What Really Gets Recycled
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
It turns out we're terrible recyclers.
After an eye-opening tour of Recology, San Francisco's waste management company, we learned that 40% - 50% of the cans, bottles, paper products and other items we toss into our blue recycling bins are not recycled because of "wish-cycling"or contamination.
Think about it: If you throw a dirty jar of tomato sauce into your recycling bin, tomato residue can spill over and contaminate the entire lot. Anything greasy cannot be recycled and is sorted out for landfill. That goes for the items we "wish-cycle" into the bins when we're not sure they belong (ie. cords, toothpaste tubes, makeup dispensers).
Additionally, 50%-60% of the materials SF residents place into the black bins for landfill is actually compostable or recyclable, with the majority being food waste and paper. It's more important than ever to step up our recycling game, and here's why....
Material Recovery Facilities (or MRF, pronounced "merf") sort, separate, compact and sell post industrial and post consumer waste to international markets. Recology is one these. For years most U.S. waste products have been shipped and sold to China. In recent months, China announced that they no longer want our trash restricting acceptance of bales to those with a .5% contamination rate or less. As you can imagine, that's a pretty tough ask on a country with high rates of consumption and an addiction to one-time use disposables. The outcome is that a number of MRFs all over the nation are closing down and much of the materials that could formally be recycled are going straight to landfill.
This episode of 99% Invisible Podcast provides an awesome examination of what's happening to our country's recycling now that China has stopped buying our trash.
Luckily, San Francisco is a leading city in recycling technology and culture. Recology, unlike other waste management facilities, is a private company that is employee owned. They have a close relationship with the city of San Francisco and are written into the city charter which allows them to think long term and aim for lofty goals. One of those goals is to decrease overall waste generation in the city of San Francisco by 15% and decrease materials going to landfill by 50% by 2030.
Although the value of Recology's waste products have gone down, they've been working hard to meet China's requirements and have been able to find other buyers in South East Asia. Recology is hopeful that the U.S. can soon start processing recyclables domestically, although there is currently no infrastructure to do so. This is why we need to become better recyclers.
(If you would like to take the tour yourself, Recology offers monthly tours. Learn more on their website.)
Here are recycling tips from Recology that we hope will empower YOU.
SOFT AND FLIMSY PLASTICS
Loose plastic bags clog and break the sorters so those get picked out and go to landfill. In order for them to be recycled, store all of your plastic bags into one plastic bag, tie and pop into the blue bin.
- You CAN recycle printed or colorful bags, but they must be 100% plastic
- You CANNOT recycle chip bags that are lined with aluminum or waxy materials. They should go into the trash.
BOTTLE AND CANS
These are probably the most common items we know to recycle, but many of us don't clean out our bottles and cans before doing so.
- Make sure to rinse and clean out all bottles and cans before placing them into the blue bin.
- Peanut butter jars should be cleaned out, the cleaner the higher chances it will be recycled. Recology suggests to soak them overnight or run them through your dishwasher.
Most mixed material packaging can't be separated so they can't be recycled (we're looking at you chip bags).
- Coffee cups and other sturdier paper products that have a very thin layer of waxy material CAN be recycled.
- Recology recently found a vendor that can separate the layers in cardboard soup cartons so those CAN be recycled too.
- Sadly, toothpaste tubes CANNOT be recycled and go to landfill.
If an item is 100% of a material, Recology can't take the item apart to sorting and therefore will direct it to landfill.
- Toys that have mixed materials will go to landfill. Only 100% plastic toys CAN be recycled.
- Paperback books CAN be recycled. Hard cover books CAN be recycled if the cover is taken off because they are coated with plastic
TEXTILES AND CLOTHING
Loose clothes CANNOT be recycled in the blue bin. They will go to landfill.
If you have used textile or clothes:
1. Donate or resell online (The RealReal, Poshmark, ThredUp, Silk Roll)
2. If they are too tattered to donate, Recology can recover them from the blue bin if you place textiles into a bag and label it.
3. For now, shoes go to landfill through Recology.
Although one-time-use biodegradable items are on the market, the compostable label is the only regulated label that can go into the green compost bin. Certified compostable items break down within 90 days in an industrial compost facility.
- Packaging, utensils and anything else that's labeled "biodegradable" CANNOT go into the compost bin. They are not regulated so often this means that item just breaks down into tiny plastic particles.
-Recology encourages only rotted and moldy food products to be tossed in the compost bin. If you have good, healthy foods to share do so or donate to others.