Monday, February 19, 2007

Recycling: Separating fact from fiction

Recycling: Separating fact from fiction
By Beth Botts
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published February 18, 2007

Here are some penetrating recycling questions from a reader of our "Living the Green Life" series and illuminating answers from the Illinois Recycling Association.

I have so many questions [on recycling]. As I understand it, one of the biggest difficulties with successful recycling is contamination of the materials to be recycled. With that in mind, can you address these questions:

- Does one need to rinse bottles and cans ... to reduce contamination from food and reduce the attraction for insects and rodents?

- Is it preferable to remove screw-off bottle caps or leave them in place? They are usually made of a different material and so ultimately need to be removed.

- Should paper products be set out for recycling when it is going to rain or snow before the pickup? Can one mix newspaper, junk mail, cereal-box cardboard and corrugated cardboard in one bundle? I have heard white office paper should be kept separate from colored paper and newspaper.

- When returning plastic bags to the grocery store for recycling, can I include the bags from the produce department? Can I include bags from other stores that seem to be made of different, heavier material? Can I include plastic wrap from other packaging? Do the stores actually recycle the bags?

- What is the latest with Chicago and the blue bag program? I've heard that as little as 25 percent of recyclable materials collected in blue bags along with other garbage can be salvaged for recycling. I believe Chicago was going to establish a trial curbside bin program. How is that going? Will the blue bag program soon be eliminated?

- Are multiple-unit residences and offices required to recycle? If so, is it ever enforced?

- My parent's condo association recently switched recycling companies. The new company supplied every home with large wheeled garbage-like cans with attached lids for recycling. A garbage-style truck dumps the cans and compacts all of the recyclables together. . . . I can't imagine that this produces usable materials. This is barely one step better than the miserable blue bag program. Has there been any study on the effectiveness of this collection method?

-- Nancy Irons, Highwood

H&G says: We talked to Mike Mitchell, executive director of the Illinois Recycling Association, whose members include recycling businesses, environmental groups and municipalities, and learned a couple of things that helped make recycling make more sense.

One is that there is money to be made from recycling many things, so companies have incentives to pull as much marketable material out of the waste stream as they can.

The other is that today's technology makes it generally most efficient to collect recyclables together and then sort them out later (jargon: "single-stream recycling"). Collecting materials separately is time-consuming, labor-intensive and therefore expensive. But today's sorting centers, with a variety of gizmos -- magnets, air jets, shakers, optical scanners, conveyor belts -- do a good job of separating paper, plastic, metal, glass and other materials and packaging them up for sale to reprocessing firms. (What the sorting centers can't do -- and this is where Chicago's blue bag system fell down -- is sort out marketable recyclables from household garbage.)

Single-stream recycling -- as at your parents' condo building -- is not only cheaper, Mitchell says, but has another benefit: "Residents recycle a lot more under that system," which means more waste stays out of landfills. "It has pretty much carried the day in the Chicago area," he says.

That said, recycling programs vary, so the best thing to do is check with your village or municipality for its own rules. Don't put things in the bin that aren't listed as recyclable; they will just end up in a landfill, and they make take some recyclables with them.

Here are Mitchell's answers to some of your other questions:

- Rinsing: Do rinse cans and bottles, not only to discourage vermin but to keep food waste from getting on the paper.

- Caps: Take caps off bottles. They usually are different materials so you might as well leave them separate. Don't bother trying to remove the plastic or metal rings that often are left from caps on glass bottles.

- Paper: It's best to keep paper dry until collection day, but a night in the rain isn't fatal, Mitchell says; the paper probably will have a chance to dry at the sorting center. If your office building has a program to keep different kinds of paper separate, follow it; they may have a deal with a firm that collects separated paper to make higher grades of recycled paper. Mixed paper just makes lower grades of recycled paper.

- Plastic bags: Go ahead and include newspaper sacks and other plastic bags when you recycle grocery bags. They usually are picked up by the recyclers who collect supermarkets' cardboard and are sold to make plastic lumber and other products. Plastic wrap is a different material, though, so best hold it out.

- Blue bags: Last fall, Chicago announced that it would gradually phase out its blue bag program, under which residents were encouraged to toss blue plastic bags of recyclables into garbage bins (resulting in a pitiful 8 percent recycling rate). Instead, single-family households will gradually, ward by ward, be issued recycling bins to be emptied much as most suburbs' bins are. However, the city has given no date for completing the transition. In the meantime, binless residents are urged to keep blue bagging and Chicago also has opened 15 drop-off centers where residents can dump recyclables. (For a list, see and, after being transported to the next page, click on "Recycling Drop-off Centers.")

- Laws: No state law requires municipalities to recycle, Mitchell says. Counties are required to file plans with the state for recycling 25 percent of their solid waste stream, but there are no penalties for failing to achieve the goal. "There's no strong enforcement," Mitchell says. "It's intended to spur action." And it has: Illinois now recycles about 36 percent of its garbage, compared to a national figure of about 32 percent, the U.S. EPA estimates.

- Office and multifamily buildings: The Chicago municipal code (Chapter 11-5) requires them to provide collection of at least three recyclable items. If you think you have a violation to report, call the Department of Streets and Sanitation at 312-744-4611. For regulations in other places, contact local officials.

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Readers' green living tips

Life before paper towels

I once asked my mother what people did before paper towels, throwaway dusters, etc. She said, "We used rags." Use rags? Yes. Old towels, T-shirts, dish towels all do the job and do it well. And the more they're washed, the better they get. If you're short on rags, buy some flour-sack towels to start with -- fantastic for cleaning glass with vinegar and water. And what about using cloth napkins?

-- Carolyn Bertagnoli, Chicago

150 fewer bags and counting ...

As an experiment as well as a green strategy for 2007, I decided to use canvas bags whenever I can, wherever I shop. For a one month period (family of five), I stopped counting how many bags I would have gotten from stores after 150. I was astonished. I think the more conscious we are of our consumption, the more likely we are to make smart decisions.

I appreciate the opportunity to share!

-- Loree Sandler, Glencoe



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