There’s a small sense of victory we get when we located a recycling bin in a public place, or realize how much we’re keeping out of the waste stream when we sort and recycle our trash at home. And why shouldn’t there be? Global plastic consumption is way up—from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009. Unfortunately, a lot of what you think you’re recycling, you may not be. Here are the main reasons what you sort isn’t always ending up where it ought to.
You’ve probably noticed that paper plates, cups, and cardboard takeout containers, like pizza boxes, proudly sport recycling logos. Unfortunately, once used they’re essentially impossible to recycle. That’s because the grease and food that gets into the paper is almost impossible to get out. This is true for pizza boxes, soiled paper napkins, paper bags with baked goods… the list goes on.
While plastics with remnants of mayo or peanut butter can be rinsed clean and then recycled, paper is just not that way. If you're trying to be eco-conscious, you’re better off composting all your cardboard and paper food containers—or foregoing them altogether. In many cases, a single contaminated paper plate can render the entire contents of a recycling bin contaminated.
“Soiled paper contains short fibers, which microorganisms in compost love, and soiled paper absorbs moisture in compost collection bins, which helps control odor,” Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology, told Smithsonian Magazine.
Juice boxes, toothpaste tubes, or drink cartons are great for being lightweight and flexible. But they’re nightmares for recycling plants, where it’s easiest to recycle single materials.
It’s incredibly difficult to separate a foil lining from a cardboard juice box, although each material would theoretically be recyclable. Some facilities have “hydro-pulping” machines that can automatically separate materials like this, but many recycling plants will no longer accept them—or worse, the entire load of recyclables can be turned away and rerouted to a landfill.
While certain locations may abide by the recycling logo on your expanded polystyrene packaging, most won’t. Reason being, Styrofoam is made from plastic #6. And the higher the number, the harder it is to recycle. And the truth is, most Styrofoam is used for making food packaging like coffee mugs and takeout containers. Similar to the paper conundrum, contaminated Styrofoam will only end up one place: the landfill, where it will sit for about 500 years before decomposing.
There are so many ways to avoid all these hard-to-recycle packages: bring your own containers, eat everything on your plate, and dine in instead of taking out. Instead of juice boxes, buy sippy cups and brew your own teas and juices. Not only will you be healthier, you’ll also be creating a significant dent in the waste stream—and that’s something we can all benefit from.