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The Recycling Journey

Proper planning, preparation and packing determine whether recyclables will have a second life.

By Kimberly Monaghan | Photography by Johnny Quirin

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

Elbow deep in a mass of recyclables, trash and contaminants, workers at materials recovery facilities spend hours sorting, searching and salvaging recyclables for the trip to the manufacturer’s mill.

But the journey for paper, plastics, metal and glass doesn’t begin here. It starts at home.

The determinate of whether a plastic bottle will see a second life as a T-shirt or car bumper lies in the hands of the consumer. The recycling journey begins with planning, preparation and packing. As manufacturers incorporate more recycled content into their products, they look to materials recovery facilities for raw materials, and those organizations turn to consumers.

Before setting recyclables out at the curb, consumers need to start with a plan. Determining what items are accepted at curbside pickup is the first step. Each waste organization provides its customers with a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to filling the recycling bin.


The common list of acceptable items includes newspaper, office paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and steel. As the market for materials grows and processing technology improves, companies have expanded their intake lists to include grocery bags, magazines, catalogs, junk mail, aerosol cans with caps off, and paperboard cereal and shoe boxes.

Some items are not accepted.

Clamshell packaging that is made from plastic and cardboard is not readily processed. Neither are bakeware, hangers, foil-backed paper, utensils, mirrors and packaging peanuts.

Each plastic container has an imprint that identifies whether it is accepted for recycling. Numbers 1-7 are OK, though plastics that once contained automotive fluids or hazardous materials will be rejected.

Complex items, such as electronics, toys and rubber products, may be recycled but cannot be accepted at curbside.

“We can’t recycle Styrofoam or salt bags,” said Kathy Babins, resource recovery specialist with Kent County Department of Public Works. “Just because it’s plastic doesn’t mean it’s recyclable.”

To prepare for pick up, items should be clean, dry and empty.

“We had a lady drop off cans half filled with dog food,” Babins said. “That created a health hazard.”

To prevent health risks, contamination and loss of materials, caps should be removed from containers, which should be rinsed and air dried before being placed in the bin. Unless the consumer is able to remove all traces of the product, items such as peanut butter jars and soup cans with residue will be tossed.

“Landfills aren’t just holes in the ground. There’s a lot of finance invested in their engineering and maintenance.”
— Kathy Babins

Items difficult to sanitize, such as toothpaste tubes, also aren’t recyclable.

Paper products — the largest component of the waste stream — sometimes also create problems, especially paper plates stained with food, waxed paper and dirty paper towels.

“You might have someone say, ‘I know that they can recycle cardboard, so I’ll just put my pizza box in there,’ and it’s covered with cheese,” said Tom Horton, vice president of Midwest public affairs for Waste Management. “Those contaminated materials are sent to the disposal facility.”

Properly preparing and packing items at curbside prevents delays.

“We take care of labels or drying soaked paper when it comes in to the center,” said Babins. “But we don’t have the manpower or resources to separate things like cardboard oatmeal container lids from their plastic rims.”

Keeping paper goods together in paper grocery bags, removing the metal strips from cardboard boxes that contained foil and plastic wrap, pulling metal handles off plastic containers, and separating clean glass jars from their metal or plastic lids are important steps.

“Instructions are provided on our Web site,” explained Nate Croff, co-owner of Exclusive Garbage and Recycling.

“For the most part, everybody does it right. I think the most difficult part about recycling for anybody is just getting into a routine. It’s like anything else: As soon as you make it part of your daily routine, it’s pretty easy to do.” GR

Kimberly Monaghan is a Grand Rapids Magazine contributing writer.

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