10 tips for effective recycling

There was a fantastic piece on Colorado Public Radio earlier this week about recycling. CPR and two listeners went to the Alpine Waste and Recycling facility and talked with Brent Hildebrand, the Vice President of Recycling.

My friends regularly ask me about whether or not they can recycle X. The tricky thing is that the answer is highly dependent on where you live and what facilities your city has. When we had a friend from Germany visit a few years ago, she was shocked we couldn’t recycle potato chip bags!

To summarize some of the info in the CPR piece, combined with questions I think are on the minds of many, here are my top 10 recycling tips for DENVER. Chances are the system in your city is similar, but not identical. For example, Denver is one of the only cities in the US that can recycle coffee cups! (But you should still ditch disposable cups for a real one!)

10 Tips for Effective Recycling (in Denver):

one/ Clean it. But just a little. Jars and cans don’t need to be 100% free of food residue, but they should be lightly rinsed and empty of all food. A can half full of beans will be problematic for recycling machines, but a bit of nut butter residue is no big deal.

two/ Take off caps if they’re made from a different material than the container. Remove metal lids from jars. Remove plastic caps from glass bottles (like soy sauce). Plastic tops can stay on plastic bottles.

three/ Plastic smaller than 2 inches will not be recycled even if it has the recycle symbol on it. Small caps, contact lens cases, tiny toys, etc. are filtered out during the recycling process and go to landfill.

four/ “Extra” plastic doesn’t need to be removed, but it won’t be recycled. Plastic windows on envelopes or plastic film on the outside of a jar or bottle don’t need to be removed before you place the item in your recycling bin. However, this non-recyclable plastic will be filtered out during the sorting process, so it’ll end up in the landfill.

five/ Random metal is generally not accepted in single-stream recycling. Aluminum cans are HIGHLY recyclable and a fantastically sustainable material. Aluminum and tin cans are pretty much the only type of metal you can throw in your single-stream (purple) bin. All other metals need to be taken to a special facility.

six/ SOLO cups are not recyclable. Find some reusables for your next game of beer pong. Many single-use plastic cups are not recyclable. Try out bringing your own cup when you go out!

seven/ “Compromised” paper cannot be recycled. Think: pizza boxes or glittered paper. Paper gets turned into a pulp to make new paper, so if the paper is soiled this process won’t work. Remove embellishments on your kids’ art projects before recycling. Remove the greasy parts of food containers (they’re compostable) and recycle what’s clean. Similarly, very lightweight paper (tissues, paper towels, napkins, tissue paper) is too far down the paper chain to be recycled. It’s compostable.

eight/ You can never recycle plastic film or bags in your curbside bin, even if they have the recycling symbol on them. Recycling gets extra confusing because companies want you to think their packaging is recyclable. Manufacturers will throw a recycling sign on their packaging even if it’s not accepted in single-stream systems. For example, this dumpling bag pictured has a recycling symbol on the bag, but it’s from China, so of course they don’t know what our recycling system is like! In Denver, and most cities in the US, plastic film and bags have to be take to special facilities to be recycled. They’re a terrible problem for recycling plants like Alpine, so don’t put them in your bin!

nine/ Most shipping materials are not recyclable. Amazon has gotten some bad press lately for it’s bubble mailers. They’re using fewer boxes and more plastic wrap which is obviously terrible. Try to combine orders to increase the chance it’ll ship in a box (or better yet, just buy local as much as possible!). As for the plastic packaging you receive, the best bet is to reuse or to take them to a drop off location (find out where these are by Googling the info on the packaging).

ten/ Research your options for recycling “hard to recycle” materials. There are many drop off locations for these items. Things like clothing, technology, metals, styrofoam, and much more can be reused if you find the right place to take them. I’m planning to eventually put more info about this right here on my site, but in the meantime Google is your friend. If you can’t reuse it, try to find a new home for it before you throw it in the trash!

Denver Recycles has a great searchable directory to tell you how to dispose of anything you’re unsure about!

Ok, what did I miss? Recycling is incredibly complex. What materials puzzle you?