Recycling 101: What to recycle, what not to recycle,and does it even matter?

If you've been swayed by a campaign to recycle office paper, you should feel ripped off. Those who really want to save the Earth should be more concerned with their leftovers.

Every year, Americans throw out three times as much food as they do office paper. That's 26 million tons of leftovers, compared with 7.4 million tons of office paper, according to the Waste Policy Center, a waste consulting firm in Leesburg, Virginia.

Those numbers demonstrate that eco campaigns don't always follow eco realities. Take, for example Vanity Fair's last "Green Issue" printed on 440 tons of virgin, non-recycled paper. (Ironically, New Times' "Green Fatigue" issue is printed on 40 percent recycled paper.)

In Vanity Fair's defense, North America has more forest now than it had in 1920, according to the Society of American Foresters. We're not gonna run out of trees anytime soon. The same goes for sand, which makes glass, and other recycled resources.

So does your recycling do anything for the Earth? And if so, what materials should you toss into the bin?

Here's the dirt on what you should recycle, what you shouldn't, and where it all goes.

Our residential curbside bins account for less than half the recycling in the U.S. Between 10 and 20 percent of Phoenix curbside recyclables end up in landfills. And our bins tend to be stocked with low-value materials.

So should we bother? Sure. Recycling clean waste does save resources. Certain materials help your city break even on its money-losing curbside program too. If the following are clean, and if you're not going out of your way (which could create more pollution than saved), you should toss them into a recycling bin:

• aluminum cans
• any clean metal waste
• clean newspapers
• clean magazines
• unshredded mail

Don't bother recycling the following. Experts say it either clogs the machines at the recycling facility or is not worth the effort:

• shredded paper
• plastic grocery bags
• jars with lids screwed on
• jars with significant food inside. Washing them with water wastes a far more valuable resource than landfill space.
• anything that's been soiled by wet food or waste; even the napkin you wiped your mouth with after a hot dog with mustard, for example
• dirty diapers (duh!)

It doesn't take much mustard, mayonnaise, or peanut butter to ruin that napkin, particularly given the small amount of paper recovered from a napkin. On the other hand, a coffee or pizza stain on a newspaper is no big deal because the size of the newspaper outweighs the contamination.

That's not the case if food is still gooey or wet, which will clog the machinery. Certain contaminants — anything that's considered a biohazard — from a dirty diaper to a syringe (which they actually do see) mean the entire bin might get thrown into the landfill pile.

Smaller contaminants won't spoil the whole load, like that mustard-y napkin, but they do waste time and energy.

Recycling is a business. It existed commercially long before the curbside craze of the late '80s, according to J. Winston Porter, former assistant administrator of the EPA and president of the Waste Policy Center.

Here's where your bin's goodies go. Once you see the process, you'll know why aluminum cans matter and why shredded paper doesn't.


The contents of your recycling bin go to a materials-recovery facility, known as an MRF. (Robrt Pela recently spent an afternoon at an MRF.) In layman's terms, this is the recycling facility. Actually, though, nothing is recycled here. It just gets sorted (hence its other name, transfer point).

Each year, the primary Phoenix MRF throws 19,050 tons of alleged recyclables that don't make the cut straight into the landfill, according to Terry Gellenbeck, solid waste administrative analyst for the city of Phoenix.

The surviving plastics, papers, and metals total 107,950 tons per year. That's about a tenth of what Phoenix puts in landfills each year. The surviving materials are sorted by human hands and machines. Then they're grouped by species and trucked or shipped to companies that buy and re-process those raw materials.

Generally speaking, cities lose money on each ton of recyclables they sell (the buyers pay less per ton than the city pays to secure and sort each ton), according to a 1995 study by the Solid Waste Association of North America. But you won't see that in a press release or on the evening news.


The chief factors in determining which materials to lob into your recycling bin are cleanliness and value of material.

Ultimately, recycling is a business, and clean, high-value materials fetch the highest prices. Aluminum is, by far, the most valuable because it's the scarcest. If you recycle only one product in your lifetime, make it aluminum cans. Aluminum sells for as much as $2,000 per ton. Other recyclables sell between $50 and $175 per ton. To melt and reform aluminum from leftover cans takes only 5 percent of the energy needed to mine bauxite ore out of the Earth and create new aluminum.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson