Matt Batliner knows what to expect every deer and duck season — carcasses at his recycling center.
“I have no idea why somebody would think this is recyclable,” said Batliner, whose family owns one of three centers that take in what Kansas City area residents put in their curbside bins.
“I’m looking at my non-acceptable items list: plastic shopping bags, food scraps, yard waste. ‘Dead animals’ is right on there.”
Seems area consumers could use a refresher course on what goes in the recycle bin.
Carcasses may be an obvious “no,” but residents may need updating on bottle caps, pizza boxes and peanut butter jars, too. Aluminum foil, wrapping paper and prescription bottles also need an explanation.
One reason consumers are confused: The recycling industry hasn’t resolved all “recyclable-or-not” questions. Some common packaging that one recycling center takes is on the don’t-recycle list of another.
And updates from cities, haulers and recycling centers come few and far between, or they just get it wrong.
“They’re putting outdated information out there, or they don’t put any information out there at all,” said Matt Riggs of the Mid-America Regional Council.
Help for conscientious-but-confused consumers is at hand.
Riggs just set down the Kansas City area’s standards for recycling the most confusing materials of all — plastics. His findings are posted on the council’s RecycleSpot.org website that also lists recycling locations for many materials that won’t go in curbside bins.
Keep an eye out too for the slowly emerging How2Recycle label. It spells out exactly what to do with that item in your hand, and it gained backing from Wal-Mart in October.
Consumers need help because “recyclable” in Kansas City and much of America depends on more than the material something was made from.
Some perfectly recyclable items end up being thrown away because recycling centers simply are not set up to handle them, or they don’t want to handle them because they had food, oil or poison in them.
One message bouncing around the recycling industry urges consumers to look past what their local recycling systems say they want. Give them what could be safely recycled so perhaps they’ll change their systems and start recycling it.
Every recycling operation has a “don’t recycle” list.
Dead animals are just one example of the things inside recycle bins that simply shouldn’t be there. Propane tanks cause havoc, no matter how empty they are.
“We get minor fires or explosions that happen frequently,” said Tomas Vujovic, area director of operations at Waste Management Inc. that operates Deffenbaugh Industries.
Used hypodermic needles pose obvious risks to recycling center employees. Still, syringes show up every day inside bottles at the recycling center that Midwest Shredding Services operates in south Kansas City.
“The amount of syringes we get is crazy,” said Batliner, the sales manager of the family-owned operation.
Anything that contained pesticides or herbicides won’t be recycled and should stay out of recycle bins. Glass, because it is dangerous when broken, is excluded from area curbside recycling programs. But Ripple Glass has purple drop off bins around the Kansas City area.
Other “don’t recycle” items pose more of a burden than a danger.
Think laundry baskets and large toys such as a BigWheel. They may be plastic, but they won’t go through in the recycling centers’ equipment.
Neither will anything likely to wrap around a row of rapidly spinning discs, which is the first equipment to start the sorting process inside those big recycling centers.
So, no garden hoses, and no VCR cassette tapes. The cassettes break open and the tape wraps around moving equipment and jams gear boxes.
Plastic bags are the worst about tangling around equipment. It’s why recycling centers don’t want bags filled with aluminum cans, plastic bottles or other recyclables. Crews have to grab, rip open and empty the bags so they don’t reach the turning discs.
Those plastic grocery bags should go back to the store. Riggs said many other bags should too, including bread bags, food storage bags that zip closed, cereal box liners, newspaper bags, dry cleaning bags, bubble-style wrap and those big packing pillows if you’ll deflate them first.
America has encouraged recycling by making it simple for consumers. Drop everything into one bin. No sorting and little thinking required.
The result has been that we recycle more.
It also has left the recycling industry with the complicated task of sorting out that mishmash of materials, that single-stream of stuff. Newsprint, cardboard and office paper each need to go their own way in the recycling process. So do plastic pop and milk bottles. Ditto for aluminum and tin cans. They’re each made from different materials.
WCA Corp., which operates as WCA/Town & Country here, runs a typical recycling center in Harrisonville, what the industry calls a materials recovery facility or “murf” for short.
Inside, a bulldozer feeds mixed materials onto a conveyor belt. WCA employees nab plastic bags and other items that shouldn’t be there.
Several feet a way, millions of dollars worth of equipment starts to pull paper, cardboard, bottles, and cans out of the stream, generally in that order. Batches of these sorted materials get shoved into powerful compactors that produce heavy bales. Mills that reclaim usable materials buy those bales.
The single-stream system efficiently handles tons of milk jugs, newspapers, aluminum cans and much more. Not everything that goes into the system gets recycled, however.
Prescription bottles are made from valuable recyclable plastic. Nevertheless, few get recycled because they’re small and fall through the sorting equipment designed to pluck out water bottles and milk jugs.
Some recycling centers recommend throwing away aluminum foil because their equipment can’t sort it out of the stream. Wads of gift wrap elicit similar responses.
Here’s a visual to ponder — a wire coat hanger approaching that row of rapidly spinning discs at the front of the sorting gantlet.
“You get into the category where it’s a completely recyclable item, but we don’t have a way of sorting it,” Batliner said.
Caps, because they’re small, pose a sorting problem. But the recycling industry has figured out an answer.
Put caps back on all of the bottles, jugs and tubs you recycle. Some in the industry insist that caps go back on even where local recyclers say otherwise.
If that’s not what you’ve been doing, there’s a reason. The industry struggled to agree on a caps message.
“That debate had gone on for a long time,” said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics in Tory, Ala.
