger metal container);
— Paper egg cartons;
— Plastic toiletry bottles (6 ounces and larger);
— Empty shaving cream cans; and
— Small cardboard, like the box holding toothpaste
And many 'non-curbside-worthy' materials will be accepted at designated drop sites in the metro area.