What to recycle and what not to recycle ─ it's confusing
You've been living off the grid if you haven't heard that many restaurants are not automatically giving customers plastic drinking straws. Those straws are the latest thing people want to keep out of landfills.
And a landfill is where they would go, because you can't recycle them.
You want to make sure you're recycling all that you can, but recycling can be tricky.
Because here's the thing: If enough contaminants are in the load of recycling that aren’t easily and quickly removed, the entire load could end up in a landfill.
It is important to learn the recycling rules for your area so you aren’t contributing to the high rate of contamination.
And if you're thinking recycling is too complicated, simplify it.
Recycle the most important and cost-effective items and don't worry about the rest:
- Cans ─ soda, soup, other cans (empty, clean and dry is the rule for all recycling) and you can leave the labels on
- Plastic ─ water bottles, other drink bottles, clamshell fruit or take-out containers, rigid plastic like detergent bottles
- Paper ─ junk mail (plastic windows on envelopes are fine), newspapers, office paper, shredded paper (in clear plastic bags for much of the area) and cardboard
What is contamination?
Contamination is anything put in the recycling bin or barrel that can’t be recycled here in Southern Arizona.
That includes food particles left in containers, plastic bottles with liquid left in them, oily pizza boxes, dirty soup cans and lunch take-out containers that weren’t washed. It also includes Styrofoam or plastic foam, plastic bags, plastic straws, batteries, fast-food drink cups, heat-resistant glass and many other things.
So, what can you recycle? And what should you just throw in the trash? Here's some help.
Magazines and junk mail
Once upon a time, we were told that glossy paper like that used in magazines and a lot of “junk” mail was a no-no for recycling.
That is no longer true. Technology has improved and equipment at recycling plants can handle much more than was once possible.
If you still get paper magazines and catalogs by snail mail, you may toss them in your recycling bin or barrel once you have finished reading them.
And for junk mail, just pile that in the recycling bin. If envelopes have a little cellophane window, leave it there.
Ketchup bottles can be recycled, but only after you’ve rinsed them out first.
According to Waste Management, the ketchup is a contaminant. Just rinse the bottle in the sink or run it through your dishwater and let it air dry. If it isn’t recycling pick-up day, you can let it dry right in your bin.
After it is clean, either put the lid back on for recycling or throw the lid out. Don't recycle it separately.
Keep the lids on bottles, jars
The city of Tucson says it’s better to leave the lids on plastic and glass bottles and jars. Most lids are small enough to fall through the machinery, so leaving them on helps keep the machinery running.
If you’re in doubt, you can always throw the lids away. Just don't put them in the recycling bin separately. However, the lids for plastic bottles help the bottles retain their shape through the mechanized process, and they are also a good source of plastic as well.
The best guideline is to make sure the things you recycle are empty, clean and dry. Another is that items smaller than a tennis ball may fall through the machinery.
This helps answer another common question emailed to the Star about recycling. Those plastic prescription bottles should not be recycled. They are too small.
You can wash them and use them to hold nails and screws in your workshop, or to hold beads and smaller crafting materials.
Those little plastic coffee pods used in personal coffee makers should not be recycled either. They’re too small.
Plastic lunch meat containers
Can plastic lunch meat containers be recycled?
Know that there should be no food left in the container and it should be clean. Don’t worry about removing the paper label. If there was a flimsier plastic wrapping the meat inside the container, throw that away.
Along the same lines, those plastic strawberry or blueberry containers you get at the grocery story should be treated the same way. Clean them out and recycle. Again, if there’s a label, you may leave it on.
The same goes for takeout lunch containers as long as they aren’t plastic foam (similar to Styrofoam). Recycle the plastic ones, toss the foam ones.
Cardboard cereal, pasta boxes
Cardboard cereal and pasta boxes are perfect for recycling. Rarely does food stick to the inside, so you can just shake it out.
Remember to flatten it, which works best if you open the bottom first. Take the wax paper bag out of the cereal box and toss it before recycling the box.
If food gets stuck on the box or something oily drips on it, recycling is no longer an option. Then you should throw the box out.
Plastic drinking straws
Don’t recycle plastic drinking straws. They are too small for the machinery and hard for human sorters to pick up.
If you have heard about sea turtles with straws in their noses, recycling these straws won’t help them. Putting them in the trash so they go to a landfill instead of littering will help. But the best option is not to use them.
If you must use straws or just like them a lot, it is getting easier to find washable straws these days. These are made with a thicker plastic so they won’t break when they are used more than once. There are also stainless steel straws that will last forever.
It is important to remember that you must keep them clean, however. When you wash them, use a large pipe cleaner to clean inside the straws.
Another option is a cleaning brush. It will last longer than a pipe cleaner. Look in the pet-food section where you find aquarium equipment for smaller brushes with long enough handles to push them through the length of a straw. Sterilize it with bleach as often as you do your dish cloth.
You can recycle aluminum foil, but first make sure there is no food left on it.
Did you know you can reuse foil? Depending what you wrapped in it, don’t reuse it if you wrapped raw chicken or other raw meat. You can wipe it off and fold it to use again.
Once that piece of foil has outlived its usefulness, however, wipe it off and recycle it. Wad it up loosely into a ball.
The same goes for aluminum disposable pie pans and roasting pans. They can often be reused and then recycled.
Unfortunately, the sides of these are often crinkly and ridged. If you think food or oil is still stuck in those ridges, throw the pan in the trash.
