Mythbusting: 10 Common Misconceptions about Recycling and Composting

No matter where you are on your zero waste journey, one of the most important choices you can make is reducing the amount of things you consume and throw away. As part of a transition to a circular economy, it’s essential that we shift away from a disposable mindset of consuming and throwing away, and instead focus on repairing, reusing, borrowing, and repurposing items to keep them from landfill, recycling, and compost as long as possible. This article from Big Think lays out a clear argument for a circular economy and explains how to get there we need to totally rethink recycling and production- definitely check it out.  

circular economy Ellen McArthur foundation

Source: Ellen McArthur Foundation

That being said, it's easier said than done to switch to an entirely waste-free lifestyle for many reasons. 

Reusable items aren’t accessible or feasible for everyone, and many sources of waste are out of our control as individuals. A lot of us are on a journey towards zero waste, but we’re still going through disposable items we already have around the house or have no choice but to use; remember, the “perfect" zero-waster doesn’t exist! No matter where you are in this process, what’s important is that you’re making an effort where you can.

So, what are we supposed to do with the disposable items we do need to get rid of? 

Waste management systems vary from state to state and even city to city, so it can be hard to keep track of what to put in what bin. At this point, most of us know how harmful landfills are, but not everyone knows how important it is to also think about composting and recycling properly. However, after a visit to a Waste Management landfill and recycling plant, and working with compost on a farm, I have learned firsthand how essential it is that we do our best to sort our compost, landfill, and recycling in the right places. 

According to Waste Management, in 2017 over 27% of their recycling went to China and by 2018 that number dropped to zero.

In the summer of 2017, China and other key consumers of recycled raw materials released new standards for the quality of the recycling they would accept.

Part of this is due to contamination; in the US, the average rate of recycling contamination is 25% (i.e. the average recycling dumpster contains 25% non-recyclable material). However, even before the market in China started to shrink, most of what we put in our recycling bins was never turned into something new.

For compost, contamination is also a huge problem. Most industrial compost facilities rely on the material heating up to a certain temperature to ensure the breaking down of the organic matter, but too much contamination (i.e. non-compostable material) will inhibit this process and increase the decomposition time of compost, increasing the chance it will be sent to landfill instead of being properly composted. 

This means that in order to increase the amount of materials that actually get recycled and composted, it’s really important to brush up on your local waste management center’s rules to ensure you’re disposing of things properly. For instance, here is a comprehensive website for Albany, CA that answers lots questions and provides helpful graphics. 

This is an example of a graphic from Albany's website with specific information.

There are likely websites like this for your city, county, or local waste management company that can give you more specific information. 

However, we also have a list of general misconceptions that even the most diligent recyclers and composters might not know!

10 common misconceptions about recycling and composting myths or misconceptions that are keeping our waste systems from working their best: 

1) To go cups and boxes

This one can be confusing-- many to-go containers (think coffee cups, clamshells, etc) accidentally get put into recycling because on the outside, they look and feel like paper and cardboard. Unfortunately, most of these materials are lined with plastic or petroleum wax that makes them water and leak-proof, which means they can’t actually be recycled!

When items made of mixed materials (paper with plastic, aluminum and paper, etc) get sent to the recycling facility, they unfortunately have to go straight to landfill as there is no process to separate the different layers.

The good news is that it’s super easy to use your own reusable containers or coffee cup! The next time you go to the coffee shop or a restaurant to get take out, bring your own metal, glass, or wooden containers so that you can skip the single-use waste.

Examples of non-recyclable paper and plastic items include ice cream tubs, coffee cups, and to-go food containers. 

What to do: put to-go containers in the landfill, or switch to reusables. 

2) Bagging your recycling

This is one that I was super surprised to learn about! If you put your recycling in a plastic bag, not only will the bag go straight to landfill, but the materials within the bag likely won’t ever be recycled either. This is because of safety concerns for the workers who sort recycling on conveyor belts within the facility and because there is such a huge volume of materials coming through, they often don’t have time to open up bags, especially if they can’t see inside. 

What to do: Put your recycling into the bin loose (without a bag).  

However: always bag your trash to make sure all the small pieces will end up in landfills and will not be blown away when the bin is dumped into the truck.

bag recycling

3) Wet or food contaminated recycling

Due to the nature of recycling facilities and the strict standards of recycled material buyers, only dry and clean recycling products can be recycled. What’s worse, this means that if you put items in your recycling bin that are wet or have food remains, they can contaminate the entire bin so even other items that were clean and dry when they were put in the bin will now have to be sent to landfill. This is also a huge problem for dumpsters or bins without lids that are left outside. Entire dumpsters of perfectly recyclable paper products that have a slightly open lid during a rainstorm will be unable to be recycled and instead contribute to landfill. 

What to do: Completely empty all cans, bottles and containers and give them a quick rinse and dry before putting them in the recycling. Put a lid on outdoor recycling dumpsters. 

4) Tea bags and sleeves

My composting bin at home has an image of tea on it, and for a long time I thought this meant that tea bags (and the paper envelopes they often come in) could be composted. However, while the tea leaves themselves can (and should) go straight to compost, the bags themselves actually often contain plastic fibers, and therefore can’t be composted. The same goes for the little “paper” envelopes that tea bags sometimes come in; if you can feel any sort of waxy surface, this means that the paper is lined with something and cannot be recycled or composted. You can also see the plastic lining when you tear the paper slowly.

