Common Recycling Questions

Last week, I volunteered with my city at a recycling education table at a local elementary school’s eco fair. I had a ton of fun playing the “sorting game” with lots of youngins (and some of their parents) where participants are asked to sort items in to either a trash or recycling pile. It was interesting to see which items threw people off the most… so here they are. Common — “can I recycle this?” questions answered.

  • Things that threw off parents:
    • Wire hangers. NO. Take these to the dry cleaners!
    • Aluminum foil. Nope. Trash.
    • Styrofoam cups (even with the #6 at the bottom). Very, very few cities actually take styrofoam so the answer is usually no.
  • Things that threw off (young) kids:
    • Tissues, paper towels, napkins. While, yes, this is a paper product… Nope. Compost or trash these.
    • Magazines. The colored paper seemed to throw off some kids so I had to explain that while colorful, magazines are still paper and can be recycled.
    • Cardboard! This one was interesting. The brown color seemed to make some kids associate cardboard with wood (and therefore not recyclable). I had to explain that it was just a really thick paper product.
  • Things that threw off everyone:
    • Plastic/disposable cutlery. A lot of these are actually made out of #6 plastic. HOWEVER, many cities won’t take these (or ultimately wont recycle these) because it’s not cost effective to do so. So this usually falls into the trash pile. Moral: use reusable or compostable cutlery!
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Composting with Bokashi

I love composting with bokashi. Okay, rewind. What is bokashi anyways? Bokashi is a way of fermenting food waste (including dairy and meat, which usually isn’t composted in the traditional way) so that when the fermented food waste is thrown in to a compost pile, it breaks down much quicker. Please note, composting with bokashi doesn’t lead to actual compost, but rather, a pre-compost (i.e. fermented food waste) of sorts. I recommend this method if you have a decent amount of dairy or meat scraps and a place to take your bucket of fermented food waste to (like a backyard compost tumbler or biodigester). If this doesn’t apply to you — I recommend regular composting, either with a backyard compost system, curbside food waste pickup (if your city has it — jealous!), or food waste drop off (I have seen this at farmers markets; or in Dallas, check out Recycle Revolution).

If you’re interested in composting with bokashi — continue on!

Supplies
Bokashi
– 2 5-gallon buckets with 1 corresponding lid (from any hardware store)
– a drill or nail/hammer to create holes at the bottom of 2 of the buckets
– a place to dump your fermented food waste, such as a backyard compost pile
– any small container to collect food waste during the course of a day or two

1. Drill approximately 8 holes in the bottom of one of your 5-gallon buckets.

2. Stack the bucket with holes within the bucket without holes. Place lid on top.

That’s it for set up. Seriously. At this point, start collecting food scraps in an easy to access spot in your kitchen. Every few days, dump the food scraps in the bucket, and cover with a scoop full of bokashi. Once the bucket is completely full with food scraps, make sure the lid is on tightly, and let sit for about 2-4 weeks (less if it’s warmer, more if it’s cooler). After this “sit and wait” period is over, dump your pre-compost in to a compost pile. You’ll also find that some “bokashi tea” has leaked out in to the bottom bucket through the holes in the top one — this “tea” is great for indoor and outdoor plants. Pour it out in your garden. That’s it. A tip is to make another bucket system to have on hand so you have a place to continue dumping food scraps while the first bucket system is in the “sit and wait” phase. I personally keep my bucket system in the garage but you can also keep it inside the house or on your balcony or patio.

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How to Recycle Better

Disclaimer: I am basing this information off of what I learned while touring our local recycling facility. Your facility may be different with different recycling rules and procedures. The best way to find out is by contacting your local facility, going on a tour, or reaching out to your city’s green/recycling/zero waste initiative divisions.

Visiting our local recycling facility was one of the most educational opportunities I’ve had in a long time. It was fascinating how high tech the facility was but also how much we don’t know as a community on best recycling practices. So. I’m hoping to share out a few small things I’ve learned. First off, make the time to check out this video. This is the facility that I got to visit and it was absolutely fascinating to see how materials are sorted in a single stream recycling system.

And here’s what I learned — broken down by different types of materials.

  • Plastics
    • #1, #2, #5 — These recycled plastics have a good market in our area so I don’t feel too terrible about using them (i.e. if I do choose to use plastic for something, I try and make sure it’s one of these numbers). Check with your city to see which plastics are in the most demand in your area.
    • #3, #4 — Not as good of a market as the plastics above so I tend to avoid as much as possible. However, yes, these are still recycled.
    • #6 aka styrofoam — These are not taken by my city. We were told that even IF they are taken for recycling, the market is very low for #6 plastics. I avoid these as much as possible.
    • #7 aka mixed use plastics — Not a lot of curbside recycling programs take this number but ours does. However, this is done mainly to make the recycling process easier for the community — but, these products are not truly recycled. I find that a lot of skin and body care products use #7 packaging. I have been saving these to take to Origins but have also considered getting a TerraCycle Beauty Product Box just so I know the packaging is getting recycled in some way.
    • Other Plastic Recycling Tips
      • Black plastics (like the ones found with frozen meals) can be difficult to recycle because the conveyor belt that handles all the recycling materials is also black, making it difficult for the sensors to pick them out.
      • Certain facilities take plastic shopping bags/bread bags/dry cleaning bags/ziplock bags/air cushions (all bagged in to another plastic bag). If not, these can be dropped off at store plastic bag drop offs.
      • Plastics should be clean, empty, and dry when put in the recycling bin!
    • Glass
      • Broken glass cannot be recycled in my city. Some cities may take broken glass if contained in a paper bag or box.
      • Metal or plastic (all-non glass) lids attached to a glass container must be removed for separate recycling since the recycling machine is unable to separate out a non-glass lid from a glass container (see more on this below).
    • Metal/Aluminum
      • The best item to recycle! There’s a strong market and products are not “downcycled” in to less desirable items. The process is also incredibly fast.
      • Small pieces of metal (anything smaller than a size of a sticky note such as bottle caps or even can lids) are too small to go through the recycling system on its own as the pieces will fall through the machine (and ultimately get thrown away). I get around this by collecting all my small pieces of metal and storing them in an old can. Once full, I hammer the can shut (so the little pieces don’t fall out) and recycle as usual.
      • Aluminum foil can not be recycled.
      • Again — items should be clean, empty, and dry!
    • Paper
      • Small pieces of paper and shredded paper need to be corralled together so that the small pieces don’t fall through the cracks (literally). I collect all my small pieces of paper in a large brown paper bag and recycle when full.
      • Our recycling facility does take milk and juice cartons — even though they have that plastic coating inside + a plastic spout. They have a very cool system that separates out all the plastic from the paper carton.
      • Metallic paper (such as some gift wraps) can not be recycled.
    • Items That Cannot Be Recycled
      • Here are the items that the facility frequently finds in the system (even though they can NOT be recycled): diapers, dog poop, grass clippings, hoses, and hangers (this can really mess up the machinery, by the way! take your old hangers to the dry cleaners or donate them!).
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