Milk, juice cartons
Even thought this cartons often feel like they are coated with wax, a representative of Tucson Environmental Services says they may be recycled.
Of course, rinse them out first and let them dry. Either leave the lids on or throw them away.
The same would go for juice boxes, but toss the straws in the trash.
Juice pouches are a different matter because you will not be able to rinse them out. Throw them away.
Should you recycle shredded paper? It depends.
If you live inside the city limits of Tucson, you can recycle shredded paper. It should be placed in a clear plastic bag and put in your curbside recycling or community bin. Clear bags are the only ones permitted and this is the only exception to the “no plastic bags” rule.
However, if you live outside the city of Tucson, it depends where your recycling is processed. Chances are you can’t recycle shredded paper. Waste Management won’t accept it.
Photos should never be recycled.
Lotion bottles, hairspray cans
Empty lotion bottles are recyclable, they must be empty, clean and dry. They also can't be small, sample sizes.
While we’re on the subject of cosmetics, you may wonder if an empty hairspray can is recyclable. According to a representative of Tucson Environmental Services, it can be.
Of course, you can’t clean out an aerosol can, so don’t recycle one that held something toxic like bug spray. In this case, when in doubt, throw it out.
Otherwise, if the can is completely empty, recycle it.
If you live outside of Tucson city limits, the rules are different depending on where you live. Waste Management customers can call 744-2600 to find out the rules for their area. It’s an automated line, but you can get a person after a few menus.
Plastic pill bottles
Prescription pill bottles are too small for the machinery in recycling plants to handle, do don't recycle them.
But you can reuse them. They can hold nails and screws in the workshop or beads and buttons in the craft or sewing room.
There are other ways to reuse these pill bottles. First remove the label and wash them. Then you can take them to Pima Animal Care Center, 4000 N. Silverbell Road, which uses them for pet medications.
Plastic grocery bags
Plastic grocery bags should never go in your recycling bin.
They get caught in the machinery at the recycling plant. The same goes for all flimsy plastic like dry cleaner bags, produce bags, plastic wrap, etc.
You can take plastic bags back to the grocery store where you can often find a large recycling collection bin. There are companies that recycle the bags to make plastic logs and planks often used for decks. Other things are made from this plastic as well. Check the bags for receipts and other foreign items before recycling.
A group at The Fountains at La Cholla in Tucson cuts grocery bags into strips and crochets them into sleeping mats for homeless people. The mats are light and easy to carry.
The next best alternative is not to use plastic grocery bags at all. It’s easy to find cloth bags for your groceries, which are stronger and can hold more.
You can make your own out of old T-shirts even if you don't sew.
We may not use paper phone books much anymore, but they are still a reality, so when you have one you no longer use, recycle it. And yes, you can put it right in your bin, barrel or recycling dumpster, cover and all.
What about other books, like paperback and hardbacks? A much better choice would be to donate them to the Pima County Public Library. If the library doesn’t need them, the Friends of the Pima County Library will sell them in one of their fundraisers.
A reader asked about old textbooks that no one would want. They wouldn’t be recyclable, but if you are highly motivated, you could tear out the pages and recycle them.
Cardboard packing boxes
It almost seems like a no-brainer. Of course packing boxes are recyclable, right? Right.
But then there were questions. What about the packing tape? How small do they have to be folded? They won’t fit in the bin.
If the box has the normal amount of packing tape a strip on the bottom, the top and covering the label — you can leave the tape on. If the box has been used many times and has layers of tape, or an overzealous packer wrapped the entire box in tape, remove what you can.
Break the boxes down flat and fold them to get them into your bin or barrel if that’s what you have.
In some areas, residents each have a small bin, in which case you can put the bin on top of the flattened boxes on recycling day since those are handled by people. If you have a larger barrel that gets picked up by mechanical arms to be dumped into the truck, try to put the boxes in such a way that they won’t get stuck.
If you have a community recycling dumpster, you should be able to just toss them in depending on your community’s rules.
Also recycle the cardboard inner roll from paper towels and toilet paper, and recycle cardboard egg cartons as long as no eggs broke in or on the carton.
Soup and soda cans
The rule is “empty, clean and dry,” but otherwise, yes, recycle those cans.
Soda cans are easy: a quick rinse, shake the water out and they’re good to go. They’ll probably dry in the recycle bin. But don’t crush them. The machinery handles them better if they aren’t flat.
Soup or vegetable cans must also be cleaned out, but you can leave the labels on.
If you opened it with a can opener and the top is detached, throw it in the trash and just recycle the can. The same goes if the lid is barely attached. If it is on solidly, push it into the can once it’s clean.
What about those orange juice concentrate cans and coffee cans that are cardboard but have a metal rim? Don’t recycle those, put them in the trash.
Plastic drink bottles
Plastic water bottles have their place, maybe, in a pinch. But we shouldn’t need them for the most part because there are great reusable water bottles available at so many stores.
If you are worried about chemicals in hard plastics, you can get stainless-steel water bottles. They are generally well-insulated, too, so your water stays cold.
Still, if you have plastic water bottles, you should recycle them once they are empty. Either leave the lids on or throw them away, but don’t put the lids in the recycle bin alone.
Other plastic drink bottles are recyclable as well. Examples are Gatorade bottles and soda bottles. You must rinse them out first and let them dry.
These will be recycled and may become drink bottles once again.
