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The Recyclist: Readers' questions answered

March 18, 2010 |  9:12 am

Do you need some motivation to stop buying potato chips? I sure do. So here goes: Most snack bags cannot be recycled. They're made of a compound material called paper foil -- you can tell by the shiny silver interior -- and they must be thrown in the trash.

I learned that while talking to Lisa Harris, Long Beach's recycling expert, who answered your questions (and a few of mine) about what can and cannot be recycled. I hoped for black-and-white answers, but quickly learned that recycling is complicated. It made me appreciate even more the comment that one reader, TC, made on the earlier post: "Remember that with the three R's -- reduce, reuse, recycle -- reduce and reuse come first. Buy disposable/recyclable products as your last resort."

Before we get down to the nitty gritty of your questions, just remember that Harris can speak only to residential curbside pickup within the city of Long Beach. There are other recycling avenues, such as the L.A. County Materials Exchange.  Harris urges everyone to locate (and bookmark) their city's recycling rules online, or call your city's recycling point person with unanswered questions. 

Can wine corks, Ziploc bags or water bottle caps be recycled? Answers to these questions and many, many more after the jump.

Please note that the answers are mine, based upon my discussions with Lisa:

Q: From Becky: I live in Long Beach and my recycling bin says that I cannot recycle plastics numbered #5 and up. Is that still true, and why? It seems that half the grocery-store plastic is from that un-recyclable category. Also, many plastics do not come with a number (many non-Styrofoam takeout containers, for instance).

A: Your recycling bin reflects outdated guidelines. Updates are underway, but the city's website includes the latest information. Unfortunately, many items do indeed come from that un-recyclable category. Hopefully manufacturers will continue to respond to consumer demands for more environmentally friendly packaging. And you are correct: Some containers don't carry recycling guidelines, which is annoying. When in doubt about what can and cannot be tossed into the recycling bin, contact your city.

Q: From ArchtMig: Why do some cities take some things and other cities do not? Is it because some cities don't have contracts with companies that accept and recycle certain materials, like Styrofoam?

A: That's exactly right -- some haulers, like the one in Long Beach, have vendors to whom they can sell recyclable material. By and large, bigger vendors have more options because they have more buying and selling power.

Q: From lil_gaucha: The hard plastic part of Zioloc bags and the caps to water bottles. I've heard both are not recyclable-grade plastics.

A: The city of Long Beach emphasizes ease of recycling for its residents, so you should toss all that stuff into the recycling bin if you live within the city of Long Beach. But to your larger question: Those bottle tops cannot be recycled. (It's just one of the many reasons why environmentalists preach against individual water bottles.) Harris says the zipper bags can be recycled in their entirety.

Q: From Nancy: How about, dry cleaning plastic wrap, clam-shell packaging, jar lids (baby food jars, peanut butter jars, etc.) and soy milk containers (those cardboard-y boxes.)

A: Yes, all can be recycled. However, if your city does not accept these things, look around for other options before you just toss them in the trash. For example, many dry cleaners are happy to take back the plastic wrap.

Q: From Matt: What about those plastic wrappers for things like shredded or sliced cheese, sandwich baggies, plastic bread wrappers, and the plastic bags that hold cereal inside the box?

A: Baggies, bread wrappers and the plastic bags that hold cereal inside the box can all be recycled. As for plastic wrappers, the answer is more nuanced. The plastic, zip-top bags you get when you buy freshly sliced meat at the deli counter can be recycled after a rinse in the sink. But if you buy prepackaged deli meat (or even bacon for that matter), that packaging, along with the harder, more rigid plastic, cannot be recycled. This offers an opportunity for pre-cycling, says Harris: Take a long hard look at what you are buying, and ask yourself whether there is a more environmentally friendly option.

Q: From Liz: How about plastic bags? Grocery store bags? Produce bags? Bread bags? Cereal insert bags? Ziploc bags? And parchment paper? Butcher paper? Wax paper?

