I’ve been reassessing my grocery and other shopping, with an eye toward minimizing packaging waste. I immediately found out that I was too ignorant to do that. I didn’t know enough to be able to do make sensible choices.
As a result, this is a post about curbside recycling in my locality — Town of Vienna and Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s about household waste, and the recycling of cans, bottles, cardboard, and all the other stuff that goes into the household waste stream.
At a minimum, I’d like to know two things:
- What are the rules? What am I supposed to put in the recycling bin these days, in my community?
- Where does it go? How much of the material in the recycling bin actually gets recycled, versus being downcycled or burned-and-buried?
To cut to the chase, I’ve only gotten through Part 1: What are the rules? And as far as I can tell, it’s going to be impossible to get accurate information on Part 2: Where does it go. So this may be as much as I can do without involving a whole lot of guesswork.
Just the review of the rules in my locality told me things that I was absolutely not aware of. In large part because those rules keep changing. The recycling rules (here, at least) are now totally oriented toward cleaner separation of materials, not toward keeping certain types of raw materials in or out of the waste stream.
One surprise is that those “chasing arrows” plastic recycling numbers are now totally irrelevant in my locality. The modern plastic recycling rules are all about shape and color, and have almost nothing to do with the type of plastic being recycled.
Another surprise is that you should never recycle black plastic of any type. At least, not in this locality. This has has nothing to do with the type of plastic. The main reason is that recyclers rely on reflected light to separate the plastics, and black plastic simply messes up the separation process by reflecting too little light.
A third item that I was aware of, but only in part, is that you should never recycle plastic films of any sort. That includes plastic bags, which I already knew. But the rules really mean to exclude bags plus stretch film, shrink wrap, plastic sheeting, and so on. It’s not that the type of plastic itself isn’t recyclable, it’s that it soft sheets of plastic, of any type, gum up the works as recyclers try to separate the materials.
A fourth surprise was the broad range of paper products that can be recycled. In a nutshell, if it’s all-paper or cardboard, not shredded, not too soft (like facial tissue or toilet paper), and not too hard (like the cover of a hardback book), it goes into the recycling. In particular, glossy catalogs are OK, junk mail is OK, and so on. (But not paper plates, presumably from the large amount of food residue typically present.)
You will get mixed messages in two areas: Milk cartons/juice boxes, and pizza boxes. In both cases, the firm that actually does the recycling in Fairfax County give you an absolute, unambiguous NO. NO, do not put milk cartons, juice boxes, or pizza boxes into the recycling bin. For whatever reason, some local governments tell you otherwise. But the rule is, when in doubt, leave it out. And if the firm doing the actual materials separation says NO, I think that means NO.
One small surprise is that aerosol cans may be recycled, as long as they are empty. I’d have sworn that the last time I looked at this issue, they weren’t recyclable. But they are now, as long as they’re empty. Reddi-Wip is back on the menu.
A final surprise is that Fairfax County’s glass recycling program has turned out far better than planned. Originally, they were just going to grind the glass up and use it as road fill. (And so, that was not really different from being buried in a landfill.) But, in fact, the quality of the end product is such that they are able to sell most of it to glass manufacturers. It’s actually being recycled into new glass.
Background and caveats
What set me on this path is the fallout from China. Prior to 2018, a large portion of our plastic and paper waste went to China. In fact, a large fraction of the world’s recyclable plastic and paper went there. In effect, we handed them our problem and they dealt with it in some fashion. But they quit taking in the world’s trash that year, and the U.S. recycling industry has been try to adjust ever since.
The upshot is that once China stopped taking these wastes, a lot less of it appeared to be recycled. You’ll see news reporting on the low fraction of plastic that is actually recycled, versus the fraction burnt or landfilled.
If you’d been paying attention, the incineration of any non-recycled materials, including materials you thought would be recycled, would not be news. Keeping in mind that trash and recylables are two different waste streams, in Fairfax County, the overwhelming majority of the trash stream is incinerated now, and the ash is landfilled after being sifted for recoverable metal. (Fairfax County operates one of the largest trash-to-energy incinerators in the U.S.A.). If they didn’t do that, they’d have run out of landfill space years ago.
First caveat: Near as I can tell, it’s impossible to say what fraction of the stuff in your recycle bin actually gets recycled. It’s not just that you can’t find that information for any given locality, such as Fairfax County. It’s also that national estimates, via the U.S. E.P.A., pre-date China’s decision to stop taking waste, and also commingle the household and commercial waste streams.
Sure, you can find the fraction of the household waste stream that is picked up in the recycle bins. But you can’t get good information on what happens to it after that. How much of that tonnage ends up being incinerated or landfilled anyway?