While you’re putting your drink bottles in the recycling, don’t forget that a plastic gallon or half-gallon milk jug can be recycled as well. The rules are the same as for water bottles: empty, clean and dry. It’s OK to smash it a little, but don’t flatten it.
There are different kinds of batteries, some recyclable and some not.
That little bunny with the drum may go on for a long time, but when he stops, those alkaline batteries can’t be recycled. We’re talking about the regular AAA, AA, C, D and 9-volt batteries. It is OK to throw them in the trash.
The answer is different for all rechargeable, lithium, hearing aid and even car batteries.
Never put them in the trash as they are a pollutant. You can recycle all of them, though. But don't recycle them curbside.
Tucson Clean & Beautiful has a directory of places where you can drop off things you can’t recycle curbside. Go to tucsoncleanandbeautiful.org/recycling-education/recycling-directory/ and click on batteries or any other item you are trying to get rid of. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 520-791-5000.
Clean glass jars can be recycled. Although there isn’t much of a market for recycled glass, the city of Tucson and Waste Management both accept glass for recycling. There are some local companies outside the city limits of Tucson that won’t take glass. If you are outside the city and don’t use Waste Management, check with your provider.
Wash the jar or bottle out, leave the label on and put the lid back on. Throw the lid away if it won't stay put. Otherwise, it will be grabbed by a magnet while at the processing plant.
There is a lot of “glass” that isn’t recyclable with any company. Ceramic items, crystal and heat-resistant glass like Pyrex are all not recyclable.
Disposable coffee, fast-food drink cups
Coffee shops are everywhere and so are those take-out cups. They even make reusable cups that look like the throw-away kind.
If yours is reusable, wash it and reuse it.
But if it is cardboard, plastic, plastic foam, or any other “disposable” substance, dispose of it and the plastic lid in the trash, not the recycling bin. That includes the sleeve that keeps your fingers from being burned.
Fast-food soda cups, plastic lids, convenience-store cups and similar products should not be recycled.
Some fast-food restaurants are now using clear, plastic cups with the code #1 in the triangle on the bottom. If you can get these clean, you may recycle them.
Styrofoam and bubblewrap
Styrofoam often has a little triangle with a number on it. Does that mean it’s recyclable? What about bubble wrap?
That little number in the triangle tells what kind of plastic an item is, not that it is recyclable.
Styrofoam is a trademarked brand of polystyrene foam. It is used as packing material, insulation and similar uses. It is extruded polystyrene foam.
Coffee cups, take-out containers and egg cartons that appear to be Styrofoam are somewhat similar, but they are made of expanded polystyrene foam. They feel a little different, are more easily crushed and don’t carry the Styrofoam brand name.
None of them, however, can be recycled. Throw them away.
Bubble wrap is another item that you just can’t recycle. You can entertain yourself popping the bubbles, but then you’ll have to throw it out. Envelopes lined with bubble wrap are not recyclable, either.
However, if you don't pop the bubbles, many shipping stores will use your bubble wrap again. They may take your packing "peanuts" as well.
Is it OK to recycle political campaign signs, dog food bags and foil-lined cartons?
A reader asked if those campaign signs on every street corner during an election can be recycled when they are collected after the election.
They cannot be recycled. Many of us no doubt wish they were never used in the first place. Once the signs are made, however, they are destined for a landfill some day in the future. Perhaps some will be reused first. It would be nice to hear that a new sign was pasted over an old one.
Most of us aren’t in control of those signs, but we can make our own choices with dog-food bags.
That plastic liner in that bag is meant to keep the dog food fresh. Your best friend shouldn’t have to eat stale food. But that liner also means the bag can’t be recycled. Unless you can separate the liner from the paper, it’s trash.
The same goes for cartons that are lined with foil to keep some drinks fresher. You’ll have to throw them out. As mentioned earlier in this space, cardboard cans with a metal rim can’t be recycled either.
You may see a trend here. Some items that are a combination of materials that can’t be separated shouldn’t be recycled in Tucson or with Waste Management.
Arizona Sanitation’s website (arizonasanitation.com), however, indicates they will accept pet food bags, so nothing is absolute.
If you aren’t sure, throw it out.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” and they aren’t too kind to recycling machinery either.
It makes sense that rocks shouldn’t be put in your curbside recycling, but you should keep grass clippings, leaves, bush clippings and all yard waste out of the recycling bin as well.
You might consider composting if you have the space. That will help take care of some kitchen garbage and your yard clippings.
Your trash and recycling provider probably schedules brush and bulky pickups once or twice a year, and in most cases you can call and ask for one if you need a pickup that doesn’t coincide with the company’s schedule.
If you live inside the Tucson city limits, go to tucne.ws/10p2 for more information. Outside of Tucson, check with your provider.
Household hazardous waste
What is household hazardous waste and what should we do with it?
Household hazardous waste includes automotive fluids and batteries; rechargeable, lithium and button batteries; leftover paint and solvents; cooking oil; chemicals for pools, gardening and pest control; propane cylinders; fluorescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs and anything labeled as dangerous or toxic.
These things should not go in your curbside recycling, and most shouldn’t go in your trash, either.
Most Lowe’s and Home Depot stores will take your spent compact fluorescent light bulbs, which is easy if that is your only hazardous waste.
Otherwise, you can drop any household hazardous waste off at 2440 W. Sweetwater Drive, from 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Fridays only; or at Los Reales Landfill, 5300 E. Los Reales Road, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
Drop-off is free if you are a Tucson resident. Those living outside the Tucson city limits will be charged a $10 fee. More information is available at tucne.ws/10jr
These sites do not accept commercial hazardous waste or medical waste. For more information on household medical waste, go to tucne.ws/10nz
Keep smaller items away from the recycling bin
What’s too small?
