Problem Items in the Recycling Stream

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Posted on December 28, 2016

Grand Junction has some of the best recyclers in the country and, for most of us, recycling has become second nature- just another part of our daily routine. We all know why we should recycle: it saves energy, reduces pollution, creates jobs, and it’s good for our community! However, even the best recyclers can unknowingly make small, unintentional mistakes that can have big consequences. Knowing what not to toss in your bags or bins is critical to the success of the recycling process.  Things like plastic bags, disposable silverware, drinking straws, greasy pizza boxes and paper coffee cups pose multiple problems within the recycling system as a whole. Items such as these are not only problematic for material processors like GJ CRI but also for the mills who transform your recyclables into new products. When you put items in your recycling that shouldn’t be there, you might, at the very least, be slowing down the process and creating more trash.

Plastics Contamination is the Worst!

Plastic bags and newspaper sleeves are the worst kind of contamination for any processing plant, jamming machinery and equipment, exposing workers to new and additional safety hazards, and shutting down sorting lines.  The resulting loss in productivity and increased maintenance costs substantially impact the overall costs associated with recycling.

While the majority of household plastic containers are recyclable, it is extremely difficult to secure environmentally sound oversees markets for plastics #3, #4, #6, and #7, and such markets are virtually nonexistent in the United States. Our program accepts plastics #1, #2, and #5 because these are the only plastics we can truly recycle.

Paper Mills Struggle with Food Packaging

The worst contaminants for the paper recycling process are food residues and certain kinds of food related items made from paper such as fast food or take out containers, paper coffee cups and drink cartons.  Oils from food residues can be detrimental to the process of recycling fibers like paper and cardboard.  When paper products are recycled, water is added to form a pulp.  We all know what happens when you mix oil and water.  Grease from pizza boxes and fast food bags rises and causes oil to accumulate on the top of the pulp. Fibers then absorb the oil and cannot be separated from them during the pulping process, essentially ruining the entire batch. The situation is clear:  to sum things up, “One bad apple” or, in this case “One greasy pizza box” really can “ruin the whole bunch”.  This is the reason why these and other items, such as paper plates and paper towels, are not accepted by recycling programs.

Drink cartons and disposable coffee cups are problematic to paper mills because most of them are coated with a thin layer of plastic in order to keep the liquid contents contained and at optimal temperatures. Unfortunately, this paper-plastic combination causes problems with equipment and negatively affects the pulping process because it is nearly impossible to separate the plastic from the paper. Specialized markets for paper cartons and cups are beginning to appear but, like shopping bags, these materials would need to be kept separate from other materials and shipped a considerable distance to specialized markets, which are not currently accessible to local collection programs.

Wet Paper is a Mushy Mess

Another concern for paper recycling processors is moisture content. Moisture harms paper fibers by making them brittle, which makes them undesirable for paper mills. We understand that sometimes your recycling will get rained on, and our processors expect some moisture- a little is okay. However, containers of paper  which have been fully saturated can not be recycled and will not be picked up.

Bad Material Negatively Affects the Entire Industry

These types of contaminations are costly for paper mills, causing them to lower the prices they can pay for even quality feedstock. Some paper mills have stopped using recycled materials altogether, while others have been forced to close their doors for good. Many paper mills are located in rural towns and are among the major employers in their area. Closures like these can be dire for local workers and affect entire communities.

Avoid these Pitfalls with a little Knowledge and Care

With a little added knowledge, situations like these can be avoided, and it all starts at home. Let’s face it, collecting items that should be in the trash bin, and transporting them to our recycling facility where they must be removed by hand and then sent to the landfill, is neither a cost effective nor an environmentally friendly option.

The good news is that a few simple actions on your part can make the difference between helping or hindering the recycling industry in the important days, months and years ahead.

So remember these tips:

  • Don’t put plastic bags or newspaper sleeves in with your regular recycling: Return them to designated receptacles at your local grocery or big box store.
  • Do your best to protect your paper from the rain, and avoid placing wet or previously wet newspaper at the curb.
  • Limit the items in your plastics bin to those marked #1, #2 or #5
  • Avoid putting greasy food containers, disposable coffee cups, foil, and drink containers in with recycling.
  • Last but not least, “When in doubt, toss it out.” If you aren’t sure that an item can be recycled, either phone us or put it in the trash.

Thank you for taking the time to properly recycle.  And, if you are already recycling like a pro, think about new ways to reuse items and further reduce your consumption.