Not ♻ll that’s labeled is recyclable: why size, composition and cleanliness make all the difference

By David Porte

The staff here at WMEAC jumped at the invitation to take a tour of the Kent County Recycling and Educational Center earlier this month.  What a great opportunity to catch a look at what happens to the recyclables once they leave our homes.  The tour showed us just how much work goes into the sorting process.  It takes 27 people to run!  But beyond that, the visit revealed a few things about recycling that everyone should be aware of.  


Size Matters!

The size of your recyclable is very influential in the sorting process.  Small plastic objects like lids and caps are too small to be sorted into bales of useable recyclables.  The best practice is to place these objects into larger plastic containers that are to be recycled.  Find a #3-#7 container and place the caps inside these.  Straws, however, cannot be recycled and should simply be thrown away.  Basic rule: if it doesn’t have a recycling triangle printed, it should not be recycled.


Milk jugs are compacted into bales and then shipped off to facilities that turn the jugs into usable products.


Boxed Water actually isn’t Better for Recycling

Boxed Water containers cannot be recycled because they contain different types of recyclables (and even non-recyclable materials) in their design.  The plastic cap and the cardboard container would each undergo a separate recycling process, but the wax lining makes the container non-recyclable (at least in Kent County, at least for now).  If you absolutely must buy a single-use container, stick with plastic bottles.  If you are so compelled to drink Boxed Water, there is a little more work that needs to be done in order for it to be even partially recycled.  The cap and plastic lip need to be removed and either thrown away or placed inside of another plastic container.  The rest of the box can then be composted.  This goes for any “boxed” container that has a plastic cap.


Boxed containers like these cannot be recycled! With a bit of work they can be composted. Photos by Jeff Tester.


Clean recyclables are good, very dirty recyclables are trash

The recycling process involves sorting and compacting similar recyclables into bales.  These bales are then shipped off and turned into usable products.  The ability of the recyclables to be turned into usable products depends on how “pure” the bales are.  Just as having a cardboard box mixed in with the plastics would diminish the purity of the product, so does dirt and other foreign substances.  When a recyclable is dirty, this contamination reduces the purity of the product.  Often, dirty recyclables have to be thrown into the landfill.  Simply giving your recyclables a quick rinse before they go into the recycling bin makes the product more pure, and keeps more potentially recyclable materials out of landfills.

Consider using the leftover water from washing dishes to clean recyclables!


Don’t flush your unused pills!

Past practices have instructed those who have old, unneeded prescription medications to simply flush them in order keep them out of the hands of children and others.  Our visit revealed to us that this practice is polluting our water with these various drugs.  Kent County has a program for disposing of these old prescriptions in a safe way that keeps them out of the wrong hands and our water.  The West Michigan Take Back Meds Program has 23 drop-off locations, most of which are pharmacies, throughout the Grand Rapids area.  The participating locations can be found here.


One More Thing


Photo by flickr user J_lai.

Kent County also has a program for properly disposing of used needles!  These needles, when thrown in the garbage, can injure and spread disease to waste handlers.  The SafeSharps program ensures that needles are disposed of in a safe and sterile way.  Residents can go to any Kent County health department site and pick up a free container to take home.  Once full, the container can be brought back to any KCHD facility and exchanged for a new one.  Help eliminate this hazard by participating in the SafeSharps program!  Learn more here.


1 reply
  1. Nichole Moses
    Nichole Moses says:

    The Grand Rapids city wide free recycling program is an amazing service, but some
    regulation needs to be adopted. It is frustrating when you are a conscious recycler and your neighbors are people who only seemingly use it as a means of relieveing their waste service expense. When you’re a conscious recycler, and your neighbor is a filling their recycling bin to overflowing with things obviously not “pure” and / or clearly non-recyclable, like old dirty carpeting, it ruins the efforts you take in making sure your recyclables are pure. How can we change this, or regulate the problem?


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