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.
Continue reading Post #G21-021, the state of recycling in my area.