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Sorting out what actually is and isn't recyclable takes a little effort, but makes a difference for the environment — and underscores the need to reduce waste in the first place. (Photo: N Felix / Adobe Images)

Beyond “Wishcycling:” What Is Really, Truly Recyclable?

by Robert Lawrence
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If you’ve ever felt confused about what to put in the recycling bin, you are undergoing a near-universal modern American experience. The EPA estimates that at least 17% of the items that end up in curbside recycling bins can’t be recycled at the facilities where they are sent. At the same time, New York residents are only recycling about 20% of what they could be saving from the landfill, which is well below the U.S. average recycling rate of 32%.

At 20%, New Yorkers recycle well below national average recycling rate of 32%. (Photo: kali9 / iStock)

There’s much room for improvement on both ends, but it’s not necessarily the fault of the people pulling their bins out to the curb, says Melissa Young, director of the Center for Sustainable Community Solutions-Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University. Many residents are confused about what to put in the recycling bin, she says, and “it’s because from county to county  —  and within each county, from town to town in some cases  —  the materials that are accepted are different.”

So why aren’t stickers placed on bins, or flyers sent out periodically, to remind people what is and isn’t recyclable? Without clear guidelines, well-meaning people are often left “wishcycling” — putting anything they hope might be recyclable into a bin and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, those plastic produce clamshells and yogurt tubs people often hope are recyclable can actually clog up the recycling stream.

Yet for municipalities, who are often limited by tight budgets, communicating to residents about the subtleties of sorting recyclables is a struggle, too. “They don’t have a lot of resources,” Young adds. “They don’t have a lot of time or capacity to deal with messaging on top of infrastructure on top of policy.”

Orange County’s recycling facilities are major operations. (Photos: Ermin Siljkovic / Orange County Division of Environmental Facilities & Services)

To help residents and municipalities come together to improve recycling and waste-reduction efforts, Young’s center at Syracuse University joined with SUNY-ESF to form the Center for Sustainable Materials Management. This unique center has partnered with 140 other recycling professionals and experts in the state to create the Recycle Right NY campaign. Here’s how these and other resources can clear up confusion and help Hudson Valley residents keep more waste out of the landfills.

From the Kitchen to the Curbside

Municipal curbside recycling programs are available throughout the Hudson Valley, and generally accept items from four main categories: paper and cardboard, glass bottles and jars, aluminum and metal cans, and plastic jugs and bottles (and you can leave the caps on, if you like). 

The famous “chasing arrows” symbol does not necessarily mean that an item is actually recyclable. (Illustration: @RecycleRightNY)

But there are variations in these categories. “Recycling programs may differ from county to county because access to downstream markets of materials may differ,” says Ermin Siljkovic, recycling coordinator of the Orange County Division of Environmental Facilities & Services. And each sorting facility that each municipality uses may also have different sorting technologies and recycling capabilities. 

For instance, some counties can only accept rigid plastic jugs and bottles, while others might also accept additional plastic items. Beverage cartons can be recycled in some counties, but not others. Also, Ulster and Westchester Counties have a dual stream recycling system that requires paper and cardboard to be put in a separate bin from the other recyclables, but all other counties do single stream recycling and do not require this. Only a few counties can accept shredded paper, but alternatively there are some businesses that can help with this, such as Walden Savings Bank, which periodically hosts “Shred Days” events.

To make it easy for New Yorkers to find their specific guidelines, and “know before you throw,” Recycle Right NY has compiled links to local guidelines listed by county. In these guidelines you can usually find the contact information for the recycling coordinator in your area if you have more specific questions.

Shopping receipts, plastic food pouches, or ceramic dishes and glassware are among the top five items that New Yorkers mistakenly put in their recycling bins. (Photo: RG Studio / iStock)

There are some common items that can’t be accepted anywhere for recycling. Recycle Right NY lists plastic bags, plastic food pouches, shopping receipts, ceramic dishes and glassware, and batteries as the top five items that New Yorkers erroneously put in their recycling bins (although some of these items can be recycled at specific drop-off locations). Other common items that should not go in the recycling bin include candy and granola bar wrappers, disposable cups, plastic utensils, plastic coffee pods, black plastic, toothpaste tubes, and Styrofoam.