We have been told that anything smaller than a tennis ball shouldn’t go in your recycling bin because items that small can fall through the machinery at the plant.
Judging by the emails received about this column, many people don’t have tennis balls lying around the house. So we did some measuring.
The circumference of a standard tennis ball is roughly 8.75 inches. Divide that by pi (3.14), and the result is 2.79 inches, the diameter of the tennis ball.
Anything that is smaller than 2.79 inches (2 13/16 of an inch) is too small. Another way to think about this is anything that would fit through a hole 2.8 inches wide (allowing for a margin of error) is too small. If it won’t fit through one way, but will fit through another way, it’s too small for the recycling plant machinery.
This does not include water bottles, soda bottles and smaller soda cans. They won't bounce through a hole that size even if you can get it through manually. Recycle these.
Don't recycle pill bottles, bottle caps that aren't well attached to their plastic bottles or really small cans.
Is recycling cost-effective?
The cost-effectiveness of recycling is mostly found in energy saved. It takes less energy to make products from recycled materials than to produce them from raw materials.
According to private hauler Waste Management, recycling one aluminum can save enough energy to run a television for two or three hours. It takes less energy to make new aluminum cans from recycled aluminum than to refine aluminum from the bauxite ore it comes from. Bauxite is mostly imported, an additional expense.
Recycling steel cans, like those used for canned foods, saves 75 percent of the energy it takes to create steel from raw materials.
There’s a reason people say to recycle paper and save the trees. According to Waste Management, recycling 500 average phone books could save between 17 and 31 trees, 7,000 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, 587 pounds of air pollution, 4,077 kilowatt hours of energy and landfill space.
Recycling is cost-effective as long as it is done thoughtfully. Paper should be dry, food cans should be rinsed out and oily cardboard, like pizza boxes, should be kept out of the recycling bin.
You may wonder if the water used to clean jars or bottles is worth it. After all we live in the desert. However, you can be smart about this.
You can wash out food containers when you’re doing the dishes. Most could go on the top rack of your dishwasher. If you do dishes by hand, clean them out in the dishwater in your sink after you’ve done the other dishes. Rinse quickly. Some people fill a second sink with rinse water. You wouldn’t be using any extra this way.
In the end, you must decide for yourself.
Simplify your recycling
Recycling rules are confusing. That much is certain. We have received hundreds of emailed questions about recycling.
Many asked about recycling things that many of us would not have thought of recycling: Jewel cases that once held CDs, rubber bands, air conditioner filters, bath mats, plastic pool covers, books and even lava lamps. Don't recycle any of these. Some of them may be reusable, however, if you are creative.
A sorter at a recycling plant has told of having to remove used diapers, sanitary pads, dead animals and used needles from recycling. It should be obvious that these aren't recyclable.
We suggest you keep it simple. The important and easier things to recycle are:
- Cans ─ soda, soup, other cans (empty, clean and dry is the rule for all recycling) and you can leave the labels on
- Plastic ─ water bottles, other drink bottles, clamshell fruit or take-out containers, rigid plastic like detergent bottles
- Paper ─ junk mail (plastic windows on envelopes are fine), newspapers, office paper, shredded paper (in clear plastic bags for much of the area) and cardboard
If you have something you can't recycle, but it's still good, why not consider Freecycle? Start at freecycle.org to find out more. Your trash may very well be someone else's treasure.
Reduce water use in rinsing out bottles and cans by saving the cold water you might otherwise waste waiting for hot water in a bucket or pitcher. Use it to water plants after rinsing out your cans or bottles.
Consider not using plastic grocery bags if you aren't going to recycle or reuse them. See a video online showing how to make a bag out of an old T-shirt. You'll have a unique grocery bag. Go to tucson.com/tshirtbag
You can't recycle small appliances that don't work ─ if they work, try Freecycle or donating. You can take them to a landfill, however. Tucson residents can go to Los Reales landfill, 5300 E. Los Reales Road, open 6 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. County residents can use that or others, but will be charged a fee, usually about $10.
Going beyond recycling in the name of eco-friendliness
We’ve all seen that three-arrow triangle that we often take to mean something is recyclable. But what does it actually mean?
It means “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It’s how we save our natural resources.
Recycling is good. It saves energy and resources. But recycling has company in that triangle.
The first thing we can do to save our resources is to reduce their use. Use fewer disposable items. We are a consumer culture so this is hard for us.
That means using stainless steel or some other type of reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. It means drinking without a straw at a restaurant or bringing along your own reusable straw.
Reduce the use of plastic grocery bags by using cloth bags at the store. See a video with instructions on making a no-sew bag from an old T-shirt at tucson.com/tshirtbag
The next thing to do is reuse. Use your old plastic pill bottles for storing nails or take them to Pima Animal Care Center — clean and without labels — for them to reuse.
Crafters are particularly good at reusing things that normally get thrown away.
Many moving companies will take your moving boxes if they are still in good shape. They can be used again — perhaps more than once or twice — before they are recycled.
Some shipping companies will even accept your bubble wrap and foam “peanuts” for packing.
Recycle what you can, but wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to recycle so much or throw so much away because we didn’t use so much?
Recycling: A list
Recycling: A list (larger print ─ two pages)
Recycling: Are you doing it right?
