The rules of recycling, revisited

By Paul Ploumis

The second week of each month, we feature a column on environmental issues submitted by IGov, an intergovernmental body composed of two representatives each from the village, public library, park district, township, and school districts 97 and 200.

Trying to mitigate the negative effects of climate change, to live more sustainably, can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Climate change is global. What can an individual citizen do to make a difference?

One of the earliest recommendations we’ve been given is to recycle as much of our trash as we can. Recycling reduces the amount of waste sent to our landfills, thereby decreasing the emission of greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming. So, into the recycling bin go the glass jars, the newspapers, the aluminum cans. Maybe these can be recycled into new products. This feels good!

What about plastics and other containers that have that triangle of circling arrows? Well, if it has that triangle, or maybe even if you don’t see one, it must be recyclable.  So in it goes. This has been called “aspirational recycling,” the action of feeling that something should be recyclable, so you throw it into the recycling bin, hoping that, if it is not, someone down the line will remove it. The problem is that this doesn’t happen. When articles that cannot be recycled are put in with recyclables, the recyclables become contaminated and in most communities all wind up in the landfill.

Since Lakeshore Recycling Systems has recently taken over recycling in Oak Park, now may be a good time to review our recycling practices. Most of us have been recycling for quite a while; Oak Park has a very high rate of community members recycling. And we have developed habits that may not be what is currently the best practice. Or we’re unsure — do the container caps stay on? What do I flatten?

Let’s look at some of the obvious “no-no’s” first. Thin plastics — grocery bags, dry cleaners bags, newspaper wrappers — these clog the sorting machinery. They can be recycled, however. Many grocery stores have designated collection bins for them. Stuff them into a larger bag and drop in. Do not, however, put your recyclables into a plastic bag before putting them in your cart. #6 plastic, otherwise known as styrofoam, is not accepted for recycling in Oak Park. Other items that clog the machinery are long, “stringy” things — hoses, holiday lights, hangers, wire, rope. Anything with food or organic material embedded in it — liquids, used napkins, used diapers (ugh), used tissues — should never go in the recycling, either. No clothing or textiles (see “stringy”). 

What can? Glass bottles and jars. Aluminum and bi-metal cans. Cereal and cracker boxes, without the liners. Plastic containers — bottles, tubs, jugs and jars — labeled in the arrow center, numbers 1 through 5, and 7.

All containers should be clean, thoroughly rinsed out, and recapped. Aluminum foil, rolled into a ball. Cardboard (larger pieces cut up, flattened). Paper — newspapers, magazines, plain gift wrap. Cartons — juice, milk, broth — rinsed and recapped. Office paper, junk mail, including window envelopes.

There are many, many items that we can properly recycle, and we should. Perhaps more importantly, let’s look upstream and try to avoid single-use, unrecyclable plastics in the first place,

But avoid contamination: when in doubt, throw it out.