Aluminum cans are convenient — buy, drink, toss away.
But whether you toss it in the trash or a recycling bin makes a huge difference, according to Patti Toews, San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority’s (IWMA) project director.
According to Toews, to drink from cans, aluminum had to be mined from another country and shipped to smelters in the Great Lakes area. Then, it’s melted down, transported to manufacturers, manufactured, transported to distributors, distributed to retailers — all of which impacts the environment.
“Aluminum is just one example. ... If you throw that can in the garbage, all that energy, the resources and pollution is a waste,” Toews said. “But if you recycle it, you cut out all that. Recycling centers instantly shoot it back to manufacturers and back on the shelf in six weeks or less.”
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However, even if you throw it into the recycling bin, it may still end up in the landfill due to contamination.
Recycling contamination is often a result of “wishcycling” or “feel-good recycling,” when people put things in the blue bin that does not belong there, such as pizza boxes or plastic bags, because they believe or hope it can be recycled.
“People feel better when they put (things) in the blue bin, even if it’s contamination. It’s horrible, and it’s happening all over,” Toews said.
Sometimes, well-intended “wishcyling” leads to whole bins being tossed in the landfill. Other times, it means safety hazards for employees or damaged recycling machinery.
It was less of a problem when recycling required all products be separated, Toews said. However, now co-mingled recycling — throwing it all in one bin — is much more common.
Although more convenient for the day-to-day recyclers, Toews said the switch has made it more difficult to separate or purify the goods at recycling centers.
“We try to separate it all out, and it requires a lot more labor and a lot more time and it comes in tons at a time,” Towes said.
At the start of the year, China, which bought roughly half of all America’s recycling, stopped because of contamination and mixed recycling.
“When it comes down to recycling, the key thing to remember is recycling is only as good as how many people want to buy it from you,” Toews said.
“China says they no longer want our trash,” she added.
That does not mean recycling is a lost cause, Toews said. The IMWA sells their glass, plastics and paper to manufacturers in California, Gallo Winery being their primary glass buyer.
To make an impact through recycling, however, it is important to know what does not belong in the blue bin.
“If we could remove even just three things, plastic bags, batteries and needles, from going (in recycling bins), we’d be a lot better off,” Toews said.
10 things you really shouldn’t put in your recycling bin:
- Plastic bags top the list of things that should not be put in the blue bins in SLO County because the thin plastic can severely damage machinery. If a plastic bag gets stuck in the machines, they must stop the process and torch the plastic until it melts off of the machinery, releasing harmful chemicals. Toews said recycling shouldn’t even go into plastic garbage bags.
- Batteries are another danger to recycle. During the recycling center’s process, batteries can spark and harm recycling-center employees.
- Needles have been a common problem as well. Toews said there have been several times where insulin needles will end up in the recycling bin because they are made of plastic and metal, however, she said they are a non-recyleable hazard.
- Food scraps are also damaging to the recycling process. It is considered a recycling contaminant if food packaging that was not properly washed out or food scraps are thrown into recycling. However, food scraps can avoid the landfill if composted through SLO County’s free Residential Food Waste Program.
- Frozen food boxes are not recyclable food packages. They are lined with a wax or plastic polymer to help insulate the food. The wax makes the box “impossible to recycle,” the SLO IWMA website said. If cleaned properly, plastic frozen food trays can be recycled, but not the boxes.
- Paper cups, typically used for coffee, have a similar wax lining to contain the liquid and therefore cannot be recycled. Yet, the cardboard drink sleeves and plastic lids are recyclable.
- Pizza boxes run a fine line. If there is grease on the pizza box, then it is a contaminant and should be thrown away, but, if the top portion is not greasy, it can be cut off and recycled.
- Dishware is also among the list of frequently recycled non-recyclables. Ceramic is not a recyclable product. And as for glasses, the type of glass used to make dishes does not melt at the same temperature as glass bottles, so it is not processed at recycling plants. Broken glass should never be recycled, as it is a hazard to employees.
- Diapers are another hazard that can end up in the wrong bin. Although disposable diapers contain paper and plastic, they are considered a bio hazard and should not be recycled. Also, the mixed materials could not be separated anyway.
- PVC Garden Hoses and PVC Pipe can also damage machinery. The long hoses are not meant to be recycled and can tangle the recycling process, creating a safety hazard.
Other items that don’t belong in the blue bin include: scrap metal, clothing, paper milk cartons, ice cream containers, paper towels, Styrofoam, light bulbs, shredded paper and electronic devices. However, there are other ways to recycle some of these items.
For more information on alternatives to recycling scrap metal, clothing and other used products in SLO County visit IMWA’s website.