Can I recycle this?

Every little bit helps


It's the age-old question that never seems to have an easy answer. Fortunately, understanding how things are recycled can help point you in the right direction.
The purpose of a recycling facility is to sort items by type (paper with paper, #5 plastics with other #5 plastics, etc.) so that the companies that use the recycled materials can be certain they are pure - that there's no "contaminants" that will compromise the final product's integrity. This is why mixed material items such as spray bottle pumps (made of plastic and metal) or plastic-coated paper boxes are usually not recyclable.
I recently completed Hennepin County's Master Composter/Recycler program where I got the opportunity to learn about what happens once the recycling leaves my curbside bin. Here's a general rundown of how it works along with some tips on what you can do to make sure more of what you toss in the bin actually gets recycled.
The very first step in the process starts with you! Before the collection trucks even pull up, you can help by removing as much food from the containers as possible (food can contaminate the materials) and leaving items loose in the bin so they don't get stuck in the bottom of a bag (and therefore not recycled).
Once materials arrive at the recycling facility, the first step is to manually remove non-recyclable materials. Did you know that, several times a day, the entire facility has to be shut down because "tanglers" - things like plastic bags, hoses, cords, and holiday lights - get wrapped around the machinery? Best to keep these things out of the recycling bin.
Next, cardboard and paper floats along on rollers to its designated area while other items fall through. You know what else can fall through? Small bits of paper. Unfortunately, anything smaller than a credit card - this includes shredded paper, straws, K-cups, broken glass, and disposable silverware - doesn't get properly sorted and can cause problems down the line if those bits of paper end up contaminating other materials. Two other paper recycling tips: paper towels should not be recycled (compost instead!) and receipts - which often contain BPA and will contaminate materials - should not be recycled.
Metal recycling is really interesting and something I'd love to see in person! Steel cans are pulled from the recycling stream by giant magnets while aluminum cans are shot off the conveyor belt by an eddy current! I've been told that it's harder for the eddy current to work when cans have been crushed, so try to leave them un-crushed if you can.
Next, plastic is blown onto a separate conveyor belt while the heavier glass items stay and make their way to their designated spot. A reminder that glass that's not used for food or drink - like Pyrex, windows, and crystal - should be put in the trash, not the recycling. They are made using a different process and cannot be combined well with recyclable glass.
Finally, an optic sensor sorts the plastic by those little numbers in the chasing triangle arrows on the bottom of the materials. This is one of the reasons black plastic is not recyclable - the optic sensors have a hard time reading dark material.
A quick reference to which plastics are recyclable:
#1 and #5 are recyclable.
The bottle form of #2 is recyclable, but bags and film are not (tanglers!)
#3, #4, and #6 are NOT recyclable.
#7 is the catchall "Other" category of plastics. These are not accepted in curbside bins BUT if it has the "BPI Certified Compostable" or "Cedar Grove" logo, you can put it in your curbside organics bin (but not in your backyard compost which won't get hot enough to break it down).
If you're ever not sure if something can be recycled or not, you can do a search for the item at
What other recycling, composting, or waste reduction questions do you have? I'd love to hear them! Send a note with your questions to
Cooper resident Jessie Roelofs recently completed Hennepin County's Master Composter/Recycler program.


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