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Recycling What Your Town Won't Collect

Updated on January 22, 2015

Broadly speaking, recycling means making something new from trash instead of landfilling it. In that sense, almost anything can be recycled, including dirty diapers, cigarette butts, and other truly disgusting refuse.

In the day-to-day sense of recycling, however, you generate plenty of trash that you can't put in your recycling container on trash collection day. Municipalities have a dizzying array of different standards for what they will and will not accept. Some have different standards for what they will accept at drop-off centers.

My own municipality recently started accepting any plastic labeled with any number. Another I know well accepts plastic of any number except 6, but only if it's in the shape of a bottle. It will not take yogurt cups, for example. It also requires glass be taken to its drop-off center.

Besides diapers and cigarette butts, there are a number of items universally unacceptable in curbside recycling programs. That doesn't mean you have to put them into the trash. You can recycle them. It just takes a bit more ingenuity and effort. Here are just three examples

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1. Plastic bags

You take cloth bags to the store to avoid plastic shopping bags, don't you? But it's impossible to avoid plastic bags entirely. Think of bread. Think of produce. Think of anything that you can buy in bulk—and that's only what you find at the grocery store.

These bags will interfere with sorting equipment at recycling collection centers. If they manage not to damage the equipment, they will still slow down the sorting process and add unnecessary costs to the operation.

Municipal recycling programs hardly ever make a profit. It's hard enough for them to break even. Putting plastic bags (among other things) out at the curb merely raises their costs—and possibly your taxes.

The solution? Accumulate a bunch of plastic bags. Take them to the grocery store, and put them in the bins that most chains have for the purpose.

You knew that, of course, but the same principle applies to so many other things. Recycling them is not impossible, just less convenient.

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2. Certain kinds of paper

Shredded paper likewise creates havoc for sorting equipment. Paper towels and paper napkins are contaminated with, well, with whatever non-paper waste they picked up.

Pizza boxes started out as recyclable, but once they're soaked with grease, they can't be made into new paper any more. Still, check your local regulations in case you live where they're accepted.

Some municipalities do not welcome brightly colored paper. You can easily imagine how difficult it is to produce high-quality recycled white printer paper with too much colored paper in the feedstock.

Look around. It may be that you can find a local organization that accepts shredded paper. Some municipalities may even accept it if you put it in a separate bag.

Consider composting paper you can't put at the curb. Paper is organic and therefore biodegradable.

Unfortunately, that pizza box shouldn't be put on an ordinary compost pile, either. Meat products attract vermin. But if you are really determined to compost as much as possible, buy a manufactured composting system that can handle meat.

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3. Broken glass

Glass is glass. It doesn't change any of its properties when it's broken. But it does become less useful for recycling, and for several reasons.

First and foremost, it presents a health hazard to anyone who has to handle it. At the very least, glass must be sorted by color. So far, we have no machines that can distinguish brown from green from clear. A person has to do that.

Once someone has separated glass by color, it gets crushed during the recycling process. If it gets crushed before sorting, It's, if not impossible, unreasonably difficult to sort it—even if there were anyway of insuring that no one would get cut by it.

And yet it can be made into, say, sand. Again, if a company in your area accepts it, your search engine will provide its contact information. Recycling waste like broken glass simply requires going to greater inconvenience than most people are willing to endure. Even the most inconvenience-tolerant people can't do anything unless they have an idea what's possible.

And that's the bottom line. It's easy to find lists of things you can't put out at the curb. With some research and determination, you can find ways to recycle some of it –maybe even most of it--anyway. Earth 911 and 1-800-Recycling make great places to start.

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