Second caveat: YMMV. Everybody’s rules are different. And I don’t just mean, across the country. I mean that even within this one Virginia county, the exact rules for recycling will depend on who is picking up your trash. In Fairfax County, 90% of the population has private trash service whose rules may differ from those of Fairfax County’s own trash collection. In this posting, I’m looking at the rules for customers served directly by the Town of Vienna or County of Fairfax. But even if you live in those areas, if your trash is picked up by a private trash hauler, your rules might be somewhat different.
The upshot is that this post only has value in so far as most urban curbside recycling is trending in the same direction. Because, in fact, I’m going to talk about the rules here, which may or may not match the rules elsewhere. Really, the only way to know the exact rules you face is to look them up.
Third caveat: It’s hard even finding out who actually handles your recycling. Our municipalities pick it up from the curb, then hand it off to a “materials recovery” firm for the actual recycling. For every government entity in Fairfax other than the Town of Vienna, American Disposal Services (ADS) handles the actual recycling. It’s a good guess that ADS handles recycling for Vienna as well.
That’s either stated directly or in the on-line listing of contracts for Fairfax County, Fairfax City, Falls Church City, and Tow of Herndon). The Town of Vienna website does not disclose that information, but based on one chart posted in the recycling area of the website, it appears that ADS handles recycling for Vienna as well.
Fourth caveat: The list of recycling rules only addresses common objects. It’s not the full list of what the recycler can and cannot handle. To be sure about uncommon items, you need to see the details. In Fairfax, the recycling contractor’s website gives you easy access to the details, via the American Disposal Services lookup tool.
If you use that tool long enough, you’ll realize that there are discrepancies between what your local government may tell you and what the actual recycler says. In my case, the Town of Vienna says that clear plastic “clam shell” containers should not be put in the recyling bin. But the actual recycler, ADS, say that they will recycle them. Pizza boxes are another one. Most localities around here say that you can put the non-greasy portion of a pizza box into the recycle bin. But the actual recycler, ADS, says “no pizza boxes”, period.
Plausibly, some of these discrepancies may be driven by typical household behavior or by the economics of the recycling contracts. There probably is no reason that the clean top of a pizza box could not be recycled. But as soon as you say that pizza boxes are OK, people will just chuck them into the recycling whole. And the cost of the contract with the recycler probably depends on the quality of the materials coming out of the waste stream. If the recycler can handle clear plastic “clam shell” packaging, but it is costly to do so, a municipality could plausibly direct its citizens to put them in the trash, not based on any technical criterion, but more as a cost-saving measure, to provide a higher-quality (lower-cost) recycling stream to the recycler.
A few years back, In the Town of Vienna, I recall the Director of Public Works offering the offhand advice to put glass in the trash, not the recycling. At that time, the recycler was handling glass. But the heavy weight of the glass made it cheaper to deal with as trash instead of as recycling. Glass was feasible but costly to recycle, and the least-cost solution for the Town of Vienna was to put it in the trash, not the recycling.
The rules in my locality
Here, I’m referring to the recycling pages for the Town of Vienna and County of Fairfax, VA. I’m also making extensive use of the American Disposal Services lookup tool, as directed by the Fairfax County website.
As noted earlier, the recycling rules for plastic are all about the shape, color, and consistency of the plastic. With the exception of Styrofoam, they have nothing to do with the type of plastic, or what the container formerly held.
- Ignore the chasing-arrows symbol and the little numbers. They are now irrelevant.
- Recycle any type of bottle, jar, or tub, regardless of what it once contained, except those made out of black plastic.
- Other solid plastics (jugs, buckets, even toys) are recyclable, except those made out of black plastic.
- Do NOT recycle black plastic.
- Do NOT recycle plastic film of any sort (bags, cling wrap, shrink wrap).
- Do NOT recycle styrofoam
- Arguably, do NOT recycle clear plastic “clam shell” containers.
No black plastic. Town of Vienna mentions this explicitly, as does Fairfax’s contractor, American Disposal Services. Upon Googling it, black plastic is undesirable for a lot of reasons, the first of which is that it can’t be properly sorted by the recycling machinery because it doesn’t reflect enough light. This, in turn, disrupts the sorting of the rest of the plastic. Every source says to put black plastic in the trash.
Clear plastic “clam shell” containers. This is a split decision. Fairfax’s contractor says that they are OK for recycling. Town of Vienna says that they are not. I believe that the rationale for excluding them is that many are made from polystyrene (Styrofoam, less the foam), which is not recyclable in this area.
Fairfax’s contractor, ADS: Recycle it:
Vienna: Don’t recycle it, because Fairfax County doesn’t recycle them. Which, per above, does not appear to be true. Or, at least, the recycler accepts them.
The rule is “when in doubt, leave it out”. I’m putting those clear clamshell containers in the trash for now.