Make a grocery bag out of an old T-shirt
Recycling grocery bags into help for the homeless
Watch: How to make the most of your used holiday wrapping paper
Making Tucson's recycling program profitable, successful
To reduce losses for the city of Tucson and make the recycling program profitable and successful, residents should focus their efforts on the easiest products to recycle and those for which there is a market.
That was the advice Tucson residents got Wednesday when mostly dedicated recyclers attended a presentation hosted by Steve Kozachik, the city councilman representing Ward 6, on Tucson Environmental Services and recycling.
While 90 percent of Tucson residents now participate in recycling programs, contamination is at 20 percent and rising, according to Carlos De La Torre, director of Tucson’s Environmental and General Services department. Contamination costs the city about $130,000 annually.
Most recyclables were sold to China until recently. In January, China reduced the allowable contamination from 4 percent to 0.5 percent. If a lot sent to China has more than 0.5 percent contamination, it is sent back, which is expensive. This means that if Tucson is to sell recyclables to China, contamination must be reduced.
The biggest contaminants in recycling are plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam and other plastic foam products, food waste, yard waste, textiles, human and animal waste, and tanglers such as cords, hoses, hangers and other items that can get caught in recycling machinery.
Recycling in Tucson is not self-supporting. Tucson partners with Republic Services, which runs the recycling facility and suffers the same financial success or hardship as the city with the program. The projected loss for fiscal year 2019 is $900,000.
Recycling costs include: collection; processing, including removing contaminants; and residual charges. Income from recycling includes: sale of recyclables, other revenues and the recycling surcharge. The total cost of recycling is approximately $850,000 a year.
De La Torre suggests recyclers first focus their efforts on the items that have a market when recycled: paper, including junk mail and newspapers; corrugated cardboard boxes; aluminum cans and cans made of other metals (like soup cans); and #1 and #2 plastics, including water bottles.
Aluminum cans have the most value. Recycle these by rinsing them out and allowing them to dry first. Don’t crush them. The automated systems recognize them better if they aren’t crushed. Many aluminum cans are not recycled, so there is a great deal of room for improvement.
Plastic bottles should not be crushed, either. Replace the lids once they are dry. Leave labels on. The lids add weight and have a higher plastic content, so there is value in recycling plastic lids as long as they are not separated from the bottles.
Corrugated cardboard boxes should be broken down. Labels and tape can be left on unless the box is covered in tape because it has been reused many times. In that case, throw the box away.
Oily pizza boxes should be thrown away, but if the top half is clean, you may tear it off and recycle the clean part.
Tin cans or other metal cans like soup cans should be clean as well. Leave labels on. If the lids are still attached, leave them on. Throw the lids away if they are detached.
De La Torre also recommends that residents put their blue barrels out only when they are full to save on collection costs.
Possibilities being considered by the city for the future include not accepting glass in curbside recycling, but accepting it at several locations around town. Tucson gets no revenue for glass and must pay to have it hauled to the Phoenix area for recycling. Rate adjustments, education and various methods of enforcement to reduce contamination are also possibilities.
Suggestions from the audience included analyzing contamination along routes to determine where education and enforcement are most needed and looking at the programs of other cities similar in size to Tucson. Both suggestions are already in the works.
Tucson Environmental Services handles recycling and trash for residents of Tucson, but many of the rules are valid outside the city limits as well.
Tour of Tucson's recycling plant highlights dos and don'ts of recycling
Every time the subject of recycling comes up in conversation, it isn’t long before plastic bags are mentioned. Plastic grocery bags are a sore spot for recycling plants, and the ReCommunity Recycling Tucson plant at Ajo and Alvernon is no exception.
Plastic bags clog the machinery, wrap around gears and generally make a mess. Sorters do their best to catch and remove the bags from the conveyor at the beginning of the recycling process. The people working at the beginning of the sorting process also catch other contaminants, most of which should never have been there in the first place. Does anyone actually think a used diaper is recyclable?
At a recent presentation at the ReCommunity facility run by Republic Services, members of the community learned how recycling is processed.
While other cities may have residents sort their recycling, having separate bins for plastics, metals, glass and paper, here in Tucson and the surrounding area we use single-stream recycling. Residents place all of their recycling in one container and it is sorted at the plant.
The recycling plant is a MRF, or Materials Recovery Facility, and it is where just about all of the items placed in curbside recycling bins and barrels end up to be sorted.
After the load from the recycling truck is tipped onto the floor, it is pushed onto a conveyor where people remove contaminants like those plastic bags and obvious trash. The conveyor moves along quickly — there’s no dawdling.
Then machinery takes over, although people monitor the process from beginning to end.
The corrugated-cardboard screen filters three-dimensional objects from flat ones like paper and cardboard by using a series of rotating disks that allow the paper to drop while other items move along.
The newsprint screen separates newsprint from mixed paper and containers. Human beings continue the paper sorting by removing contaminants that weren’t discovered earlier. As plastics and metals are moved along, an optical sorter recognizes plastic soda and water bottles and shoots a burst of air to push them off onto another conveyor belt.
Magnets separate aluminum from other metals. Since magnets repel aluminum, they push soda cans off onto another belt as they attract steel and tin cans to keep them separate.
Glass is moved off to a glass-breaker screen that pulverizes it. Paper, such as labels, left on glass, and other debris are easily removed using vibrating screens.
The separated items are baled and stored until they are ready for transport.