Although some of these items might have the triple arrow recycle symbol imprinted, this symbol does not actually mean that the item can be recycled, explains Kerry Russell, Deputy Commissioner in the Dutchess County Division of Solid Waste Management. “All plastics have the recycling symbol, but sometimes it only means the product was made from recycled material, not that the product itself is recyclable,” she says.

Apart from knowing what recyclables are accepted in your county, it is also important to be sure that those items are rinsed clean and free from food residue. The items should also be loose and not bagged up, so that they can be properly sorted by machinery. Cardboard boxes and paper bags should be flattened. But Russell notes that it’s better if residents don’t crush cans, jugs, and bottles. “In single stream recycling, the materials all go through the sorting process by machinery,” she says. “A soda can that is crushed now has a different shape and may not get caught by the sorting process.” 

Workers oversee the sorting of recycling materials, which are bound up with similar materials. (Photos: Ermin Siljkovic / Orange County Division of Environmental Facilities & Services)

In addition to the machinery used to sort at recycling facilities, there are also human hands involved in separating things out along the conveyer belts. For this reason, it is also important to never put broken glass, scrap metal, or other sharp objects in the recycling bin.

Going Beyond the Curbside

The list of items that can be recycled continues to expand far beyond what goes into your residential curbside bin. Here are some ideas for saving other waste products from the landfill.

Tissue paper, wrapping paper, and cellophane are among the materials that often mystify even the best-intentioned recyclers. (Illustration: @RecycleRightNY)

Plastic bags and films. Although most major retailers in New York stopped using plastic bags in 2020, they are still out there. They are also still used in packaging for food products like bread and cereal. These, and similar film plastics like bubble wrap, can often be dropped off in special collection bins at many of the major grocery retailers in the state.

Batteries. Single-use alkaline batteries can be tossed in the regular landfill trash. But rechargeable batteries, especially lithium ion batteries (which are prone to causing fires in garbage trucks and waste facilities), should be brought to a drop-off location. Some county solid waste programs can accept certain types of batteries at their transfer stations. Retailers, such as Lowe’s, Office Depot, and Best Buy, can accept them too. Call2Recycle.org is a useful tool for finding the nearest collection location for particular battery types by ZIP code.

Electronics. E-waste, like phones and laptops, can often be dropped off at retailers, such as Best Buy, that sell those products. County transfer stations often accept some types of e-waste and appliances. Certain Goodwill locations of New York/New Jersey are also now accepting e-waste. There are also businesses that specialize in collecting e-waste and appliances, which are sold off for extraction of precious metals or scrap metal. For example, All Recycling in Newburgh has been in the scrap metal business since 1902, and they will accept drop-offs for recycling of many types of e-waste (including that bundle of obsolete cables and plugs you have been storing away) and small appliances, not to mention junky old cars.

Textiles, plastic film, batteries, and e-waste are among the materials that can contaminate municipal recycling streams and need to be specially handled. (Photo: vm / iStock)

Textiles. Old clothing that is still in good shape can of course be donated to thrift stores. Throughout the Hudson Valley, there are also collection bins for used charitable donations of clothing and textiles in parking lots and other public locations. To find a textile collection bin near you, the Re-Clothe NY Coalition has compiled a database that can be easily searched by entering your ZIP code here. More information about the organizations that manage collection bins is provided, including which types of items they accept and whether they only collect textiles that can be reused, or also those that are worn out for textile recycling.

Hundreds of other miscellaneous items that can potentially be recycled can be searched for in the Recycle Right NY Recylopedia web tool, which also offers tips on reuse of items or proper disposal. And the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has a list of businesses and organizations that can help recycle dozens of odd items, from American flags to yoga mats. Organizations like TerraCycle also offer free ways to mail in certain hard-to-recycle materials and containers, like baby food pouches.

It may take some tenacity to find them, but there are probably more local businesses and organizations than you realize that can help you keep waste out of the landfill. Each time you find a new way to recycle an old or worn-out item, know that you are moving beyond the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” toward “circularity,” while also helping New York State meet its recently stated goal of reducing landfill waste by 85% before the year 2050.  

(Video: @RecycleRightNY)

Robert Lawrence lives in Montgomery, N.Y., where he works as a science writer and enjoys visiting the many parks of the Hudson Valley with his wife and little boy. He is originally from drier climates and holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Arizona State University.

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