Pandemic Recycling Tips : The Bay View Compass


By Sheila Julson

Eight to nine percent increase at city’s recycling center

Most of us want to do the right thing and make sure that the plastic takeout food container or the cardboard box from our recent online order is properly recycled. But with the pandemic generating a new wave of waste, combined with waste from consumables that will be generated by the approaching holidays, it is important to know what can and cannot be recycled.

Samantha Longshore, Resource Recovery Program Manager for the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works, said that since April there has been an eight to nine percent increase of materials received at the city’s recovery facility, 1313 W. Mt. Vernon Ave. The facility sorts recyclables for the City of Milwaukee and for additional municipalities including Wauwatosa. It also sorts material
from Waukesha County.

In addition to an overall increase in materials such as cardboard boxes, which began pre-pandemic due to more online shopping, Longshore said the recycling facility is receiving a lot of disposable face masks and gloves that are erroneously tossed in with recycling materials that contaminate the recycling load. “Face masks and gloves should be bagged and put into the trash, not the recycling bin,” she said.

Cardboard boxes should always be flattened. “That’s helpful for our crews so the trucks don’t fill up too quickly. Then the drivers don’t have to make multiple trips to the recycling center (while) on their route,” Longshore said.

Shipping labels can stay on the cardboard boxes, but it’s helpful to pull off any loose sealing tape. Always remove Styrofoam packing, air pillows, and bubble wrap, which are not recyclable and should not be placed in curbside bins. 

People who are uncomfortable with indoor dining support their favorite restaurants by ordering carryout. Longshore said pizza boxes free from food and grease are accepted. If the top of the box is clean, rip it off and recycle it and throw the bottom half in the trash. “If it has a greasy, dirty bottom, we can’t take that,” she said.

Plastic carryout containers numbered one, two, or five are accepted, but be sure to rinse off any food residue.

Compostable containers used by restaurants and other takeout food vendors are not recyclable. Longshore said those should be composted in a backyard compost pile, compost bins provided by the city (in certain zip codes), or dropped at a pubic composting site. They should not be tossed in the curbside recycling bin because some compostable materials contain chemicals that can contaminate a load of recyclables.

Everyday household items
Plastics numbered one, two, and five indicate what type of resin/plastic the container is made from, but it’s not necessarily an indication of recyclability. 

“Face masks and gloves should be bagged and put into the trash, not the recycling bin.

For example, plastic bags, one of the most common items mistakenly tossed into curbside recycling bins, sometimes display the number two, but they get caught in the sorting equipment, which shuts down the entire facility while a worker must physically remove plastic bags that jammed the equipment.

Plastic bags, which includes grocery bags, produce bags, and other bags used for food items, should be taken to a grocery store drop-off recycling bin and never put in the curbside recycling bin. All recyclables should always be dumped loose into the curbside cart so they arrive ready to sort at the facility. Never place bagged recyclables in the curbside recycling bin. 

Labels can stay on food cans and jars, but Longshore said people should rinse containers and make sure they are free of food residue before putting them into the recycling bins.

At one time, consumers were advised to remove plastic caps from plastic bottles, juice cartons, or pantry items such as plastic spice jars. Longshore said instead people should rinse those items and screw that cap back on. Because recycling technologies have improved in recent years, caps on bottles are no longer an issue. Do not flatten bottles or containers.

The exception is glass jars with metal tops, like a pickle jar. Take the cap off and recycle the glass jar—rinsed, of course.

Do not crush aluminum cans or flatten plastic containers like milk jugs. Keep them in their original shape so the screens on the sorting machinery can properly detect what the item is and sort it to the correct pile.

If plastic is unmarked, it should not be placed in the recycling bin. Items such as plastic pots or trays from garden centers are questionable even if they are marked with a one or a five, Longshore said, because sorting equipment can miss items of uncommon colors and sizes. Some garden centers permit the return and reuse of pots and trays. Call your favorite garden center to check.

Junk mail can be thrown into the recycling bin, including envelopes with plastic address windows. Longshore said people shouldn’t tear up junk mail because smaller objects are difficult to capture in the sorting machines and can be missed and sent to the landfill.

Holiday wrapping paper can be recycled as long as doesn’t contain foil or glitter. Tissue paper cannot be recycled because it’s made from a low-grade paper that is not of acceptable recycling quality. Bows and ribbons cannot be recycled.

Holiday wrapping paper can be recycled as long as doesn’t contain foil or glitter. Tissue paper cannot be recycled because it’s made from a low-grade paper that is not of acceptable recycling quality.

