Ask Eartha: Common recycling questions (column)
February 1, 2018
I'm just getting into the habit of recycling, and I have a few questions for you. Do I need to rinse out containers before I put them in the recycling bin? Can I recycle aluminum foil? Do I need to remove caps before recycling bottles?
Thanks for asking, Dustin. These are great questions that cause a lot of confusion among recyclers. Here is some clarification on these common recycling conundrums.
Rinsing Out Containers
Containers do need to be rinsed out prior to recycling in both drop-off and single-stream (curbside) situations. If they aren't, the residual food can grow mold and bacteria, and therefore pose a health risk to employees at the Summit County Resource Allocation Park and other facilities where these materials are sorted. Additionally, containers that are dirty can transfer their residue to other materials in the recycle bin, contaminating them. This is a problem because clean recyclables usually fetch a higher price when they're sold by the county's recycling operation. If you need one more reason to be fully convinced to clean your containers, consider the wildlife here in the High Country that may be interested in smelly containers that aren't rinsed out. The food remnants can also attract insects. Protect our wildlife and please be sure to rinse containers out to avoid these potential problems.
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Yes, you should remove bottle caps, but do not include them in recycling — neither drop-off nor single-stream. After plastic bottles are collected from the county's recycling centers, SCRAP employees compress and bale them for shipment. While many bottle caps are made of plastic, it's often a different type from bottles themselves. Different plastics melt at varying temperatures, so mixing different types is problematic for the recycling process. This means that even if we could recycle the caps, they couldn't be recycled in the same bin as the bottles. Leaving the caps on also takes up a lot of air space which makes compressing the bales less efficient. In some places, recycling caps is an option, but our county doesn't produce enough of them to support this kind of processing at the SCRAP. What about single-stream recycling? Because they're so small, caps cause trouble at material recovery facilities by stopping up machinery designed for larger material and causing costly delays in processing. Furthermore, if caps are left on bottles, they pose a danger to employees during compression and baling because they can pop off under pressure.
Aluminum foil is difficult to recycle due to its light weight and thinness. It takes a very long time for the SCRAP to collect enough aluminum foil to process and sell as compared to aluminum beverage containers. You can absolutely recycle foil, though. It is accepted at both the local drop-off centers and in single-stream bins. It cannot, however, have food or other waste on it; residue contaminates other recyclables, and as you might have surmised by now, contamination is a major recycling no-no. Word to the wise: When you recycle aluminum foil, make sure it's folded rather than crumpled into a ball. And don't forget the golden rule of recycling: When in doubt, keep it out. Dustin, I hope I've clarified these questions for you, and I'm happy you're getting into the habit of recycling. Remember to rinse out containers, remove bottle caps and fold foil.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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