Test Your Recycling IQ

Pop quiz! Which of the following items are recyclable in the city of Boston? (Answers at end of article.)

1. Aluminum foil   2. Pizza boxes   3. Styrofoam   4. Paper egg cartons   5. Cereal box liner   6. Light bulbs   7. Packaging tape   8. Milk cartons   9. Caps on bottles   10. Windows   11. Vinyl   12. Yogurt cups

In 1987, a barge named the Mobro 4000 left New York Harbor carrying 3,000 tons of garbage. It was headed for North Carolina, but at the last minute, the garbage facility refused to take the load. The rejected “gar-barge” rode from port to port to port along the coast. It traveled for five months before returning to New York. The image of mounds and mounds of trash floating in the ocean became symbolic of the state of waste throughout the country; there was no more room in the landfills, and cities were running out of options. Recycling was seen by cities as a way to mitigate the problem. According to Time magazine, “More than 10,000 communities had some sort of public recycling collection program in America by 1990.”

Many of us take pride in recycling as an environmental endeavor. It is important to remember, however, that a primary driver of the recycling process is business. Our curbside bins are emptied into a truck owned by a collection company that delivers our recyclables to a materials receiving facility (MRF) which sorts the materials then sells it to a variety of national and international processing plants. What we are and are not able to recycle is a result of what the various MRFs are able to sell. This is why, for example, some municipalities can recycle certain materials and others cannot.

What is “wish-cycling”?

The variation from one location to another may be contributing to a phenomenon called “wish-cycling” or “aspirational recycling.” Some recyclers throw items into their recycling bin that they believe should be recyclable whether or not the items are accepted by their municipal program. This proves to be very costly for the MRFs because they need to employ hand pickers to sort through the recycling stream and pull out unwanted items. In addition, unsanctioned items can cause jams that cause the whole process to come to a halt. This is particularly a problem with plastic bags, which is why many towns longer accept them, despite the recycling symbol. (Plastic bags can be brought to many local grocery stores for collection.)

Other commonly wish-cycled items include light bulbs, Styrofoam, textiles, rope, and electrical cord. Wish-cycling can cause a batch of material to be rejected by the processor, which lowers profit margins for MRFs. As environmentalists, we need the companies that support recycling to remain healthy and profitable.

The problem of contamination

Food waste is another problem that MRFs face. Unrinsed bottles and food left on containers can turn moldy and rancid by the time the batch gets to the processing plant, where they end up sending it to a landfill. Paper towels, highly greasy pizza boxes, and coffee cups are major culprits.

Wish-cycling and food waste are measured in the industry by the contamination rate. Nationally, contamination rates fall between 10–20%, which means 10–20% of what we think is being recycled is actually ending up in the landfill. In a recent policy shift, China, a major processor of American recyclables, set the contamination rate at 0.5%. This has caused a bit of panic throughout the recycling industry, and some cities are now sending out inspectors to sort through residential bins and issue warnings. Currently, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is developing recycling guidelines to help reduce the amount of contamination throughout the state.

What residents can do

What can we do to create a more robust recycling program in our communities? First and foremost, check the city recycling site to verify which items are acceptable. If you have questions, contact your city’s public works department and get clarification. Next, tell everyone you know what you’ve learned.

Clean all food and drink containers thoroughly. Put the tops back on their respective bottles. Cut the greasy parts out of any pizza boxes; place the greasy parts in the trash and recycle the clean parts.

Recycling is an environmental endeavor rooted in a desire to protect the planet. But it is important to remember that it is also business endeavor, and the choices we make about what we throw in our blue bins have consequences that impact the businesses that make it possible for us to recycle in the first place.

Links to municipal recycling webpages

Quiz answers

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. No
  4. Yes
  5. No
  6. No
  7. No
  8. Yes
  9. Yes
  10. No
  11. No
  12. Yes

— Lisa Hiserodt