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SALT LAKE CITY — Before you throw out that plastic container, take a look at the number on the bottom.
The rules of recycling have changed and items that used to be OK no longer belong in your recycling bin.
No one knows that better than Jeremy Macdonald, who is religious about recycling. As a sustainability director, he’s helped coordinate recycling programs for several large workplaces including Adobe and Hewlett-Packard.
“It’s been something I’ve been worried about for a long time,” said Macdonald. “I hate waste. It just bothers me when things get thrown away. So I try to minimize the waste we create.”
For decades, America shipped much of its recyclables to China. But China no longer wants several types of waste.
“Things have to be almost brand new to be accepted as recyclables there,” explained Macdonald. “It used to be close to a $100 a ton for some of the recyclable content we sent them. The market now doesn’t support that. It’s $20 or $30 a ton.”
That means many recyclables are now either being stockpiled waiting for a new market to open or they are ending up in landfills.
“You kind of think if it is plastic, paper, glass or metal I can just throw it in the can and I don’t have to worry about it anymore,” remarked Macdonald. “We call that aspirational recycling.”
The sustainability manager for Salt Lake County agrees.
“We have to look at what we’re putting in our recycling bin,” said Ashlee Yoder. “So further down the line that material becomes marketable and manufacturers can use it again to manufacture new products.”
Yoder says putting the wrong materials in your recycling bin causes contamination.
“Most of that material will go to the landfill. And again, it’s not through a lack of trying,” explained Yoder. “Certainly, we don’t want to spend money sorting through this material and picking it up on the curb, hauling it to a recycling facility, sorting through it only to find out that it can’t be used and will end up in the landfill.”
In Ogden, contamination is making nearly two of every five recycling bins unable to be processed for recycling.
“We really have to police those cans now, on a one-on-one basis,” said Gina Hughes, the solid waste supervisor for Weber County. “We have someone start at 6 a.m. just to go looking in recycling cans and tagging them.”
The city has instituted a three-strike rule. Recycle the wrong stuff three times and they will take your recycling bin away.
“Suspended for a year,” explained Hughes. “We’re not condemning you because everybody is going through this change. Everybody is learning. What we’re trying to avoid is people using that blue can as a secondary garbage can.”
So what items don’t belong in a recycling bin?
1. Plastic shopping bags
Both Yoder and Hughes say the plastic bags, even ones marked recyclable, are no longer accepted.
“When they’re all twisted up and bound up, number one, they cause damage to our trucks,” said Hughes.
She says hydraulic machinery inside the recycling trucks that push and compact the recyclables get hot and cause the bags to melt onto the machinery and damage it.
The bags also gum up conveyor belts at the recycling plant.
“It’s really expensive and time consuming for our processors to remove this plastic from their machinery,” remarked Yoder.
Shopping bags can be taken to drop-offs at supermarkets instead. They will be sent to a specialized recycler.
2. Yogurt cups and other plastic containers
Plastic containers like yogurt cups, butter tubs, cottage cheese and sour cream tubs, ketchup bottles, shampoo bottles, plastic drink cups from fast food restaurants and theaters among many other containers cannot go into curbside recycling.
They are likely made of plastics numbered 3 to 7, and China now refuses to import those plastics.
“Look at the bottom of the containers so we can check the numbers inside the chasing arrows recycling symbol,” said Hughes.
3. Disposable coffee cups
Disposable cups from the coffee shop also need to go in the trash. Their plastic or wax liner makes them unrecyclable.
“It’s a combination material,” described Yoder. “It’s not really recyclable as paper and it’s not really recyclable as plastic. So bring your own cup to the coffee shop instead.”
4. Contaminated recyclables
China has also become far stricter on the contamination of recyclables it does take.
Don’t recycle a pizza box that has cheese or grease residue.
Plastic on tissue boxes or recyclables inside plastic bags would also make the entire load contaminated and it ends up in the landfill.
“To follow good recycling practices it takes a little work,” said Macdonald. “In many cases the containers you have can’t have food waste. And, if you send it really dirty to the recycling facility, they have to push it out of their streams and it just ends up in the landfill that way."
Utah recycling programs info:
- Brigham City:www.bcutah.org
- Davis County:www.daviscountyutah.gov
- Salt Lake County:https://slco.org
- Tooele County:www.co.tooele.ut.us
- Utah County:www.utahcounty.gov
- Washington County:www.wcsw.org
Don't see your info? Utah Dept. of Environmental Quality lists recycling information for Utah by counties here:https://deq.utah.gov.