Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Confused about Recycling
distributed 4/29/16 - ©2016

"He said that he is confused about recycling." Anita was telling me about an Earth Sunday conversation at church.

It didn't take me long to realize that confusion is a reasonable and responsible way to approach solid waste these days. If it all seems simple, then you're probably doing things wrong.

Many of us have lots of options for dealing with our trash, but those possibilities also generate complexity. The rules change depending on where you are and the sorts of services that are provided in your community.

I won't be able to give you a list of what to recycle. There is no universal list. You'll need to go to some local sources for your best information. But being attentive to what is complex will help you make better choices at home, at work, or at church.

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I live in Denver, Colorado. The city provides curbside trash and recycling pickup to all households. We get a big black cart for trash with weekly pickup, and a matching blue cart for "single stream" recycling with every-other-week collection. The city even sends me an email the day before, so that I'll remember the recycling schedule. Denver tries to make it easy for us.

In some neighboring cities, families have to contract with private services for garbage pickup, and recycling might involve a different vendor and even more fees. It takes a pretty high commitment level to pay more to be able to recycle.

In some rural communities, there are no local recycling options at all. I know of people who load up bags of newspapers and cans when they make a trip to The Big City. It takes significant extra effort to make a drop-off at a big recycling center.

The possibilities for recycling can change from town to town. But even in a big city like Denver, we need to pay attention to the complexities of what can, and what cannot, go in the blue bin.

Back in the old days, the rules were pretty short. Newspaper and office paper was OK; glossy paper from magazines was not. Glass bottles and jars, and metal cans were good. Everything else was bad, and just went in the trash.

Now, we can do so much more, but the shadings of what is allowable get more complex. As the guy at church said, it gets confusing. Working from Denver's webpage of what can be recycled:

  • Pretty much all kinds of paper are accepted, but NOT tissue paper, ribbon or bows, or bubble envelopes or polyethylene fiber envelopes, such as some overnight mailing envelopes. Phone books are OK, but not paperback or hardcover books. Paper cups and plates cannot be recycled.
  • Denver is relatively good on plastics. They now accept "Rigid plastic bottles, jugs, jars, tubs, cups and containers marked with the #1 through #7 in the recycling symbols." That's a wider range than just a few years ago. But plastic lids and caps from those containers can't be recycled. Plastic bags, Styrofoam, and plastic "toothpaste type" tubes are on the NO list. And plastic containers marked as PLA or compostable are not accepted.
  • Food and beverage cartons -- for milk, juice, soups, etc. -- are OK, but not the caps. Frozen food boxes "that have a waxy, white coating on the inside", or boxes and bags that are foil lined, are not OK.
  • Glass bottles and jars are accepted, but not window glass, glass vases, or drinking cups. (See below, though, for a completely different kind of problem with glass.)

Denver has far more details about particular categories for the regular collections. It is great that we have so many options, but it also means looking at the codes on the bottom of plastic containers, and being attentive to what kind of lining is in a food carton.

That doesn't get into the things that are beyond our curbside pickup. We have to work harder for options on electronics, paint, batteries, etc. Actually, those things are not allowed in either the trash or the normal recycling. (I know of several churches that have annual electronic recycling events that are a popular public service, and a good fundraiser for the congregation.)

The confusion levels can go higher. In some Denver neighborhoods, the city offers composting for an additional fee. You get a green cart to go with the black and blue ones, and another set of detailed rules. The composting system accepts lots of stuff that would otherwise go to the dump -- food, lawn and garden clippings, smaller pieces of wood, paper plates, facial tissues, and greasy pizza boxes. (Non-greasy pizza boxes go in the recycling.)

But, the composting program will not accept any plastics, including those marked as "compostable." Got that? While they take paper plates, they don't take "Plastic-coated paper products, such as to-go coffee cups and glossy paper plates."

Recycling and composting are commendable behaviors. They can dramatically reduce our impact -- less use of raw materials, less energy in manufacturing, less stuff to the landfill, lower greenhouse gas emissions. But being responsible takes attention to details, and care in sorting out what can be reprocessed, and what needs to be trash.

I encourage you to compost and recycle where you can. Look up the website for your service provider, and get the current list of what they'll take. They probably have a one-page poster that you can print out that will help you work through the confusing rules.

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Unfortunately, we have decisions that go beyond what our recycling service will accept. Even though it can go in the bin, it may not be processed in the way that we expect.

Last Sunday's Denver Post had an extensive article about the difficulties of recycling glass. We're allowed to put bottles and jars in our blue carts, but much of that glass is never recycled. The story tells of some exciting new businesses in our region that will be able to handle much more glass, but for now, most of the glass that is "recycled" is simply sorted back out and sent to the dump.

If your community has special collection bins for glass -- perhaps even sorted by color -- then there are better odds that it will actually be melted down and re-used.

A good friend, on hearing that her glass probably goes to the dump, was distressed. "I'd been making a special effort to buy food in glass jars, because I thought they were recycled more efficiently. Now I'll have to start looking for things that come in plastic."

When those new glass-processing plants come on-line in the Denver area, though, she might want to change her purchasing criteria again. It is confusing!

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The guy at church last Sunday admitted to being confused about recycling. That's good! I'm glad that he is paying enough attention to know that it isn't all that easy, and that he's still committed to doing the right thing.

I hope that you'll do some research this spring. Check some websites, and maybe make a few phone calls. Find out -- for your location -- who provides the recycling services. Get the lists of what they take, and what can't be recycled, and find out if there are things that they accept but then just send to the dump.

Educate your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, your church. It can be confusing, but getting the right information will help us all do the right thing.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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