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Why can’t we recycle everything?

You Asked, We Answered: Top Recycling Questions of 2021!

In November, Recycle Smart MA hosted two live webinars called Ask Me Anything about Recycling in MA.  More than a hundred people tuned in to ask (and sometimes stump) our expert panel.  We’re bringing you the highlights in this month’s newsletter so we can all get a smart start to recycling in 2022!

If you missed the Ask Me Anything webinars, fear not. We promise we’ll host another AMAARMA (rolls right off the tongue, no?) sometime in the future.

Pro-Tip: Many of the answers to the questions from webinar participants are already available in our Recyclopedia. We’re betting that after you’ve read this newsletter, you’ll be able to not only find the answers you need, but maybe even hold your own “ask me anything” recycling webinar. Then spread the word about the features and content we’ve created on RecycleSmart MA – they’re all there for you, dear reader!

Let's Get Right Into It:

1. Why Can't We Recycle Everything?
Here’s the honest truth – our recycling systems (aka Materials Recovery Facilities) – which are built to last 10 to 20 years and cost millions in engineering and equipment – simply can’t adapt quickly enough to handle the ever-changing stream of consumer packaging and products. Then there’s stuff that’s just plain dangerous, like rechargeable batteries from phones which hold heat and a charge and cause fires at recycling facilities. Finally, if the material doesn’t have a viable market – meaning no one wants to use it to make a new product – it’s not recyclable. In Massachusetts, materials must meet three criteria to be recycled in your home recycling bin.
  1. The material should not harm the workers or equipment.
  2. The recycling equipment must be designed to sort and process the material.
  3. There must be a consistent market (a buyer) for the material.
What can you do in the meantime? Let’s recycle everything that we can! Avoid the temptation to “wish cycle” by following the Smart Recycling Guide. And make your voice heard by contacting your favorite brands to tell them you want recyclable packaging only!
2. Which Plastic Bags Can I Recycle and Where?

So. Many. Questions. About Bags. But they were all good! Here are a few:

  • Which type of bag is okay in the household recycling bin (answer: none)
  • What stuff is good to take back to the grocery store collection bin? (answer: more than you think – see the list here)
  • How about bubble wrap? (answer: put it with plastic bags and take to grocery/retail drop-off)
  • What about putting recyclables into those blue tinted plastic bags that are marketed for that purpose? (answer, unless you live in the North End, South End or Beacon Hill in Boston, your bagged recyclables will end up in the trash)
The takeaway: NO plastic bags or plastic wrap in the household recycling bin (no matter the type, number, color, etc.). They should be taken back to grocery stores or retail locations that take them. Bags, plastic film, and stuff in bags are the #1 contaminant at the recycling facility (aka MRF). They get caught in machinery and force the MRFs to stop operations to cut them off the equipment – which puts workers at risk of injury. How do plastic bags actually get recycled? Watch our webinar: Mystery Revealed: The Story of Plastic Bag Recycling. Extra, extra credit: Read “It’s in the Bag” in our newsletter archive.

Recyclables in plastic bag in recycling bin

3. Do I have to remove tape from boxes? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Some outdated recycling rules die hard. Recycling technology has evolved over the last 30 years. What used to be a MUST (taking labels off cans, removing plastic windows from envelopes) is now completely OPTIONAL. To make your lives a little easier, we made a list of the myths we heard. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with taking these steps, but they are unnecessary. You’re welcome 😉

Common Recycling Myths
4. Does the number on plastics matter?

Short answer: NO.

First off – we agree, plastics are complicated. The ubiquitous number inside a recycling symbol on plastic items is arguably the single greatest source of confusion for the recycling public. The number, known as the Resin Identification Code, indicates the type of plastic resin the item in question is made of. And that number appears on thousands of items – from blister packs to plastic storage bins to children’s toys and automotive parts – that CAN’T be recycled at most recycling facilities. The resin code is so misleading that California just passed a Truth in Advertising Law that prohibits the recycling symbol on anything deemed not recyclable (i.e. it can’t be conveniently collected and made into new stuff).

Plastic containers
So how DO I know what plastic is recyclable?

The best rule of thumb is to forget about the numbers. Instead, focus on the shape: if it’s a bottle, jug, jar or tub, put it in the recycling bin. What’s pictured in the Smart Recycling Guide are examples of plastic containers you can recycle in Massachusetts. Of course, it wouldn’t be complicated if there weren’t exceptions (e.g., clear plastic cups, plastic egg cartons, and these specific take-out containers are all recyclable). These exceptions are spelled out in the Recyclopedia. So, if you have something you are unsure about, you know what to do. And if it’s not in the Recyclopedia, you can assume it’s NOT recyclable. Eager to learn more about plastics? Check out our archived newsletters on this topic:

5. Pizza Boxes – Yes or No?
Cat's out of the bag! Pizza boxes are recyclable.

Pizza boxes are IN. We promise!

You can put your EMPTY pizza box in the recycling. Grease is okay. Helpful suggestion: Fold the box inside out before you put it in the recycling. This will make sure that the box is completely empty so there are no surprises at the sorting facility.

If your town says no to pizza boxes, then they aren’t current on recycling industry standards. Email us and we’ll reach out to let them know. To learn more, read our newsletter that’s completely devoted to this subject: No Matter How You Slice It.

Speaking of Paper...

Paper and paper-based packaging amount to more than two thirds of what’s in our recycling bins. We have answers to dozens of paper products recycling questions in the Recyclopedia. If you haven’t already, give it a search!

How wet is too wet and while you’re at it, what about sticky notes?

Most questions we received about paper products were about moisture and size. Here’s the deal – both issues can be problematic. When it comes to size, think bigger than a credit card (this means no shredded paper). If you’ve got a small post-it note, stick it to a bigger piece of paper. As for moisture, you really want to keep your paper dry but a few drops of water won’t hurt. Leaving your recycling uncovered in a rain or snowstorm will. And a jar half full of spaghetti sauce that breaks and splatters all over the paper is also a problem, so remember to empty and rinse jars to keep your paper ready for recycling.

Till We Meet Again

We know the rules can get complicated, but don’t give up! Your smart recycling matters and the more you recycle, the less we rely on limited natural resources for making new products. We’ve said it a million times but we’ll say it once more for good measure – when in doubt, check the Recyclopedia.

Partner Spotlight: City of Pittsfield

Screenshot of the Pittsfield Recycles video, featuring Commissioner of the Department of Public Services and Utilities, Ricardo Morales.
Screenshot of the Pittsfield Recycles video, featuring Commissioner of the Department of Public Services and Utilities, Ricardo Morales.

The folks in the City of Pittsfield aren’t just committed to recycling, but to recycling right. This Recycle Smart Partner is focusing on education and outreach, with easily accessible information right on their website for residents to find. From household hazardous waste options to guides on those pesky products that don’t belong in the bin, Pittsfield has it all.

But on top of that, the City created a fabulous video about recycling that every Pittsfield resident should watch! It includes Recycle Smart MA images – and even our quiz! Shout out to Public Services and Utilities Commissioner Ricardo Morales and the City of Pittsfield on their awesome trash and recycling campaign. Well done!

📚 What We're Reading/Watching/Listening to!

Cheers to a great 2022,

The Recycle Smart MA Team at MassDEP

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