The Recycling Journey
preparation and packing determine whether recyclables
will have a second life.
Kimberly Monaghan | Photography
by Johnny Quirin
It’s a dirty
job, but someone’s got to do it.
Elbow deep in a mass
of recyclables, trash and contaminants, workers
at materials recovery facilities
spend hours sorting, searching and salvaging
recyclables for the trip to the manufacturer’s
But the journey for paper, plastics, metal and
glass doesn’t begin here. It starts at
The determinate of whether a plastic bottle will
see a second life as a T-shirt or car bumper
lies in the hands of the consumer. The recycling
journey begins with planning, preparation and
packing. As manufacturers incorporate more recycled
content into their products, they look to materials
recovery facilities for raw materials, and those
organizations turn to consumers.
Before setting recyclables out at the curb,
consumers need to start with a plan. Determining
are accepted at curbside pickup is the first
step. Each waste organization provides its
customers with a list of dos and don’ts
when it comes to filling the recycling bin.
The common list of acceptable items includes
newspaper, office paper, plastic, glass, aluminum
and steel. As the market for materials grows
and processing technology improves, companies
have expanded their intake lists to include grocery
bags, magazines, catalogs, junk mail, aerosol
cans with caps off, and paperboard cereal and
Some items are not accepted.
Clamshell packaging that is made from plastic
and cardboard is not readily processed. Neither
are bakeware, hangers, foil-backed paper, utensils,
mirrors and packaging peanuts.
Each plastic container has an imprint that identifies
whether it is accepted for recycling. Numbers
1-7 are OK, though plastics that once contained
automotive fluids or hazardous materials will
Complex items, such as electronics, toys and
rubber products, may be recycled but cannot be
accepted at curbside.
“We can’t recycle Styrofoam or salt
Kathy Babins, resource recovery specialist with
Kent County Department of Public Works. “Just
because it’s plastic doesn’t mean
To prepare for pick up, items should be clean,
dry and empty.
“We had a lady drop off cans half filled
with dog food,” Babins said. “That
created a health hazard.”
prevent health risks, contamination and loss
of materials, caps should be removed from containers,
which should be rinsed and air dried before
being placed in the bin. Unless the consumer
is able to remove all traces of the product,
items such as peanut butter jars and soup cans
with residue will be tossed.
“Landfills aren’t just holes in the ground. There’s a lot of
finance invested in their engineering and maintenance.”
— Kathy Babins
difficult to sanitize, such as toothpaste
tubes, also aren’t recyclable.
Paper products — the largest component
of the waste stream — sometimes also
create problems, especially paper plates stained
with food, waxed paper and dirty paper towels.
“You might have someone say, ‘I
know that they can recycle cardboard, so I’ll
just put my pizza box in there,’ and
covered with cheese,” said Tom Horton,
vice president of Midwest public affairs for
Waste Management. “Those contaminated
materials are sent to the disposal facility.”
Properly preparing and packing items at curbside
“We take care of labels or drying soaked
paper when it comes in to the center,” said
Babins. “But we don’t have the
manpower or resources to separate things like
cardboard oatmeal container lids from their
Keeping paper goods together in paper grocery
bags, removing the metal strips from cardboard
boxes that contained foil and plastic wrap,
pulling metal handles off plastic containers,
and separating clean glass jars from their
metal or plastic lids are important steps.
“Instructions are provided on our Web
Nate Croff, co-owner of Exclusive Garbage and
“For the most part, everybody does it
right. I think the most difficult part about
for anybody is just getting into a routine.
It’s like anything else: As soon as you
make it part of your daily routine, it’s
pretty easy to do.” GR
Kimberly Monaghan is a Grand Rapids Magazine