However, there are also some easy solutions to this problem. Firstly, it’s becoming increasingly common for bulk stores to sell loose-leaf tea in bulk, and there are lots of reusable mugs, kettles, and accessories (including reusable tea bags) to make steeping loose-leaf just as easy. However, if you can’t get around using tea bags, there are some that are sold in 100% natural fiber tea bags that can be fully composted (Numi tea, Republic of tea, Yogi Tea; ask your favorite brand about their tea bags!). 

What to do: Put most tea bags in the landfill, or switch to loose leaf tea and compost the leaves. If your favorite tea company uses plastic, send them an email to encourage them to switch! 

5) Compostable and biodegradable plastics

Many restaurants are getting around various city or county wide bans on single-use plastics by switching to “compostable” or “biodegradable” plastics, which claim to break down in industrial composting facilities. Both “biodegradable” and “compostable” bioplastics can technically break down into water, carbon, and compost within an environment that reaches very high temperatures for an extended time. However, the unfortunate reality is that most composting facilities don’t have the necessary infrastructure to break these plastics down, so even if they do make it to a compost facility in the first place, they will almost never break down like the other organics in the compost. Also, these plastics will not break down in a backyard compost pile.

What to do: Always check with your local waste company to see if they accept compostable plastics in the compost. If not, put compostable plastics in the landfill bin or opt for reusable items. 

 

While bioplastics may say "compostable" on them, check with your local waste company to find out if they can actually be composted where you live! 

6) Micro-plastics in your laundry

Many zero-waste households mention that they compost dryer lint as one of the steps they take towards making their houses more landfill-free. However, the problem is that many of the clothes we wear are made of synthetic materials, which means that during the washing and drying process they shed thousands of tiny plastic microfibers. These micro-plastics end up in water systems and eventually oceans, and if you dry your clothes they also end up in your dryer lint and in the air. You can read more about plastic-free laundry tips here!

What to do: Hang dry your synthetic clothes and wash them in a Guppy Bag. Install a microplastics filter on your washing machine. Switch to items made of natural fibers only (cotton, linen, hemp, wool...) and put your dryer lint in the landfill. 

 

This image shows the amount of microfibers caught by a Guppy Bag in just one load of laundry with mostly natural fiber clothes!  

7) Mixed materials

Circling back to the discussion of mixed materials, there are many items, like a notebook with a metal spiral binding, that cannot be recycled because they contain one or more materials. Even if both materials can be recycled (for instance, paper and metal), the infrastructure in the recycling facility isn’t set up to separate out these materials onsite so the entire item will end up in landfill. 

We love Wisdom Supply Company for their plastic-free stationary and supplies. Here's a fun post where they show how to separate the parts of notebooks to be recycled. They also have a super informative post on their website about the problem with markers and the myth of them being recyclable- definitely worth a read!

What to do: Buy items made of all one material (such as a completely paper notebook), or separate out the distinct materials manually before putting them in the bin. 

8) Receipts and small pieces of paper

This is a tricky issue because while paper is totally recyclable, small pieces of paper like post-its are too small to collect and be recycled so they will likely never be fully recycled.

What’s more, many small pieces of paper are coated with plastic (remember the tea bag sleeves!) or toxic chemicals like paper receipts coated with BPA. They can’t be recycled or composted.

What to do: Choose emailed, texted, or no receipts, and use a reusable option like a whiteboard or digital note-taking instead of post-its. Small pieces of white paper without plastic or toxic inks can be composted.

9) Aluminum foil

Aluminum is actually one of the most easily recycled materials, and can be recycled indefinitely while maintaining its durability! However, like paper, aluminum foil that arrives at the recycling facility in small pieces will likely not make it through the process because it tends to clog the machines or blow away.

What to do: Collect your clean and dry aluminum foil pieces into a ball bigger than your fist before putting it in the bin to ensure that it will be fully recycled. For a reusable option, check out these beeswax wraps from Abeego! 

10) Plastic bags and soft plastics

While you may have seen bins in grocery stores collecting plastic bags to "recycle," unfortunately plastic bags and soft plastics cannot be recycled. These materials clog the machines at recycling plants and have no value on the recycling markets. That's why they should instead be put into landfill.

If your local store says they collect soft plastics, ask them questions about their recycling program, to make sure it's not another greenwashing operation.

What to do: Use a reusable option, like a reusable tote bag, beeswax wrap, or other containers that can be cleaned and used over and over. If you do end up with a plastic bag and soft plastics, make sure it ends up in the landfill bin. 

At the end of the day, one of the most important things I’ve learned is: when in doubt, throw it out.

Although our instinct as environmentalists is to try to divert from landfill as much as possible, it’s actually better to put items that you're not sure about into landfill in order to reduce the risk of contamination. Avoid "Wishcycling"! It's really essential that everything that ends up at recycling and composting facilities can be processed properly and efficiently, because despite our best intentions, when we sort our compost and recycling waste incorrectly it ends up increasing the overall amount of waste and makes the workers' jobs at the recycling and composting facilities that much harder. 

With so much changing all the time in the recycled materials market, in technology, and in local government policy, it can be really overwhelming to keep track of all the correct rules.

In a lot of cases, the easiest step is to switch to items that you can reuse and share.

Check out our Plastic Free July challenges from 2018 and 2019 for a comprehensive explanation of more sustainable actions you can take to reduce your waste, shrink your carbon footprint, and get involved! 

Let us know which facts surprised you, or if there are any waste disposal myths that we missed!

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