Recycling 101: Here's how to do it right

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We all know recycling can save taxpayers money.

We all know recycling is good for the future of our children’s planet.

We all know that most people don’t want to be “that guy,” who leaves it to others to be the responsible ones.

But many of us don’t know what can and can’t be recycled in the municipal recycling bins at our curbs.

What doesn’t go in? More than most people realize.

Water hoses, soccer balls, hula hoops — don’t put that stuff in the recycle bin.

Plastic bags, plastic wrap, old toasters, window panes, ceramic or glass dishes? No.

Styrofoam anything — packaging, cups, etc.? Again, nope.

Dog and cat food bags? No. The pet food bags are often made of paper infused with a plastic liner that can’t be separated. Put those in the trash.

Mixed paper, like newspapers, junk mail, cereal boxes, paper egg cartons and books? Yes! But try to keep it dry. (More on that below.)

Harder plastics, such as milk jugs, laundry and shampoo bottles, and the plastic boxes that hold things like lettuce? Yes.

Glass and plastic jars, metal food cans? Again, yes, just rinse them out to remove leftover food.

(How do you rinse out a peanut butter jar, you ask? You don’t have to run containers that held sticky foods through the dishwasher, but they should be empty, says Matt Grondin of ecomaine in Portland. And scooping out leftover peanut butter with a spoon will make your dog’s tail wag.)

Recycling correctly isn’t difficult, but it does mean knowing what materials your local program accepts to avoid contamination, a big problem in the recycling market.

If you live where there’s convenient curbside, single-stream recycling, you can’t throw just anything in.

“When in doubt, leave it out,” says Carole Cifrino, supervisor of the recycling program for Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. “What we’re trying to do is capture pure commodities. We don’t want different types of materials mixed together, because they can’t be made into new products.”

Grondin says he modifies the “when in doubt throw it out” message to: “‘When in doubt, look it up.’ We have resources, the recycopedia. If you’re not sure about a plastic bag or Tupperware, it takes five seconds to look it up. That’s the best thing you can do.”

During a recent tour of ecomaine’s recycling plant in Portland, Grondin showed how non-recyclable materials are pulled out to ensure the recycled materials they send to market are good quality. But that sorting takes time and money.

As mixed paper was being sorted on conveyor belts before being bailed, Grondin said the facility is good at separating hard plastic, metal, cardboard, paper and glass bottles, but it’s not designed to also separate plastic bags, plastic wrap, diapers and food waste, which is all too common.

Food waste “gets wet and smelly” and can spoil recyclable materials that could have been sold.

Plastic bags, plastic wrap, Christmas lights and extension cords are among the items that gum up the sorting and baling machines. “We try and catch as much as we can,” Grondin said.

Once or twice a day, conveyors and axles have to be turned off for 60 to 90 minutes while workers crawl into the machinery and cut out the plastic bags and electrical cords. 

At another station in the recycling plant, a worker who was monitoring incoming recyclables pulled out a heavy metal shelf. The same worker ensures that propane tanks get pulled out. “They could explode,” Grondin said. “We get more than our share of propane tanks. Every day.”

To create a better recycling market and cleaner world, find ways to reduce how much waste your household produces by reusing stuff, and avoiding products that make a lot of waste or have excess packaging.

Also, learn what should and shouldn’t go in local recycle bins, buy goods made from recycled materials and purchase products that can be recycled by your town.

“And act locally,” Grondin said. Ask your town or city councilors, or the local recycling committee, about recycling “and get more involved,” he said. “The more people educate themselves, the more word will travel.”

As for keeping your paper recyclables dry, recycling officials recommend it. 

To protect them from rain and snow, Lewiston’s Solid Waste Superintendent Rob Stalford recommends Lewiston residents buy a trash container (no larger than 36 gallons) with an attached lid and put a recycling label on it. 

Ditto for Auburn. Public Works Director Dan Goyette recommends buying a trash can, blue in color, with a lid and label it “recycling.”

Lewiston offers “Zero-Sort Recycling” labels, free, at city hall, Lewiston Public Library and the solid waste facility.

Materials that many people think can be recycled at the facility but cannot are listed on a board at the Solid Waste Facility in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

An ecomaine inspector removes a computer tower from a new pile of recycling materials at the Portland facility. Desktop computers and laptops often find their way into the recycling stream. Not only are the computers not recycled by ecomaine, but the batteries in the computers are dangerous and can cause fires in the recycling plant. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

The dirty 7

We asked the experts in two Maine cities, Portland and Lewiston, about the materials people try to recycle that cause the most problems for their recycling programs. They didn’t hold back. (The suggestions below from Lewiston officials on how to properly dispose of problem waste are for Lewiston residents only. For others, check with your local waste disposal officials.)

From ecomaine of Portland, do not put in municipal recycling bins:

1. Food waste, it can spoil a whole load. It should be composted or thrown out in trash.

2. Trash bags, whether full of trash or recycled materials.

3. Plastic bags and plastic wrap. 

4. Styrofoam of any kind.

5. Bubble wrap.

6. Yard waste

7. Metal, everything from car parts to lawn mowers to propane bottles.

For more information: www.ecomaine.org/recyclopedia/

From Lewiston Public Works Solid Waste, do not put in:

1. Plastic wrap (like Saran Wrap), plastic sheeting and plastic bags. This is trash and should go in your trash bag. It cannot be recycled. You know how when your vacuum sucks up a string and gums up the power nozzle? Thin plastic bags and wrap do the same to sorting machines in recycling facilities.

2. Styrofoam of any kind: cups, packaging, plates. This is trash and should go in your trash bag. Big pieces of Styrofoam insulation have to be brought to the Solid Waste Facility at 424 River Road in Lewiston, because if thrown out as trash it would be corrosive to the lining of the furnace at the incinerator plant in Auburn.

3. Plastic pipes and siding. This is demolition waste and should be brought to the Solid Waste Facility on River Road in Lewiston. As with Styrofoam, if this went into trash bags and onto the incinerator, “when burned it would be very corrosive to the lining of the furnace,” said Lewiston Solid Waste Superintendent Rob Stalford. 

4. Plastic lawn chairs. This is a trash, and too large to be picked up curbside. It should be brought to the Solid Waste Facility on River Road. 

5. Plastic car parts. This should be brought to the Solid Waste Facility.

6. Glass, including windows, appliances, dishes and any ceramic cookware. It should be brought to the Solid Waste Facility and not put in trash bags because it isn’t burnable and is bad for the incinerator plant.

7. Metal appliances, including toasters, toaster ovens, microwave ovens.  This stuff has to be brought to the — you guessed it — the Solid Waste Facility and put into the scrap metal pile. 

For more information

Recycling in Auburn:

www.auburnmaine.gov/CMSContent/Public_Works/Curbside_Recycling_Reference_Chart_Updated.pdf

Recycling in Lewiston:

www.lewistonmaine.gov/205/Single-Stream-Recycling

Recycling at ecomaine:

www.ecomaine.org/recyclopedia/ 

To learn more about how to reduce, reuse and recycle from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection:

www.maine.gov/dep/waste/recycle/index.html

Whether they are filled with garbage or recyclable material, all bags tossed in with recyclables will be treated as garbage and go to the landfill, said Lewiston Solid Waste Superintendent Rob Stalford. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Paul Roy takes his recyclables to the Solid Waste Facility in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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