Ask ELi: Sticky and Slippery Recycling Questions Answered

Monday, May 2, 2016, 7:00 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

East Lansing’s new single-stream recycling program is now well-established, so we are bringing you answers to more reader questions about the program with the help of Cathy DeShambo, Environmental Services Administrator for the City.

Question about composite objects: Sometimes I have an object made up of multiple materials that East Lansing accepts in the single-stream recycling bin. For example, I might have a disposable razor that contains acceptable plastic and a metal blade, or I might have a metal can that has a paper label on it. Do I have to dissemble these objects before putting them in the recycling bin?

Answer: DeShambo replies that labels can stay on containers whether they are jars or cans. She adds that, “Mixed materials in small quantities are not problematic, generally, and where you can safely separate the materials, it would be preferred. However, the example of the razor is problematic from a safety aspect. While the plastic part would be fine to include in your recycling, the sharp, razor part would not be. I would suggest taping the sharp edge before disposing in refuse. The razor poses too great a risk to the workers at the material recovery facility who are sorting the collected materials.”

Question about envelopes with plastic windows: Can I put paper envelopes with plastic windows in the recycling bin, or do I need to pull off the plastic windows first?

Answer: You can put them in the recycling bin and there is “no need to pull off the plastic windows.”

Question about the peanut butter conundrum: Our household has an ongoing argument about plastic and glass peanut butter jars. One of us thinks they should be washed out and put in the recycling bin. One of us thinks that wastes way too much water and it’s better for the environment to simply throw out the peanut butter jar. A third person in our household says we should firmly affix the lid and put it in the recycling bin—that this will keep it clean enough to not mess up the system and that once it reaches the recycling plant it will get dissembled and the food waste will be flushed out. What’s the right answer?

Answer: DeShambo replies, “Are we talking smooth or chunky? Just kidding. Peanut butter is actually pretty hard to clean with water. I would suggest wiping out the remaining residue with paper towel or some other such material (you could use one that was soiled and being disposed of already) best you can and then putting the container in the cart, lid on if possible.”

Question about whether people are really recycling more: When last we checked in about how the new recycling program was going, the total weight of recycling was way up in the City of East Lansing, but the trash total weight was not dropping at the same level. This suggested that people might have been saving up recyclable materials in anticipation of the new system or that people who had been recycling materials elsewhere (like at MSU) were just switching over to recycling through East Lansing. (The latter seems likely to have happened for many of us since the new East Lansing system accepts far more types of material now, including material we used to take to MSU’s bins.) What do the numbers now tell us about what is likely going on in the City with regard to recycling behaviors?

Answer: DeShambo reports that “Recycling volumes remain high: from October-March we collected 655 tons of recyclables curbside compared with 320 tons collected during this same time period a year ago. We began weighing our refuse trucks daily in January/February in order to get the most accurate accounting of the volumes in the waste stream. We found that our waste stream volume was down by over 14% in February and over 12% in March. We think these numbers indicate that the complete story is a combination of factors, as you suggest. We have seen about a 25% dip in our drop off site volumes, as well.” She says this again suggests “the reasons are multi-faceted.”

DeShambo also told us about the problem occurring of people putting yard waste in their trash cans, now that their trash cans are less full. We reported on Friday why that is a problem.

Question about plastic bags: The bird seed I buy from Wild Birds Unlimited comes in plastic bags that are marked with a “4” recycling code. Can I put these bags in my single-stream East Lansing recycling bin?

Answer: “While the bag itself may be marked #4, we are not able to take plastic bags or plastic film of any kind,” says DeShambo. You should also never place recycling materials in plastic bags before putting them in the recycling bin. There is one and only one exception: “shredded paper must be enclosed in a clear plastic bag.”

DeShambo explains that “plastic bags increase costs for material recovery facilities, which means cost increase for communities, and plastic bags contaminate and lower the value of accepted recyclable materials. Plastic bags are one of our most problematic materials in the recycling stream. Our material recovery facility, ReCommunity, does not allow them for good reason: Employee Safety.”

Why are plastic bags a safety issue? According to ReCommunity, "Our employees sort recyclables by hand and are in direct contact with every piece of material that is delivered to our Recovery Facilities. When plastic bags are improperly mixed in with acceptable recyclable materials, the bags entwine in the equipment. This causes unsafe conditions and downtime to clear the equipment so it works properly." Take a look at the two photos below to see what kind of gunking-up of the system we are talking about with plastic bags.

DeShambo notes “that many grocery stores, including Meijer, accept clean plastic bags for recycling.”

Questions about this year’s “Recycle East Lansing” event: What are some of the objects City workers commonly see in trash that should be going to the “Recycle! East Lansing” event on June 4?

Answer: “Wood waste, polystyrene, common household goods and clothes would all be the most noted.” These can all be dropped off for free on June 4 from 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. Read more.

DeShambo asks us to make sure people know that this year “we have to charge $20 for each TV and Monitor. The cost of electronics recycling has increased dramatically over the last two years and the event can simply not be sustained without charging for those two products.  All other electronics will still be accepted for free. Cash or check only” for the TV/monitor fee.

Want to volunteer for the June 4 recycling event? DeShambo says, “Volunteers can choose between a morning shift or an afternoon shift, which type of material they would like to recycle, and all volunteers are provided with a T-shirt, food, and beverages.” You can sign up online to help as a volunteer or contact Sarah Plantrich at splantr@cityofeastlansing.com.