A: Yes, all can be recycled. But keep in mind that there might be better alternatives than the recycling bin, as with the dry cleaning wrap mentioned above. For example: Many supermarkets are happy to take back your grocery store bags. (Or you can reuse them yourself.)

Q: Also from Liz: Is there any particular way I should add recyclables to my collection cart? Do I need to group things by type? Should newspapers be bound? Is it okay to put recyclables into the bin in paper or plastic bags or should I be adding things loose?

A: Whatever. Bundle it, or don't bundle it, whatever you prefer in Long Beach. But if you live elsewhere, check with your city just to be sure.

Q: From Daniel: Take a tour of your waste haulers recycling facility. You will see that Styrofoam and plastic bags do not get recycled at all. The so-called recycled product is not worth the time and money for these waste haulers, it gets dumped in landfills every day. California cities need to continue bans on polystyrene and plastic carry-out bags.

A: Actually, Styrofoam and plastic bags are recycled. However, your larger point is well taken: We need to find ways to reduce our reliance on Styrofoam and plastic carry-out bags, and instead use more sustainable substances.

Q: From Phillip: Wine corks?

A: Alas, no, corks cannot be recycled within the city of Long Beach. But Harris points out that they can be used for swell arts and crafts projects. And there is at least one private cork recycling effort, called Recork -- but only one drop-off location in L.A. County at the moment. (Red Carpet Wines in Glendale is on their list.)

Q: From Ken: I’m in San Diego, so don’t know if it’s different up in my hometown of Long Beach, but when I asked a City of San Diego waste management official about what to do with questionable items, her advice was to go ahead and put them in the recycling bin. The reasoning being that if it’s put in the recycle bin and it’s recyclable, it will be recycled; if not, it will be pulled and moved to the trash. (There’s already staff and equipment dedicated to looking for and pulling out non-recycleable items.) But if a questionable item is put in the trash bin, it has no chance to be recycled.

A: There is certainly something to be said for that approach, but one has to take care with items that can be recycled, yet do not belong in the recycling bin. For example: fluorescent light bulbs. The bulbs can crack and leak mercury into the environment, and endanger refuse workers. The best advice is two-part: Educate yourself about what your city will and will not take, and then look for other avenues for your waste.

Q: From Baffled Observer: My question is, what about items that can be recycled but will require considerable amounts of water to clean them -- for example, a glass bottle that formerly contained olive oil? Is recycling a glass bottle worth the water, the energy to heat the water, and the detergent to clean the bottle?

A: This is a great question, but can be sidestepped this way. Don't waste all that time, energy and water to clean items heading for the recycling bin. I employ Harris' guidance -- just get rid of the "big chunks" so it's not stinking up the joint.  I set aside any items that need cleaning and when I am finished doing dishes, I use the leftover dish water to rinse off the recyclables.

Here are two questions that I had for Lisa:

Q: The pizza box. The bottom is stained with grease. But the other half is pretty clean. What do I do?

A: The key here is to evaluate the mess inside the box. If it's not all that grease-stained, toss it into the recycling. If it's a greasy, cheesy mess, toss it in the trash because it cannot be recycled in that condition. If your conscience is bothering you, rip up the box: The non-greasy top can go into the recycling bin, the greasier bottom can go into the trash.

Q: What about aerosol cans, such as Pam:

A: Within the city of Long Beach, they go in the recycling bin.

As you can see, recycling is all about shades of gray. The one general rule that I learned from Harris about bags was this: "If you cannot tear it, it cannot be recycled." 

Let's use the example of the chip bag: You can tear open a chip bag along the seams at the top, but you cannot tear the material itself (unless you use a knife or a pair of scissors to give yourself a head start.)

Now, no sooner did I have this "rule" in place than Lisa told me about one key exception: Pet food bags. You know, those bags that are paper on the outside, but plastic lined on the inside? They cannot be recycled.

Thanks for all of your questions and suggestions. And if you have additional questions for Harris, leave a comment and we'll get to it in a future post.

-- Rene Lynch

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Photo: Corks can't be recycled within the city of Long Beach, but they can be recycled elsewhere. Credit: Los Angeles Times