Curbside Recycling Demystified: What Goes and What Doesn't

by Rebecca Smith Hurd on February 17, 2011
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More than half of all U.S. businesses are based out of the owner’s home, which can make recycling a bigger challenge than it already is. A recent post looked at how to dispose of used office equipment and supplies — batteries, ink cartridges, light bulbs, etc. — easily and responsibly. But what about other unwanted items, such as that chipped coffee mug, empty pizza box, or wet newspaper? Can you throw these things into a curbside recycling bin and call it a day?

The answer is probably not. What you can recycle curbside depends on where you live and what your local service provider is willing to pick up. Most take some combination of paper, glass, aluminum, steel, and plastic, but these materials may need to be sorted, rinsed clean, or bundled in order to make the grade. Your best course of action is to contact your local officials or waste-disposal management company and ask. (Many post recycling information online, too.) If your curbside service doesn’t take a particular product, inquire about who does. Still unsure where to take an item? Look for nearby recyclers on Earth911.com.

Certain products are almost universally frowned upon. For example, paper that’s been tainted with food or grease or soaked in water has had its fibers compromised. This makes the pulp more difficult to mill and thus less valuable to recyclers, so they often won’t take it, explains Katherine Butler in “10 Surprising Things You Can’t Recycle” on EcoSalon.com. Paper napkins and towels, cardboard to-go containers, abused newsprint, and the like just end up in the trash. Also unwelcome: heavily dyed paper stock, juice boxes, and ceramics.

“My ex-husband worked at a municipality-run recycling plant which recycled cardboard, cans, and bottles to turn into future paper products and office supplies,” Melissa D. Ing writes on Helium.com. “He was frequently amazed at some of the ways home owners and business owners tried to sneak un-recyclables into the mix.” These items included defunct car parts and tires; hazardous liquids like ammonia, hair dye, and paint (or empty paint cans); and small electrical appliances, which she says people often broke down into pieces to hide in the blue bins.

Another tip from Ing: Buy a shredder. “One of the biggest things people forget when they begin a recycling program is the importance of shredding important household documents and office correspondence before they recycle the paper,” she says.

Home-based business should also find out what specific types of plastics their curbside collection agent will take. The simplest plastic containers to recycle are made of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. They include water, soda, and medicine bottles that have the number 1 surrounded by a triangle of arrows stamped on the bottom. (For a primer on what all the different numbers mean, click here.)

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