How to Recycle? That Is the Question
When it comes to confusion about recycling, I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
Forty-plus years after Benjamin's befuddlement in The Graduate, there is still general confusion when it comes to plastics and recycling in general.
All of us, my DH (dear husband) and our 6-year-old son included, are becoming better foot soldiers in my little Operation Green. Paper goes in the colorful woven basket from Ghana -- OK, I'm the only one who remembers to flatten everything, including tissue boxes -- while glass, plastic, and metal are tossed together in a bin under the kitchen sink. (We really mix it up here in the big city.) I've also been doing a better job of reusing things like aluminum foil; Mom would be so proud!
But it's New York City's convoluted, confounding laws governing plastics recycling that really keep tripping us up. At the risk of looking like a dolt, I have literally grabbed my very patient neighbor Amanda, who has taken it upon herself to keep our building up on all the recycling rules, even sending out monthly reminders. Her bottom line: Only narrow-neck plastic bottles and jugs can be recycled.
Now that I knew the broad strokes, I needed to find out why. So I checked out New York City's NYCWasteLe$$ recycling site. (Note: To add to the confusion, every city has different rules and restrictions, so check with your local recycling authority.) There, I learned that we can only recycle plastic bottles and jugs made with No. 1 PET and No. 2 HDPE plastics. Other plastic containers -- including berry, yogurt, prewashed salad, and Chinese food containers -- may have resins that could contaminate the "good" recyclables and must therefore be trashed.
In some places, including San Francisco, all plastics go in the recycling bin. But that doesn't mean they're all recycled. According to NYCWasteLes$$$, only No. 1 and No. 2 plastics are actually used while the others are usually sorted out and discarded at the plant. The thinking goes that if you take out the guesswork, the net result will be more "good" plastics recycled. Here in New York City, high labor and transportation costs have ruled out this system.
I was somewhat encouraged to learn there are some forward-thinkers in city hall. New York's new Solid Waste Management Plan, which details how we'll handle our tons upon tons of trash for the next 20 years, includes a directive to explore how we might recycle additional plastics. But we don't have to wait for the excruciatingly slow wheels of government to turn. The city's site reports that the Preserve Gimme 5 program enables recycling of No. 5 plastics like some yogurt cups, hummus tubs, and other food containers, along with Brita® pitcher filters. You can look for collection bins at participating Whole Foods.
You can learn some pretty amazing stuff just by skimming through your city's recycling website. I even happened upon the answer to a question that has been bugging me: Yes, I can recycle those envelopes with plastic windows. (I'd actually started tearing out the plastic before recycling the envelope!)
Upon receiving Amanda's July recycling reminder, I e-mailed back to tell her I'd noticed that some people were dumping plastic bags full of paper, glass, and the like into the building's recycling bins. I wondered, wouldn't these bags contaminate the lot? I was feeling particularly gung-ho, having just written my two-parter on the joys of BYOB'ing (Bring Your Own Bag) vs. taking stores' plastic bags.
So I was thrilled to see Amanda's addendum to this month's "Do's and Don'ts":
* Plastic bags are reusable and recyclable by returning them to supermarkets. [Note: New York State's Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act, which came into effect in January, requires large retail and chain stores to accept clean plastic bags for recycling.] Please do not dispose of your recyclables in anything other than clear recycling plastic bags. Recyclables should be emptied from any other plastic bags into the bins and the bags should be reused or disposed of separately. Having plastic bags mixed in with the glass, cans, and paper goods contaminates the recyclables. Thanks, Amanda!
Meanwhile, back on the home front, I continue to find yogurt cups and the like in the bin below the sink. But I've learned it's best to just fish them out and throw them in the garbage, rather than make a big stink. Just the other night, as I was dumping a huge prewashed salad container into the trash, my DH asked, "So that's not recyclable?" He noticed! He really noticed!