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Navigating Your Curbside Recycling

One of the most prevalent forms of recycling in the U.S. is “curbside recycling,” where we put materials like paper, plastics, metals, and glass in a bin with a triangular symbol on it. It’s carted off by a hauler a couple times a week, and you never think twice after it’s gone.

Efficient curbside recycling

But what happens after your recyclables leave your bin?

In most areas, curbside recyclables are now co-mingled, meaning that you can put all of your recyclables together rather than having separate bins for different materials. This development is due to technological advancements at materials recovery facilities (MRFs, pronounced “murfs”), the processing areas that separate co-mingled materials and prepare them for sale to companies that repurpose recyclables into new products.

Check out this video of New York City’s MRF in action.

The challenge with recycling is that it can be extremely frustrating to do it correctly. Some of us are under the assumption that everything can be put in curbside recycling bins, which just isn’t true.

For example, MRFs don’t accept plastic bags (even if they have a recycling symbol on them!) and things like food containers need to be rinsed with water before being recycled, a step some people don’t take. Unfortunately, recycling contamination is so bad at MRFs in the U.S. because of a lack of knowledge and compliance that China, the main recipient of U.S. recyclables, will no longer accept them.

So what actions can you take to do your curbside recycling efficiently?

Educate yourself on the curbside recycling standards for your household as well as your workplace. If your home uses a private recycling hauler, which is more common for multi-unit residential buildings like apartments and condos and commercial buildings, contact your management company or the hauler itself to obtain recycling information.

Be aware of items that don’t go in curbside recycling. E-waste (electronics, batteries, lightbulbs, etc.), compost items (food, grass clippings, landscaping items, etc.), plastic bags, and hazardous waste have completely different methods of recycling and disposal. Consult your city or county’s recycling department or the EPA’s Frequently Asked Questions on Recycling for more information on how to recycle these items.

With a little research, you can greatly improve your recycling and sustainable living. Being proactive pays off!


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