Former contents of the plastic bottle do not matter. As far as I can tell, absolutely without exception, they don’t care what used to be in that plastic bottle. I kept looking for some exceptions, but they list none. For example, in the past, you weren’t supposed to recycle motor oil bottles. But as far as I can tell, all restrictions based on the content of the plastic bottle have been lifted.
Transmission fluid? Drain cleaner? Rat poison? Maybe you’re supposed to recognize these as household hazardous waste, and so refrain from recycling the container on account of that. But if so, they’ve managed to hide that so well that I can’t find that guidance. Near as I can tell, if the container is empty, you can put the top on it and recycle it. That doesn’t seem right, but as far as I can tell, those are the rules.
Metal food containers
Think “flimsy” and “reasonably clean” and you’ll get it right. The recycling machinery is looking for standard food cans, beverage cans, empty aerosol cans, and the occasional wad of clean tin foil. The machinery is not designed to handle heavier-gauge metal or wire. Anything thicker than a soda can should be recycled as scrap metal, not as household recycling. Anything in the form of a wire, ditto.
- Near as I can tell, as long as its an all-metal food or beverage container, it’s recyclable.
- The lids from those cans should be recycled. I see conflicting instructions, to leave the lid loose in the recycling, or leave the lid inside the associated can. I don’t think that matters.
- It’s OK to recycle empty aerosol cans. But only if they are empty.
- Aluminum foil and disposable aluminum pans are OK to recycle, presumably if they are reasonably clean.
- Do NOT recycle any other types of metal objects. Anything stronger than a tin can should be disposed of as scrap metal, not as household recycling.
- In particular, do NOT recycle clothes hangers or wire. They get tangled in the machinery.
- “Cardboard cans” are acceptable for recycling, such as orange juice containers.
All sources are silent on metal non-food containers. The classic Band-Aid box would be an example. My guess is that anything up to the the size and strength of a classic “coffee can” would be acceptable, but that’s just a guess on my part.
Cardboard and paper
As far as I can tell, almost any type of paper or cardboard product is acceptable for recycling, with a few exceptions. As with plastic, these all seem oriented toward keeping the recycling machinery from getting fouled.
- Do NOT recycle soft products such as bath tissue or toilet paper.
- Do NOT recycle hardback books unless you tear the covers off first.
- Do NOT recycle pizza boxes. That’s what ADS says, even if your jurisdiction says that the clean portion of pizza boxes is acceptable.
- Do NOT recycle paper plates. That’s what ADS says.
- Junk mail, slick catalogs, newspapers, phone books, paperback books, office paper — all of them can go in the recycling bin.
- Do NOT recycle milk cartons, kid’s juice boxes, and similar — see below. ADS (the recycler) clearly tells you NOT to recycle these. I think many of them fall under the final rule:
- Do NOT recycle products in which paper is bonded to other materials, such as foil-surfaced wrapping paper, foil-lined juice boxes, foil-lined cardboard “cans”, or similar.
The big murky area here is products that contain paper bonded to other materials. These may look like paper or cardboard, but are actually composites of paper and other materials. Kids’ juice boxes are a classic example. Those are almost all paper/foil laminates.
Milk cartons and juice boxes are a tough call due to mixed messages. Fairfax County says they are OK as a part of mixed paper recycling. Fairfax County’s recycling contractor ADS says they should not be recycled. Under the rule of “when in doubt, leave it out”, I am putting waxed-paper milk cartons and similar into the trash.
Fairfax county says yes:
ADS, the actual recycler, says NO NO.
From what I understand, the ADS position makes a lot more sense. Those juice boxes are paper/plastic/foil laminates, and as far as I know, they are not recyclable in this area. Under the general rule (when in doubt …), leave it out.
Another common example of paper/foil laminates is “cans” made of cardboard bonded to metal or plastic linings. For example, almost all coffee “cans” that you see in the store are actually cardboard bonded to metal foil and plastic. As far as I have been able to determine, products like that are absolutely un-recyclable.
On the issue of coffee packaging, my wife spotted one manufacturer that still puts their coffee in actual steel coffee cans. This is now so unusual that they advertise that fact on the can itself. Like so, from Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee:
Glass food containers
The only rule here is that you only recycle glass food and beverage containers. No other type of glass.
These days, you aren’t supposed to put glass into the recycling bin. Instead, either put it in the trash, or take it to one of the big purple dumpsters that Fairfax County has placed in various locations. In the Town of Vienna, that’s on Mill Street.
But what about the metal screw-on lids? Per ADS, yes, put the metal lids into the recycling bin:
I was pleased to read that the Fairfax County glass recycling program actually does recycle the glass. This, from the 2019 report of the Northern Virginia Waste Management Board.
