Diving into the Unknown and Unknowable travel blog

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Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

We have all done it: a greasy pizza box, a disposable coffee cup, the odd plastic bag. Sometimes, we want things to be recyclable, so we put them in the recycling bin.

Waste managers often call this wishful or aspirational recycling. But, unfortunately, putting these objects in with the rest of the recycling can do more harm than good. While rules differ in every municipality (check your local recycling website to find out what’s acceptable), we have picked out some key offenders to keep in mind.

Too many of these items will contaminate a batch of recycling. That means waste managers might not be able to find buyers for the materials — especially now that China, one of the world’s main importers of recyclable waste, has said it will reject shipments that are more than 0.5 percent impure. Contaminated loads could be sent to the landfill instead.

Disposable cups

Your disposable coffee cup might seem like it can be recycled, but most single-use cups are lined with a fine film of polyethylene, which makes the cups liquid-proof but also difficult and expensive to reprocess (because the materials have to be separated). Most waste management facilities will treat the cups as trash.

If you’re putting these cups in with your recycling, they are likely contaminating the rest of the materials, said Jim Ace, a senior campaigner at Stand.earth, an environmental group. In an experiment this year, the group affixed electronic trackers inside Starbucks cups, put the cups in recycling bins in Denver, then traced them to a landfill.

“There’s no way a consumer would know if a cup was lined,” Mr. Ace said, so it’s best to throw it away. (You can also check if your local recycler has special equipment to handle coffee cups; some do, a Starbucks spokeswoman said. The New York City Department of Sanitation says it accepts “paper cups with non-paper lining.”)

The plastic lid might be recyclable in your area; check the number inside it against your local recycling guidelines.

Greasy pizza boxes

Pizza boxes are among the most common offenders when it comes to contamination, waste managers say. The problem is that oil often seeps into the cardboard. The oil cannot be separated from the fiber, making that material less valuable, and less marketable, to buyers.

But that’s not to say you can never recycle a pizza box, said Marjorie Griek, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, which promotes recycling in the United States. “If you’ve got a few crumbs in there, that’s not an issue,” she said.

Pizza boxes with “small amounts of grease” are O.K. to recycle in New York City, a sanitation department spokeswoman said. If the grease seeps through the cardboard, the box should be put in a composting bin or thrown out, she said.

Remember, there are also two sides to a pizza box. If there’s a side that’s not oily, tear that off and recycle it.

Yogurt cups (and other non-recyclable plastics)

After China banned used plastics this year, many municipalities in the United States no longer accept plastics numbered 3 to 7, which can include things like yogurt cups, butter tubs and vegetable oil bottles. Look at the bottom of a container for a number inside a triangle to see what type it is.

Without China, there is little market for these types of plastic, said Will Posegate, chief operations officer for Garten Services, which manages waste in parts of Oregon. “It’s expensive to get rid of it right now,” he said.

Should you keep the caps on your bottles? Some waste managers say it’s fine (as long as they are screwed on tight), while others advise throwing them in the trash.

Check your local recycling website to see which plastic types are still acceptable in your area.

Oily takeout containers

Even if a container is labeled correctly for recycling in your area, another contamination culprit is food residue: scraps of pad thai in a plastic tray, or those few drops of bad milk at the bottom of the jug.

Washing out food scraps from recyclables can be just as important as putting the right thing in the recycling bin, said Jackie Lang, a spokeswoman for Waste Management in Oregon. You don’t have to scrub containers until they are sparkling clean — that could waste water. But too many scraps of food and liquid can contaminate a load, which could then be sent to a landfill, Ms. Lang said. As much as possible, “keep food and liquids out,” she said.

Plastic bags

If you have a trash chute in your building, or a long walk down to the recycling bin, you might have gotten into the habit of collecting your paper, plastics and glass in used plastic bags, but it’s important to note that the bags themselves should not be put in the recycling cart.

While we might wish that plastic bags — notorious for dissolving into microplastics and killing wildlife — could be sent to processors with our other recycling, they shouldn’t be. They create a nightmare for waste managers by plugging up machinery. So remember to dump your recyclables out of the plastic bag when putting them in the recycling bin. Some areas do offer plastic bag drop-offs, which send these nonrigid plastics to special facilities for recycling. Other cities and states have moved to tax, limit or ban the use of plastic bagsaltogether.