One past problem with screw-on caps happened inside the compacting equipment. Now, the crushing force is strong enough to burst a bottle if the cap is too tight to let air out. Still, it helps to leave the caps a little loose.
Mills like KW Plastics that buy bales from recycling centers also have found ways to get caps off the milk and laundry detergent jugs that consumers recycle.
“It’s a fairly violent process,” Saunders said.
Essentially, the company’s equipment shakes the entire loosened bale hard enough that the caps, which are made of a brittle plastic, crack and come off to be sifted out.
Caps are easier to deal with for reclaimers of water and carbonated beverage bottles. These bottles are made of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, a dense plastic that sinks. Caps float. Mills grind up the bottle, cap and all, in water and let gravity separate the plastics.
These float-sink tanks don’t work for milk bottles and other No. 2 plastics because they float just like caps.
The caps-on message means a lot of plastic that used to get thrown in land fills is now recycled. Although Custom Polymers PET buys bales of plastic drinking bottles, it also reclaims between 6 million and 8 million pounds of caps each year.
Caps offer a lesson for other recyclables that sorting systems can’t handle.
Saunders said consumers should recycle prescription bottles even when told not to. At some point, the recycling center operators will see enough recoverable material in their trash to figure out how to retrieve it.
Changes in packaging have complicated recycling for consumers. For example, can you tell whether the pump on a bottle of liquid hand soap is recyclable?
The How2Recycle label is an effort to put that and other recycling answers directly into consumers’ hands.
The pump answer depends on whether there is a spring inside. If there is, the How2Recycle label on the bottle says “Empty and Discard Pump.” If there’s no metal spring, it says “Empty & Reattach Pump.”
The label launched in 2012 from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. The effort aimed at what organizers considered a lot of mislabeling about recycling.
“We are very familiar with some of the disarray in recycling access and in messaging,” said Kelly Cramer, senior manager at the coalition and its lead on How2Recycle.
If you didn’t know about the new label, you aren’t alone. Some in the Kansas City area’s recycling industry had not noticed it.
And it is spreading slowly. The label appeared, for example, on a recently purchased bottle of Clorox but not on a bottle of Clorox2, though both were made of the same type of plastic and handled the say way by recycling centers.
A package qualifies as recyclable for a How2Recycle label if at least 60 percent of Americans have access to a program that will recycle that item. Simply being made of recyclable material is not enough. Packagers also have to license the label to use it, which provides funding for the effort and ensures labels are used the same way everywhere.
Packaging that uses more than one material, such as a cake mix box and the bag inside, carries more than one label so recyclers will know what to do with each item.
How2Recycle labels are spreading as a more familiar recycling symbol is starting to disappear. After eight years of effort, the plastics industry is removing the widely familiar chasing arrows that form a triangle around the numbers 1 through 7 on drinking bottles, butter tubs and other plastic items.
A regular triangle is taking its place.
One of the new codes appeared on a blue plastic tub of mushrooms purchased at a local grocery store. It was the regular triangle with the number 1 in the middle and the letters PETE underneath. No chasing arrows. And there’s an extra E on the more familiar PET that stands for the resin used to make the tub.
What will code-watching consumers do with that?
“That’s a good question,” said Bryon Geiger, president of plastics reclaimer Custom Polymers PET. “That’s where the messaging needs to be clear, like with the new How2Recycle label.”
Most consumer packaging holds food. And food is the one thing that the recycling industry tries most to avoid.
Food containers specifically are rejected at the only recycling site in the Kansas City area that accepts foamed polystyrene, known best by the brand name Styrofoam. ACH Foam Technologies in Kansas City, Kan., accepts polystyrene blocks and forms around that new television you bought. But it says no to all Styrofoam coffee cups or restaurant take-home boxes that touched food.
Food’s chief issue is the household problem. A glob of cheese on a pizza box or smear of peanut butter inside a plastic jar attracts bugs and rodents.
Recycling’s answer is unanimous.
“Clean is the message, whether it’s pizza boxes or containers,” said Vujkovic of Waste Management. “When it’s clean, we’re able to process it, and we’re able to sell it, and the end user is able to recycle it and reuse it.”
How clean isn’t so clear.
One company executive said to tear the lid off the pizza box and recycle it, then throw the bottom away. Others say the whole box is OK as long as there’s no cheese or crumbs left; some grease is fine.
Recycling messages typically say to rinse out a container before recycling it. Ketchup bottles, milk jugs and most containers will do with a “quick rinse,” but peanut butter jars need more attention.
“You’re going to need to scrub it,” Batliner said.
Another operator says throw peanut butter jars away, knowing that many consumers simply won’t get them clean.
Kansas City’s recycling recovery operators are split on motor oil bottles. One complaint is that oil in a curbside recycle bin can ruin the paper and cardboard, which need to stay clean. At the recycling centers, oil can get into sorting equipment and smear optical scanners that identify different kinds of plastic.
On the other hand, Midwest Shredding and KW Plastics have no problems with “empty” motor oil bottles, at least at the rate that households recycle them.
The How2Recycle folks haven’t settled this one because, so far, packager has asked to license the label for an oil bottle.
WCA spokesman Tom Coffman preferred a simple message to recyclers. If in doubt, leave it out.
“If you find yourself hovering over your recycling container, and you’re grappling with some moral dilemma about this item in your hand, just throw it in the trash,” Coffman said.
Recycle beyond the curbside
These are some of RecycleSpot.org’s answers to “What do I do with….?”