The people working at the MRF know just what to throw out when they see it and offer some insight:
- Don’t recycle mixed paper products. The guideline is if you can tear it, you can recycle it; just don’t tear it into little pieces. Break down cardboard boxes and remove excess tape. Any cardboard with food particles or oil — like pizza boxes — should not be recycled.
- Rinse soda bottles and any plastic bottles that held something other than water. Shake out excess water and put the lid back on.
- Take those plastic bags to the grocery store to recycle or find another use. Single-use plastic straws will never be recyclable. Throw them out. It is better not to use them or to get reusable straws.
- Type #1 and #2 plastics can be profitable for recycling plants, but only about 1 or 2 percent of them are sent to recycling plants.
- The average price paid for recycled aluminum is $1,200 a ton, but only about 1 percent of the recycling received at the plant is aluminum. Rinse your soda cans, don’t crush them, and recycle them. They might be soda cans again. Soup and vegetable cans and those tiny cat food cans can be recycled when clean.
- Toothpaste tubes have changed over the years. Colgate has a program that helps people recycle toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and the packages they come in. Since those tubes can’t be recycled curbside, check out the Colgate Oral Care Recycling Program online.
Twenty-two percent of what is placed in curbside recycling is trash. It ends up in the landfill, but costs more to get there than it would have if people had put it in the trash in the first place.
Where to recycle your Christmas tree in Tucson
The holiday is over. The gifts have been opened, the toys played with, the guests have departed. It’s all over but the shouting ─ and the cleanup.
That once-beautiful Christmas tree that you cut down or bought at a lot is looking a little weary.
So take off all of the ornaments, the lights, the tinsel ─ every last one. You can recycle that tree as long as it has been completely stripped of all decoration.
Don’t put it in a plastic bag. Take the tree out of the stand. Then head on over to one of the TreeCycle locations around town. You can part with your old tree knowing you’ve done your civic duty. The tree will be chipped and turned into mulch.
While you’re getting ready to take your tree to a drop-off location, continue the season’s spirit by checking with your neighbors. Perhaps they need help getting their trees to a TreeCycle location.
The following sites are open for tree drop-off during daylight hours, seven days a week through Jan. 14, 2019, unless otherwise noted:
- Oro Valley lot, Naranja Park, 810 W. Naranja Drive. Open through Jan. 6.
- Golf Links Sports Park, 2400 S. Craycroft Road. Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Tucson Rodeo Grounds, east of the Rodeo Grounds on Third Avenue north of Irvington Road (follow the signs)
- Los Reales Landfill, 5300 E. Los Reales Road (entrance at Craycroft and Los Reales roads; follow the signs). Open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
- Silverbell site, northeast corner of Silverbell and Goret roads (follow signs)
- Purple Heart Park, 10050 E. Rita Road
- Randolph Golf Course, 600 S. Alvernon Way, southeast portion of the parking lot
- Tank’s Speedway Recycling & Landfill Facility, 7301 E. Speedway (go north on Prudence Road from Speedway). 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Please don’t leave trees outside the gate.
While TreeCycle is a service of the city of Tucson, you don’t have to be a resident of the city to recycle your tree for free. However, if you live inside the city limits of Tucson, keep in mind that the city will not collect Christmas trees from curbs and alleys.
Also note that other green waste will not be accepted at TreeCycle locations.
You can even reap more than just the warm fuzzy feeling you get from being environmentally conscious. That mulch will be available for free to area residents for garden use (the chips help the soil retain moisture.)
If you’d like some chips, take your own container to the Los Reales Landfill from Jan. 2 through Jan. 14. The landfill is open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The chips are free.
What should you do if your tree was artificial and isn’t worth keeping another year? TreeCycle is out of the question. You can’t recycle an artificial tree. If it’s too big for your trash bin, you’ll have to take it to a landfill or call your waste hauler for a special pickup. In most cases, there will be a charge.
Also as a reminder: strings of lights, the decorations that went on your tree, used wrapping paper, ribbons and bows, and other package decorations are all not recyclable. If any of these are no longer worth keeping, please put them in the trash, not your recycling barrel.
Looking to the future, a company recycles carpet into high-end goods
What happens to your old carpet when you have new carpet installed? Do you even think about it besides being glad the installers take the old carpet away?
If you have thought about it, you probably guessed that the old carpet goes to a landfill, and you would be correct. What else can be done with it?
When Aquafil CEO Guilio Bonazzi sees a landfill, he sees a goldmine. Aquafil was once a traditional yarn producer but now is one of the leading circular economy companies in the world.
Bonazzi says that in a circular economy industry, everything should be manufactured with the end in mind.
For example, carpet should be made of materials that can be broken down and reused.
In December 2018, Aquafil, an Italian company, opened its first carpet recycling facility in the U.S., in Phoenix. This facility is expected to turn 36 million pounds of old carpets per year back into raw materials for other goods.
According to Aquafil USA President Franco Rossi, 3.5 billion pounds of carpets are sent to landfills each year in the U.S.
The Aquafil Carpet Recycling facility will break down old carpeting into three main components: polypropylene, which will go into the injection molding industry; calcium carbonate, that will go to applications such as road construction; and nylon 6.
Nylon 6 will be shipped to Slovenia where a depolymerization facility will convert it into Econyl yarn.
Aquafil recycles 100 percent of the carpeting it processes, doing so in a way that allows the new, virgin quality yarn to be used for high-end products like clothing.