Fairfax County is operating glass crushing and cleaning equipment to process glass collected in the region’s Purple Can Club, ... Most of the recovered glass is clean enough to be marketed directly to glass beneficiators, who in turn supply glass cullet to manufacturers’ which make bottles, glass fiberglass, and other high-end glass product manufacturers. Crushed product is also used locally for a variety of construction applications, as well as for use as filter media and aesthetic applications.
That’s an improvement over the original goals of the program. If you go to the glass recycling dumpsters at the I-66 landfill, you an see a little display of what Fairfax originally intended to do with the glass. They were going to grind it and use it for road fill. Effectively, they were going to bury it under roads, instead of in the landfill. Now, it appears to be of sufficient quality that they can sell it.
Rough guesses about the fraction that’s actually recycled.
So far, all I’ve managed to work out is the rules for what should and shouldn’t go into the recycle bin. I still have no clear idea of the fraction of that material is actually recycled.
It’s a pretty good guess that all or nearly all the metal put into the recycling bin actually is recycled. As I understand it, that’s the profitable part of the recycling stream, and separating out those metals is fairly straightforward. As noted above, it’s even worth separating them out of the post-incineration ash from the Fairfax Count trash-to-energy incinerator.
For glass, deposited in the big purple dumpsters around the county, most is recycled into new glass, some is down-cycled into road fill. So there is some assurance that in my community, if you can get the glass into the dumpster, it will (mostly) be recycled.
For paper products, I’m not sure how much is actually recycled out of the local recycling stream. My understanding is that the recycling rate for corrugated cardboard is extremely high, but that’s mostly due to commercial establishments (e.g., grocery stores) crushing and baling clean cardboard cartons. It’s far from clear what fraction of paper and cardboard is actually recycled from our local household recycling stream. Seems like that should be “knowable”, but I haven’t found it yet.
The biggest unknown is plastic. This is the one you see in the news reporting, showing that an abysmally small fraction of plastic in the recycle bin actually gets recycled. Barring any better information, I think I’ll try to reduce plastics as a portion of total packaging.
A few tentative rules
Even without hard numbers on the fraction that actually gets recycled, I have some tentative ideas of how to modify my purchases. At least a bit, in light of what the recycling rules are telling me.
First, any sort of take-out meal or food packed in black plastic is just kind of dumb. If they’d just use the same plastic, in a different color, it might be recyclable. But black plastic is absolutely un-recyclable in this area, and if you toss it into the recycle bin, it screws up the recycling of other plastics, to boot. It’s worse than Styrofoam. It’s essentially negative recycling, in that it ends up pulling recyclable materials out of the waste stream. I’m just not going to patronize restaurants that pack their take-out in black plastic.
Second, buying produce at the grocery store is a challenge if you are determined not to buy items with non-recyclable packaging. If you can’t recycle clear “clam shell” containers, and you can’t recycle plastic film of any sort, you have few choices, particularly for delicate items like berries. I’m still pondering my options.
Third, I see few options for buying fresh fish or meat at the grocery store, if the goal is to avoid non-recyclable packaging. Plastic wrap over a Styrofoam tray is the standard for most. Whole Foods sells chicken in solid-plastic packaging, but that’s covered with a plastic film.
I can get less total packaging if I avoid pre-packaged meats and instead have the grocer pick out and weigh individual portions from the meat case. There, the only packaging is (probably) non-recyclable butcher paper and a thin plastic bag. Certainly, the volume of materials is lower than with a standard Styrofoam tray.
I guess this is all the more reason to eat fewer animal products.
Fourth, soft drinks, beer, and similar seem to be a no-brainer. Buy it in cans, or don’t buy it at all. I’m pretty sure that if you get a clean aluminum can into the recycling bin, it will be recycled.
Fifth, anything packed in glass seems like fair game, as long as I spend minimal fossil fuel in getting that glass container to the dedicated purple glass-recycling dumpster in town. But I really need to know more to make that call. In general, glass is heavy, and so imposes a fossil-fuels-use penalty, for shipping the food around, compared to other materials.
Sixth, non-recyclable composite materials are hard to avoid in some areas. Of those, coffee stands out. Virtually all high-end bulk coffee in bags is in non-recyclable packaging. The bags are laminates of paper, plastic, and foil, and as such, I’m pretty sure they should not be put in with the recycling under any circumstances. Bulk coffee in plastic tubs usually comes in an HDPE container with a polypropylene lid, and so is semi-recyclable, at least in theory. Really, the only bulk coffee in a guaranteed-recyclable container is Chock Full o’ Nuts, as pictured above, in a traditional steel can. (I don’t use Keurig-cup-style individual-serving coffee so I have no opinion on that.)
The upshot is that I think I can reduce my total non-recyclable packing burden, somewhat, with a few modest adjustments in what I buy. But the big unknown remains plastic, and what fraction of household recyclable plastic actually ends up being recycled.