What goes in the home bin
When deciding which plastics to throw in your curbside bin, “pay attention to shape and size,” says Betty Shelley, a recycling expert who has answered calls and emails at Metro’s Recycling Information Center for 20 years.
Shapes to look for? Bottles, jars, buckets and tubs. Remember bathroom products like shampoo and body lotion, as well as garden pots, are also often recyclable at home.
What stays out of your home bin
Plastic bags: “Plastic bags absolutely can’t go in,” says Shelley. “They get tangled in the machinery at the sorting facility.”
At Hillsboro’s Far West Recycling, operations manager Vinod Singh knows this all too well. Far West sorts and prepares recycled materials like paper, metal, plastic and glass to be sold to local and global buyers, who use the materials to make new products. He says they get tens of thousands of plastic bags and a variety of other film plastic coming through their sorting line every day.
And that’s a problem. Plastic bags and other types of film plastic jam up the works and stop the belts from running. Workers spend a lot of time pulling them from the sorting line and untangling them from conveyers.
Plastic lids: These tend to be small and thin, and so are easily hidden by paper and cardboard as they make their way along the conveyor belts at sorting facilities. They can then end up in bales of paper or cardboard – making those bales harder to sell, and therefore harder to actually recycle into new paper products.
Plastic clamshells: Clamshells are those containers (often hinged) that salad greens, cherry tomatoes, and deli salads and sandwiches are packed in.
These containers, along with some other similar plastics, are not recyclable at home. These became common more recently, so some sorting facilities don’t have the machinery to deal with them. And the plastic they’re made of can be harder to sell to recyclers.
It’s confusing though, because a lot of these plastics have a number on them, surrounded by a triangle of arrows. That means they’re recyclable, right?
“Ignore the arrows. Ignore the numbers,” says Shelley.
The number is an indicator to industry insiders – it tells them what kind of resin is in the plastic and what its properties are.
But “as far as what [kind of plastic] goes in the curbside bin,” says Marilyn Derksen, also a long-time staffer at Metro’s Recycling Information Center, “the number doesn’t mean doodah.”
What goes in the bin
Everything from junk mail to newspapers to egg cartons (the paper ones) goes in your home recycling bin. You can also recycle milk and juice cartons, as well as aseptic containers that allow soup, broth and soy milk to be stored at room-temperature. These containers are not 100 percent paper, but because the manufacturers of these kinds of cartons have invested in ways to collect and recycle them they’re a part of the home recycling system.
What stays out
Frozen and refrigerated food boxes: Keep food boxes that go in the freezer or refrigerator out of your home recycling. Think waffles, popsicles or butter boxes. They may not seem different from cereal or cookie boxes but they are made with a plastic that keeps them from getting soggy when exposed to moisture. Milk, juice and aseptic cartons are layered rather than penetrated with plastic, making the materials easier to separate.
Paper cups: This goes for water cups and coffee cups. That's right. Coffee cups go in the garbage. Like freezer boxes, “paper” cups are also made with plastic so they don’t dissolve into a sodden mass when filled with hot coffee.
The added plastic, says Derksen, means that when they end up at a mill for recycling, they don’t break down in the paper-making process. “Everything goes into a water bath where it’s supposed to fall apart,” she says, but freezer boxes and paper cups stay whole, contaminating the mixture.”
A cost-efficient recycling system depends on making sure recyclables are actually recycled once they leave your bin. So mucking them up with the stuff that doesn’t belong there – that either slows the sorting lines like plastic bags do, or makes other recyclables less marketable like lids can – eventually drives up costs for everyone.
Pizza boxes: Although they’re cardboard, pizza boxes are often soaked with grease. In the City of Portland, you can toss pizza boxes in the food scraps bin. Otherwise they go in the garbage.
All those batteries
No batteries of any sort should ever go into home recycling bins. Singh at Far West Recycling says that batteries caused several fires in the facility in the last year. That can happen when batteries come into contact with some other metals, or when they get crushed or heat up.
But recycling batteries is a little complicated, mostly because there are so many different types.
Regular household alkaline batteries – like those AA’s and AAA’s – can be taken to a variety of places, including some hardware stores and other retailers, as well as Metro’s hazardous waste facilities, which sit adjacent to the transfer stations in Northwest Portland and Oregon City.
Check out Metro’s web page for information on how to dispose of other types of batteries.
When in doubt, keep it out
Things like household batteries and a range of plastics may fall into the category of what Singh calls "wishful recycling" – things that people want to be recycled, but that actually aren’t on the list of what you can recycle at home.
“Sometimes people think 'if I put it in, they’ll find a way to recycle it,'” says Shelley.
But just because something isn’t recyclable at home doesn’t mean it’s not recyclable at all. At home, sorry, those plastic bags are garbage. But if you can stash them for a later haul, recycling centers and some grocery stores and other retailers will take them for recycling.
“When in doubt, leave it out,” says Metro recycling expert Patrick Morgan.
That might be the only thing you need to remember the next time you’re trying to make a decision about recycling in your bathrobe in the rain.
The Metro Recycling Information Center answers questions about whatever you're not sure how to get rid of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 503-234-3000.
Read up on what goes in your home recycling bin
Find a recycler for the stuff you can’t recycle at home