The Econyl produced eliminates the need for new nylon fiber made from petroleum products. It can be recycled again and again.
Econyl is already being used in the fashion industry by many companies, including Speedo and Adidas, and can be used to make new carpets.
It is used in high-end designer clothing and handbags, sportswear, swimwear and outdoor apparel, and it is all made from recycled, regenerated nylon.
The company plans another carpet recycling facility in Woodland, California, in 2019.
There's more to reducing waste than recycling
That green triangle with three arrows doesn’t just mean that something is recyclable. It stands for a three-part approach to reducing waste: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
We asked readers to tell us ways they reduce waste. Suggestions ranged from using cloth grocery bags to eating less meat, which can also help the environment in the long run.
Of course, we should recycle what we can: plastic water bottles and soda and other drink bottles, as long as they have been rinsed out; aluminum cans and other aluminum products, again, as long as they are clean; corrugated cardboard like that used in packing boxes; and office paper and junk mail.
But some of these things can be reused first. And we can do without others altogether.
Cindy Bieger takes junk mail and letters that she no longer needs and writes on the other side when she needs notes for reference that won’t be sent to others. Adam Fox suggests opting out of some junk mail. Ecocycle.org/junkmail offers tips for stopping junk mail and there are other sites that do the same. Just Google “opt out of junk mail.”
Perhaps the easiest and best way to reduce waste is to use cloth grocery bags. Many readers have suggested this. Most grocery stores sell them for $1-$2 each if you don’t mind having the store’s logo on the bag. These bags hold a lot more groceries and are far sturdier than the flimsy plastic bags stores use.
Plastic grocery bags should never go in your curbside recycling. If you have them, return them to the grocery store, where bag recycling bins are available.
Many communities in other states restrict the use of plastic grocery bags or make customers pay extra for them.
The state of Arizona has a law that keeps counties, cities and towns from enacting such laws, so it is up to us to reduce the use of plastic bags.
The second-most-common suggestion is to purchase a reusable water bottle so you no longer have plastic bottles to recycle. Many are insulated metal containers that will keep your water cold or your coffee hot for hours. Some have straws that fit inside them. A few have filters so you don’t have to worry about the source.
Buy metal or glass straws if you must use a straw. The plastic ones you get at restaurants are not recyclable. Bieger just refuses the straws at restaurants and doesn’t use them.
Avoid using plasticware and paper plates by purchasing inexpensive flatware and dishes to stow in your desk at work.
Rosemary Bolza reuses small plastic containers like sour cream containers after washing them. These are recyclable, but there isn’t much of a market for this kind of plastic, so reusing them a few times makes a lot of sense.
Fox and Bieger recommend short showers to conserve water.
Bieger asks for foil for her leftovers at a restaurant instead of the plastic takeout box, and reuses sandwich bags after washing them and drying them on a rack.
If you worry about the water used in rinsing recyclables, do the rinsing in your dishwater or rinse them in the cold water you collect while waiting for hot water before you do the dishes or take a shower. That water shouldn’t be going down the drain unused.
Take the crazy out of recycling by following these tips
One thing is sure. Recycling rules are confusing. Lids on or off? What does the number on the recycling triangle mean? Should we flatten soda cans?
Here are a few tips to help you do it right:
The main rule for bottles and cans is that they should be empty, clean and dry.
That means you should rinse soda cans, soup cans, plastic bottles that held juice or sports drinks and anything else that contained something other than water.
Even though the rule is “empty, clean and dry,” a drop or two of water won’t send a plastic bottle to the landfill. Just shake out the excess the best you can.
Put the lids back on bottles after rinsing and don’t crush the cans.
Once that drink bottle has been rinsed and shaken out as much as possible, put the lid back on. If you can’t get the lid back on, don’t recycle the lid separately. Most lids are too small for the recycling equipment to handle unless they are attached to bottles.
When the soda can has been rinsed, don’t crush it. The recycling plant uses optical sorters to push the aluminum cans in one direction while other items go elsewhere. Flattened aluminum cans aren’t always recognized.
No food or grease should be left on anything you recycle.
While recycling plants take corrugated cardboard, they can’t handle greasy pizza boxes or any greasy container. If the top of the box is clean, tear it off and recycle that while throwing the greasy bottom away.
Those plastic produce containers you get at the grocery store can be recycled, but they, too, must be clean. If your container held a salad with dressing, you’ll either have to wash it with something that will clean out the oils, or throw it in the trash.
The number in the recycling triangle isn’t as important as what the item is.
Rigid plastic can be recycled, but it’s best to confine the items to bottles and jugs instead of chairs and laundry baskets. Liquid laundry detergent bottles are fine as long as the last remnants of the detergent are rinsed away. You must decide if it’s worth the water.
Don’t put these items in curbside recycling.
Never ever put plastic grocery bags in curbside recycling. If you have them and want to recycle them, take them to a grocery store that accepts them. These stores have bins or boxes near the entrance where you can deposit these bags, if they are clean. The same goes for plastic produce bags.
Other items you should not put in your curbside bin or barrel are bubble wrap, plastic straws and Styrofoam or plastic foam. In theory this plastic foam is recyclable and sometimes has that little triangle of arrows, but it can’t be recycled in Southern Arizona.
If you’re not sure whether you can recycle something, don’t. Follow the rule mother told you about older food in the refrigerator, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Diapers and plastic bags are curbside recycling no-nos
Never put plastic bags in curbside recycling. Ever.
