Greenpoint: Will what’s in the bin really get recycled?


I prepared for recycling day last week by collecting all the cardboard we’ve been inexplicably storing behind a cabinet, folding it up to a reasonable size and stacking it on top of the box of newspapers I had already brought to the end of the driveway.

Then I realized I was a week early for our twice-monthly pickup, and hauled everything back indoors.

Recycling has become more and more confusing, and not just because I can’t remember what week it is. It’s hard to determine what actually is recyclable as opposed to what we are told is recyclable and what we wish would be recyclable.

Cardboard and newspaper are fine, as long as they are fairly clean and dry. We’re good with that, and the wood stove and compost pile take care of what we can’t recycle. Metal and glass — if it’s clean and doesn’t have a metal cap or ring attached — are highly recyclable, although the markets go up and down.

But plastics? That varies.

New York state has an online recycling encyclopedia ( with a lot of information on how and what to recycle. But a lot of information is not useful — such as “check your local recycling guidelines,” which brings you to your county recycling guidelines. Both my county and town guidelines say I can recycle any plastic labeled 1 through 7.

But I know that’s not the case. While 1 and 2 are recyclable, the others are problematic because they are blended plastics and not easily broken down into components to make new plastic. It’s cheaper for manufacturers to make new plastic.

Number 4, for instance, includes plastic bags, which can’t go in your recycling bin. Straws and hangers are Number 5 — no one takes those. Number 6 is polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam. My local recycling stations specifically reject Styrofoam, and many areas have banned it precisely because it’s not easily recycled.

The most recyclable plastics, polyethylene terephthalate (PET, which is labeled 1) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE, 2), are used in soda and water bottles and milk and juice jugs. The problem here is that we only recycle about a third of these bottles and toss the rest in the trash or, sometimes, on the side of the road.

Then there are the bottle caps. Most of the caps on 1 and 2 plastics are also made of recyclable plastics, but a lot of recycling centers won’t take caps because they fly around and jam up machinery. Some places say caps are fine as long as they are securely attached to the bottles.

And since most recycling programs use “single-source” — all recyclables tossed into the same bin and sorted at the recycling facility — contamination has become a huge problem because garbage or nonrecyclable materials are mixed in. And if type 3 through 7 plastics are not really recyclable, and they are mixed in with all the recyclable plastic, does that turn the whole lot into garbage?

It’s a frustrating problem, and the true solution is to eliminate as much plastic as you can from your life, which is hard to do if you ever, say, go grocery shopping. You can bring your own shopping bag; you can bring your own reusable produce bags and bulk containers. But you’re still going to get plastic-wrapped items, unreusable and unrecyclable packages and containers, Styrofoam trays and plastic-lined paper bags.

Organizations such as Beyond Plastics in Vermont are pushing back at a deeper level, trying to change manufacturers and laws. States like Maine and Oregon have “extended producer responsibility” laws, which make manufacturers responsible for their packaging, either accepting it back for reuse or recycling, or paying fines. But it’s going to take a huge effort to change things.

One thing we all can do is buy in bulk whenever possible, avoid single-use beverages or opt for the more recyclable metal cans rather than plastic if we buy them. Advocate for your schools or workplaces to switch to metal cans in vending machines.

And make sure your own recycling bin has only what is actually recyclable in it. Don’t trust the websites or flyers — call your town or county or private hauler and ask what really happens to everything that you intend to be recycled.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on March 27. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

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