Sustainability experts Julia Spangler, a Sustainable Events Consultant, and Kelly Weger, Lead Service Manager for Sustainability at Purdue, dumpster dive 3 days of IndyStar trash and rate our recycling efforts to Environmental Reporter Sarah Bowman, on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.
Recycling is such a simple concept. In theory. As long as it has the triangle arrow symbol on it, it should be A-OK to go in the blue bin — right? Not necessarily.
In reality, recycling has become a bit of a minefield over the years as processes have advanced, contamination has increased and markets have changed. Some have even disappeared. There is a lot more to all of that, which we have covered previously (and you can ask further Scrub Hub questions if you would like to learn more).
The goal of this article, however, is to lay out the do’s and don’ts of recycling. Since we launched the Scrub Hub a few months ago, this is a question we have received from multiple readers: How do I recycle?
This is the first article in a two-part series. Our next installment will explain how the recycling facilities work and what can happen when you don’t recycle correctly (spoiler alert: problems). But for this Scrub Hub, we spoke with officials at both Ray’s and Republic — Indianapolis’ two main waste management providers — to learn what you can and cannot toss in the blue bin.
The short answer
If you walk away from this post with anything, there are two key rules to keep in mind.
The first is to always check with your service provider, whether it be Ray’s or Republic, to find out what they do and do not accept. Even though a certain material may normally be recyclable, some facilities might not be able to process it or they might not have a market to sell it to. So rule No. 1 is to figure out your provider. Check their website for information and specifics.
And the second principle: When in doubt, throw it out.
This may go against your greatest green aspirations. But contaminating recyclable material by tossing in stuff that can’t be recycled causes problems.
Contamination has been on the rise over the years, sometimes more than 30% of what comes in is not recyclable. Yet most buyers want the recycled materials to be at least 97% pure, according to Craig Lutz, spokesman at Republic Services for Indy. That means Republic or Ray’s has to clean up the recycled materials before they can sell them.
We have heard from a lot of people who wonder why they can’t just throw it out and leave it to the people at the plant to sort it out. But that’s not as easy as you might think (more on that in two weeks). So if you’re not sure if something can be recycled either check in with your recycler, or begrudgingly throw it in the garbage.
Now if you want some more specifics, keep reading.
The long answer
Let’s first talk about that recycling symbol — you know it, the three chasing arrows in a triangle symbol. While you make think that signals that something is recyclable, that’s not quite the case. That symbol is not regulated by any particular agency, so there’s no real consistency in how it is applied.
“They kind of use that in the industry as a selling point of ‘Look for arrows’ and if it has that it can be recycled,” Lutz said. “That’s a real misnomer.”
Indiana Recycling Coalition, the City of Indianapolis, and KIBI talk about recycling initiatives and teach people how to recycle, at the City Market, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Berry Global showed different packaging and labels concerning recycling options. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStar)
The general rule, according to Calvin Davidson of Ray’s, is that if the symbol has a number in the middle — signaling a plastic — then that makes it a bit more reliable. Still, he said, there are exceptions to every rule: Foam containers, often used for food take-out, are delineated by a number “6.” And those are no good for recycling.
If you’ve ever wondered what all those numbers mean, here’s a breakdown:
- 1 is PTE, which is what soda bottles are made of and is great for recycling.
- 2 is HDPE, which makes up milk cartons and laundry detergent jugs and are good to recycle.
- 3 is PVC, which is the basis for shower curtains or lawn chairs — it’s not very common and not great for recycling.
- 4 is LDPE. Think plastic bags or films that come in packaging. They’re not recyclable.
- 5 is PP, making up food containers like butter tubs and yogurt cups, which are good for recycling.
- 6 is PS, which is the category that foams and packing peanuts are in. Recyclers don’t want those.
- 7 is other, meaning it’s a catch-all of all the other plastics that don’t neatly fit into an above category, making it a tricky recycling category.
The rule Republic uses is plastic bottles or jugs — numbers “1” and “2” — can be tossed in the blue bin. Lutz recommends leaving out all other plastics.
As for other materials, he said cardboard (collapse it as much as possible), paper (but not shredded), metal and aluminum cans, and glass bottles are all great recyclable materials.
You should make sure those items are washed out of their original contents and dry before putting them in the bin. If you don’t, the leftover soda in the bottle, bean juice in the can or even just the water from washing it out could get your cardboard and paper materials wet — rendering them unrecyclable.
And do not — I repeat, do not — bag your recyclables. Keep them loose in the bin, or if you need to put them in a bag to get them to a drop-off point, make sure you open the bag and dump the materials out.
While on the topic of what not to do… Here is a list of materials that seem like they should be recyclable, but are not, according to Davidson and Lutz:
- Plastic bags — They get caught in the machines. Instead, most big box stores have a place where you can return them (though check with your local store as that may have changed during the pandemic).
- Household materials like toys, hoses and lawn chairs — While these items may have some components that can be recycled, as a whole they are made of too many mixed materials to easily break down. Consider donating them.
- Ceramics — These items can easily be confused with glass, but they are made from different materials. Instead, you can try to “recycle” and re-purpose them around your own house (there are lots of ideas on the internet).
- Window glass and mirrors — These also have different properties than glass bottles and won’t work in your regular residential recycling stream. If they are in one piece, try to donate or see if there is a specialized recycler in your area.
- Microwaveable food trays — Whether these are made out of a foam material or even if they are more plastic-feeling, these trays and containers were made to heat food in a microwave and therefore don’t melt down well to be recycled.
- Motor oil containers — While these may come in a plastic jug, it is difficult to clean the motor oil from the container and it can ultimately contaminate every other item in that load of recycling.
- Caps for bottles and jugs — If the cap is the same material as the container, like a plastic cap on a soda bottle, then make sure it is screwed on and put it in the blue bin. If the materials don’t match (think metal caps on glass bottles) then toss the cap in the garbage. But don’t recycle loose caps.
While Ray’s and Republic are almost the same in the different items and materials they take, there is one area where they differ: Cardboard milk jugs, coffee cups, etc. These items usually have a waxy or polymer film to help keep the moisture or heat in.
Ray’s takes those materials, whereas Republic advises against putting them in their recycle bins. This is a good example of making sure you know who your provider is and what their specific rules are.
It unfortunately would be impossible to go through every type of container or material in this list, this was just meant to provide some basic guidelines. That’s why the best thing you can do is to check with your provider, whether it’s Ray’s or Republic here in Indianapolis or a different company in another city.
During the next Scrub Hub, we will be telling you what happens when recycling comes in bagged or when non-recyclable materials are thrown into the bin, so keep an eye out for that.
But if you have even more questions about recycling — and keep them coming, it’s an important topic — let us know! You can ask us by submitting a question through our Google form below.
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Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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