So says Jake Anderson, general manager of Republic Services, the company that runs the recycling plant in Tucson. (An Arizona Daily Star reader once suggested every article on recycling should begin with that sentence, and it turns out he may be right.)
To make recycling worthwhile, contamination must be reduced. Contamination is anything that should have been thrown in the trash or recycled elsewhere.
Anderson says there will always be a certain percentage of the population that won't abide by the rules. However, some items that are put in curbside recycling in violation of the rules actually cause serious problems. Plastic bags fall into that category.
If there was one common contaminant Anderson would like eliminated from curbside recycling for good, it would be plastic grocery bags and other flimsy or flexible plastic. These get caught in the discs as recycling moves through the plant and is sorted. The entire operation must be shut down to untangle these bags from the machinery.
Besides plastic bags, other contaminants that have been seen at Republic Services are gas grill propane tanks, clothing, shoes and green waste. None of these should ever be put in curbside recycling.
What should you do with these things that contaminate recycling loads? Plastic bags can be recycled at most grocery stores. Almost all grocery stores have boxes or bins near the entrance that indicate you can put your old, clean plastic bags there for recycling.
Green waste, which is mostly yard clippings, should be held for brush and bulky pickups or put in the regular trash barrel. Outside of the Tucson city limits where brush and bulky pickups aren't done regularly, you can call your trash and recycling provider and request a special pickup if you are planning to do some major yard work or landscaping.
Shoes that are so worn out that no one will want them should be thrown in the trash. If they have life in them yet, consider donating them to Goodwill or another such organization. The same goes for old clothing. If it is in good condition, donate it. If you have friends who sew, quilt or do other craft projects, they might be interested in the fabric. Otherwise, it belongs in the trash.
Propane tanks can be refilled and reused if they aren't leaking and are in good condition. Those tanks that can't be reused should be considered hazardous waste. The city of Tucson has designated drop-off sites for Household Hazardous Waste. Tucson residents can drop off items for free. Those outside of Tucson will be charged a $10 fee ─ a small price for safety. Find drop-off locations and hours at tucsonaz.gov/es/household-hazardous-waste.
But there's one contaminant is in a category all its own. The worst item those at the recycling plant see frequently is dirty diapers. Every single day, dirty diapers must be removed from the conveyor at the plant.
One must wonder if anyone really believes these can be recycled. Consider the more than 200 local employees of Republic Services when you toss a soiled diaper in your bin and remember the Golden Rule. Would you want someone putting dirty diapers in your path?
One final word: Never put plastic bags in curbside recycling.
Conservation and consumption meld at Tucson's 'free' store
The price is always right at this Tucson store.
The idea for a store where everything is donated and everything is free started with a phone call from Tucson businessman Aaron Polley to his friend Deborah “Debbie” Mitchell.
Mitchell loved the idea from the beginning and signed on immediately.
She called Deron Beal, the brains behind Freecycle.org, a place where people can connect online to offer items they no longer want for free, thus keeping them out of landfills.
Two days later Beal, Polley, of the local electronics recycling company Suburban Miners, and Mitchell, a volunteer at several local organizations, met and the Free Store was born.
On May 1, a month after that first meeting, the store opened to customers.
The first big donation — a 24-foot truck full of items — came from a woman who does estate sales.
The merchandise didn’t last long.
News of the store is spreading by word of mouth, through nonprofit organizations and churches.
The Free Store’s policy is simple: If you need it or can do something with it that doesn’t involve putting it in the trash, take it. No charge. If you have something you don’t need but someone else might be able to use, leave it. Donating something is not required to take something.
There is a limit of five items per “shopper” so that everyone has an opportunity to benefit, but there are exceptions. Just ask.
The exceptions have included a refugee family and some veterans in transition who recently were able to make use of furniture that wouldn’t even fit in the store’s small space. Beds, sofas, end tables and entertainment units helped these people who were able to move into housing but had nothing in the way of furniture.
While Mitchell and Polley didn’t want the store to grow too quickly because they weren’t ready for a huge influx of merchandise, they are already looking for a larger space. The current space is on the grounds of Suburban Miners, north of East Glenn Street off North Alvernon Way.
Polley has long been looking to turn one man’s trash to another’s treasure. Years ago, he had a thrift store called Yes Thrift. It didn’t work out, but now his goal is to have a full-scale thrift store where everything is free.
The friendly team of volunteers includes Polley, who Mitchell says is the brains behind the idea; Mitchell, who Polley says brings the magic that makes it work; Tim Backus, the muscle, without whom trucks of donations might never get unloaded; and Claudia, another regular volunteer. The entire operation is run by volunteers; no one makes money on this. Other volunteers offer their help from time to time.
Mitchell, who manages the store, says items have come in that she can’t identify. She’ll wonder if anyone will want them, but days later, someone will say, “I’ve been looking all over for one of these.”
Some items found at the Free Store include: a Foreman grill, keyboards and computer mice, pots and pans, dishes, glassware, blankets, tablecloths, books, games, artwork and clothing. Polley says they test as many electric items as possible as they come in to make sure they work, but jokes they have a free return policy.
The store is open for shoppers Wednesday mornings and the first Saturday morning of each month. They’ll accept donated items weekdays during business hours.
Mitchell says that since stuff keeps coming in, the store may have to add another Saturday each month to keep things moving.
“There’s such an abundance of stuff, and there’s people who can use it,” As Mitchell says, “and we keep it out of the landfill.”