Dirty diapers (yes, people do this)

O.K., we’re not accusing you of attempting to recycle used diapers. But people out there are trying. Waste managers around the United States say they turn up at their recycling facilities often.

In some cases, people might think that a diaper should be recyclable because it is mostly made of plastic, said Garry Penning, a spokesman for Rogue Disposal and Recycling, which operates throughout Oregon. But diapers are made of a number of materials, and usually more than one type of plastic. Of course, once they are used, they are also filled with human waste.

In other cases, Mr. Penning said, the recycling bin has simply become “the overflow for the garbage pail.” While there have been some attempts at diaper recycling, for the most part dirty one-use diapers are not considered recyclable and are best put straight in the trash.

“As a result of China’s waste import restrictions, we need to educate the public how to recycle properly,” said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “I think the public can make a significant difference,” he said.



Tony Cenicola/The New York Times



Why some countries are shipping back plastic waste

A growing number of countries are taking a stand and demanding that nations take back their waste.

Many wealthy countries send their recyclable waste overseas because it's cheap, helps meet recycling targets and reduces domestic landfill.

For developing countries taking in the rubbish, it's a valuable source of income.

But contaminated plastic and rubbish that cannot be recycled often gets mixed in and ends up in illegal processing centres.

So where is this happening and why is action being taken now?

The European Union is the largest exporter of plastic waste, with the US leading as the top exporter for a single country.

But only a tiny fraction of all plastics ever produced has been recycled.

Often, materials that can't be recycled end up being burned illegally, dumped in landfills or waterways, creating risks to the environment and public health.

Worries about receiving such waste has forced countries to act.

The Philippines has just shipped back tonnes of rubbish to Canada that it said was falsely labelled as plastic recycling in 2013 and 2014.

This month Malaysia sent back five containers of plastic waste to Spain after it was found to be contaminated.

Malaysia says up to 3,000 tonnes of rubbish will soon be returned to the UK, US, Japan, China, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bangladesh, Norway and France.

Recycling: Where is the plastic waste mountain?

Why plastic recycling is so confusing

To understand why these countries were swamped with so much waste, you need to look to China.

Until January 2018, China imported most of the world's plastic waste.

But due to concerns about contamination and pollution, it declared it would no longer buy recycled plastic scrap that was not 99.5% pure.

The impact of China's ban

Global plastic waste exports fell - dipping by almost half by the end of 2018, compared with 2016 levels, according to Greenpeace analysis.

There were reports of plastic waste ready for export piling up, and some was diverted to other countries.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, India and Poland all took up the slack.

Malaysia took a major share - the plastic waste it imported from 10 countries in just the first six months of 2018 was nearly as much as the total it received in 2016 and 2017.

But the rubbish arriving in these countries wasn't sufficiently recyclable, and it has caused problems.

The UK has been singled out by the Malaysian government.

"What the citizens of the UK believe they send for recycling is actually dumped in our country," said Malaysian Minister Yeo Bee Yin.

Countries taking action

Importing countries have found the surge of waste difficult to manage and this has led to new controls in some countries.

Poland, in May last year, announced tougher rules after multiple fires at waste dumps, and linked the rise in illegal rubbish imports to the China ban.

Thailand has temporarily prohibited plastic waste imports and says it will implement a full ban by 2021.

Malaysia has revoked import permits and has been clamping down on illegal processing plants.

Vietnam is no longer issuing new licences and will bar all imports of plastic scrap by 2025.

In October, Taiwan said it will only import single source plastic waste.

India expanded its ban on solid plastic waste imports this March.

However, there is still an overwhelming demand for locations to send plastic and other waste to for recycling, and the challenge of how to dispose of it remains.

There are indications that after some initial success of the import restrictions, these countries are starting to take in larger volumes of waste again.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia) says after a clear dip, "imports have begun rising again in the last quarter of 2018, suggesting challenges in enforcing respective country bans".

In 2016, the volume of plastic waste was 235 million tonnes per year - this could fill up 4.8 million Olympic swimming pools.

This will reach 417 million tonnes per year by 2030.

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