Bows and ribbons cannot be recycled and instead should be reused for future gifting. The material itself is not recyclable and ribbons are considered “tanglers”—items that can wrap around sorting machinery and cause delays and possible injuries to workers as they detangle the machinery.

With 2020 being an election year, Longshore stressed that campaign yard signs are not recyclable because they’re a mix of paper, plastic, and wire. “We don’t want any tanglers, so save them to use in the future, or reuse them or place in the garbage,” she advised.

While paper from home shredders is acceptable if placed in a paper bag and closed with a single staple, Longshore said her preference is that residents don’t shred paper, but acknowledged that people shred paper due to security and privacy concerns.

Aluminum foil
Aluminum foil that is not contaminated with food, grease, or other substances is recyclable. It should be crumpled into a ball the size of a fist. Thin foil like that used to wrap candy is not recyclable, Longshore emphasized.

Aluminum foil that is not contaminated with food, grease, or other substances is recyclable. It should be crumpled into a ball the size of a fist. Thin foil like that used to wrap candy is not recyclable.

China’s rejection
Until 2018, China accepted the bulk of U.S. recyclables that they processed and turned into materials for shoes, bags, and new plastic products. The country no longer accepts imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper and most plastics.

In March 2019, NPR reported that China stopped accepting plastic recyclables from the U.S. because the plastic was contaminated
with paper, food wrap, and nonrecyclable plastic wrap. Separating the plastic from the other material was cost prohibitive.

“We have been able to still move a lot of those recyclables, but we’re making less money on those,” she said.

Longshore said Milwaukee has been impacted because the price for recyclables has gone down and consequently reducing the revenue generated to help offset the cost of providing recycling services. Municipalities that formerly sent goods to China have sought alternative U.S. recycling services in the U.S., but the rates paid for by these businesses for the recycled goods are much lower.

The recycling facility has advanced machinery that handles much of the sorting, but crew members still provide quality control. Workers are stationed at the beginning of the conveyor belts to grab dangerous items from the recycling stream such as propane tanks, rotors, and plastic bags. After the recyclables are sorted by machine into different types, a crew at the end of the line  performs final quality control inspections to make sure all materials make it to the right place. 

When asked about the most unusual items found at the Materials Recovery Facility, Longshore didn’t hesitate. “We get toys, stuffed animals, clothes, shoes, a lot of things that should be donated. I think there’s a misconception that recycling is all hand-sorted, but up to 250 tons of materials per day come through the recycling center,” she said. Also, propane tanks and pieces of metal are recyclable but should go to a drop-off center such as the city’s, 3879 W Lincoln Avenue, because it’s not a household consumable.”

Longshore advised that consumers regularly consult the curbside recycling guide ( to make sure an item is on the accepted list. “And when in doubt, throw it out,” she said. 

Suburban communities’ challenges

South Shore suburbs including St. Francis and Cudahy contract with private companies that provide their recycling services.

Johns Disposal Service, Inc. serves St. Francis, Oak Creek, and other municipalities throughout Milwaukee County. Their recycling guidelines parallel Milwaukee’s.

Johns Disposal Service is also receiving large increases in both garbage and recycling due to the pandemic, according to Sarah Jongetjes, project manager. “This makes sense to us since our company primarily hauls for residential properties and areas, and so many people are staying home, eating from home, and working from home.” she said. “We are finding that drivers are not currently able to hold all of their materials on their trucks, so they have to dump and then go back to finish their routes.”

Jongetjes also stressed that plastic bags shouldn’t be placed in the recycling carts. Instead, they should be returned to local grocery stores where that material is handled on its own. Cardboard boxes that are not flattened cause grief. “Cardboard is excellent for recycling, however, it should be emptied and flattened. Plastic wrap and Styrofoam should be placed in the garbage,” she said.

Wrapping paper can be recycled, but it’s best to fold it as opposed to crumpling it, which allows it to flow more readily through the machinery conveyors.

Cudahy’s recycling services are provided by contract with Advanced Disposal. The website stresses, “Put materials in the cart or bin that actually belong there, and more importantly, be aware of ones that don’t.”

Like Milwaukee, Advanced Disposal informs that plastic bags, Styrofoam, takeout containers contaminated with food residue, and “tanglers” like wires or holiday light strings definitely do not belong in the recycling bins. For a detailed list:

Do you live in Milwaukee and have a recycling question? You can post your question on DPW’s social media or call the city’s helpline.

Facebook: Milwaukee Department of Sanitation
Twitter: Milwaukee DPW
City of Milwaukee Helpline: 414- 286-CITY (2489)

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