Worst Mistakes in Waste Diversion
Tips to get recycling, garbage, and composting right.
Illustration by Minwoo Park
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There’s no doubt that people in Oakland and Alameda have the best intentions about recycling and protecting Earth. But as you step up to your three big garbage containers to get rid of your stuff, something strange happens. You feel like you need a Ph.D. to figure out what goes where.
There are six types of plastics, and I can’t even read the numbers on the containers … where does that one go? What about those dog food cans lined in plastic? Is my garden hose recyclable? What about my clothes hangers?
We’ve come up with some of the biggest mistakes in each container by talking to the pros at Waste Management, which has collected garbage in Oakland for a century, and StopWaste.org, the Alameda County agency charged with cutting down on the tons of trash that end up in the Altamont landfill. In Alameda, the franchise hauler in waste diversion efforts is Alameda County Industries.
1. One of the most common mistakes is that people put clothing into the recycle bin. Not only can clothes not be recycled, but they can also damage the belts and screens at the recycling center. The best way to get rid of the dresses, pants, coats, and shoes you outgrow is to donate, resell, or give them to friends.
“People get confused between reuse and recycling,” said Rebecca Parnes, public sector manager for Waste Management. “They are correct in wanting to keep them out of the landfill, but the best solution is with secondhand opportunities, like clothing swaps or secondhand stores.”
2. Garden hoses, computer wires, cords and hangers can’t be recycled and will rip up the wheels and screens of the conveyers at the recycling plant. The rule of thumb is that to be recyclable, a product has to be mostly made of one material. Those things are all a mishmash of plastic, metals, rubber, and need to be sacked in the trash.
3. No food or drink in the recycle bin. Pizza boxes are a no-no, because even the cleanest looking ones are saturated in grease, although they can be disposed of properly. Cans and bottles should be rinsed out or emptied, because their liquids will not only contaminate the recycling, they will also stink things up on their long sail to China, where most plastic is recycled.
“We don’t require that they be sparkling clean,” Parnes said. “We need them to be empty. If you are in a public place and you see half full beverage containers in the bins, that’s the type of contamination that creates a larger issue.” You can lightly rinse out cans and bottles at home without using a ton of water, Parnes said.
4. All clean paper is good, but shredded paper is bad. The fibers needed to make new paper have been taken out of shredded paper, so it should go in the trash. They don’t want paper that has hugged food, because it can get moldy.
5. Hard plastic is recyclable. Soft plastic isn’t. Plastics numbered 1, 2, or 5 are always recyclable (the numbers are on the bottom in an arrow).
“If it holds its shape, it’s probably recyclable,” Parnes said.
That means jugs, tubs, and bottles made of more rigid plastic. Tubes, like the ones that hold toothpaste and some shampoos, can’t be recycled. Parnes said she’s been disappointed to see that even some companies making organic products use the soft, unrecyclable plastic. Avoid those. But do recycle plastic party cups and iced venti- whatever cups from your local faux-Italian coffee- shop.
1. Don’t forget the bathroom. A lot of people give up on recycling when they leave the kitchen, but experts say that there is plenty in the bathroom that shouldn’t end up in the gray bin, which goes directly to the landfill.
2. Put hard shampoo bottles, the cardboard inside the toilet paper rolls, empty aerosol cans, and hard sunscreen bottles into the recycle bin. Razors and toothbrushes, however, belong in the trash.
3. Don’t put electronics or hazardous waste in the bin. Oakland has a yearly free bulky items pickup and you can bring old paint, insecticides, flammable or poisonous products to facilities in Oakland (2100 E. Seventh St.), Livermore, Hayward, and Fremont.
4. Don’t throw away clothes hangers; return them to the dry cleaner.
5. You don’t have to throw food into the garbage anymore. It can go in the compost bin, with the plant remains. All of it: meat, bones, anything eaten from animals, paper plates that touched food, and even pizza boxes can now go in the compost bin. Oakland’s landfill is one of only two in the country that convert methane gas into liquid natural gas, which is used to power the garbage trucks.