Recycling Myths: Learn the Truth

There are a lot of myths about recycling passed along from person to person. We are here to explain some of those myths, so you can be the best recycler possible.

FALSE.  The recycling symbol on containers represents the general category of plastic that material is made from, but not if the container is recyclable.  So, a recycling symbol on a container does not guarantee that container is recyclable locally.  Plastics vary greatly by their resin types and how they are manufactured.  There are also two common manufacturing processes: plastic bottles are “blow molded,” whereas, most plastic tubs are “injection molded.”  As a result of the different resin types, the different manufacturing processes, and the different mixes of chemical additives (dyes, plasticizers, UV inhibitors, softeners, adhesives and more) plastics melt at different temperatures, have different physical properties and as such need to be recycled differently.

Once plastics are separated into their varying categories they must then be shipped to a recycler.  The distance to these plastic markets can be large and the cost to ship certain types of plastic to distant processing facilities may simply be more expensive than the material’s value.  Some markets are very limited and are overstocked with plastics for recycling.

FALSE.  All items placed inside bottles are considered contamination.  The preference for recycling processors is to have bottles free of any contaminants inside.  The cleaner the product, the easier the material is to process (saving energy) and the higher the market value of the material for recycling.

Of all the contaminants, lime wedges are the least difficult impurity to handle since the lime edges are simply organic matter the burns away in the process of melting the recycling bottles.  However, other contaminants such as bottle caps or rocks don’t burn away so easily and can lower the quality of the glass “cullet” making the recycled glass less desirable.

So please remember to empty out your glass bottles before placing them in your recycling cart.

FALSE.  Increasing the use of products made from post-consumer recycled material is critical to expanding market demand for the materials we recycle everyday, and in turn that encourages more manufactures to use recycled materials in their products.   Manufacturing products from recycled materials results in significant savings in energy, water and other natural resources, and creates less pollution.

When buying recycled products, be sure to read the labels or specifications.  A recycling symbol does not mean it is made from recycled materials.  Be sure to look for language stating it is made from recycled materials and the higher the post-consumer content, the better.  Every recycled product you buy, whether it is napkins made from recycled paper or roof shingles made for recycled tires, reduces stress on our environment.

FALSE.  If you’re not putting cardboard boxes inside your purple cart, then you’re not recycling them.  Cardboard left outside of your recycling cart will not get recycled, even if it is flattened and stacked right next to your cart.  Instead, it will either be left behind or picked up as overflow trash and sent to the landfill.  So if you actually want to recycle your cardboard, please put it in your purple cart.

With Denver Recycles’ automated collection system, only materials inside the purple carts can be lifted up by the mechanical arm and emptied into the top of the recycling truck.  Cardboard and other materials left outside of your cart cannot be collected for recycling.

To ensure that you recycle all the cardboard you can, but also leave room in your cart for all the other valuable recyclable materials, remember to: Make sure the cut cardboard lays flat in your cart, so it doesn’t take up usable space. Try waiting to put cardboard in your cart until your recycling day. Then lay the cardboard flat in the cart on top of the rest of your recyclables and close the lid. This will help to ensure that cardboard doesn’t get stuck in the cart and will enable you to fit more cardboard in your recycling cart. Flatten and break down all boxes into pieces no larger than 2 feet by 2 feet in size. Thanks for doing your part and recycling all that you can!

FALSE.  The energy required to convert raw materials such as minerals, oil and trees into metals, plastics and paper is far greater than the amount of energy required to collect and recycle our paper, bottles and cans into new products. So the myth that the energy needed to collect and process recyclables outweighs the environmental benefits of recycling, is completely false.

In fact, a recent study found that the total energy used to collect, haul and process a ton of recyclables is less than 1 million Btu’s and that it takes approximately 10.4 million Btu’s to manufacture products from a ton of recyclables.  In comparison it takes 23.3 million Btu’s to manufacture those same products from virgin materials . That’s a savings of 11.9 million Btu’s per ton of material recycled.

The energy savings from recycling can be seen among individual material types as well.  For instance, making aluminum cans from recycled cans takes 95 percent less energy than making cans from raw aluminum bauxite ore .  The mining and melting process to exact pure aluminum from bauxite ore is extremely energy intensive.  Additionally, one ton of recycled aluminum saves an estimated 14,000 kilowatt hours of energy and 40 barrels of oil .

The same energy savings are experienced when producing paper products from recycled paper instead of virgin trees.  The energy saved from recycling one ton of paper saves enough energy to power an average household for up to six months, saves 7,000 gallons of water, and keeps 600 pounds of pollutants out of the air .

So it really does make energy sense to recycle.

FALSE.  In many cases, no rinsing is required.  Soda, water, shampoo and soap bottles just need to be fully emptied before placing them in with your recycling.  Milk and orange juice bottles might require a light rinsing to help prevent odors.  Soup cans could require a little more rinsing, and “stickier” food containers such as mayonnaise or peanut butter jars, might need to be scraped or wiped clean to remove as much food residue as possible.

Labels can remain on bottles, cans and jars and do not need to be peeled-off or removed.  The heat generated in the remanufacturing process of plastic, glass and metal containers results in the labels simply being burned off.   When rinsing out a container, be sure to save water and energy by pouring only a small amount of cold water into the container.  Then put the lid back on, shake the container and pour out the water.  This process will loosen up food particles inside the container and avoid the unnecessary use of hot water.

FALSE.  It is a common misperception that the revenue generated from the sale of recovered materials should be enough to off-set the collection and processing costs and even make a profit for a city.  This is not true.  Recycling is one option for managing waste, and waste costs money. When a material enters the waste stream, whether trash, recycling, composting or household hazardous waste, there is an associated cost.

In Denver, our goal is to keep the cost of recycling below the cost of trash collection and disposal.   We are able to do this because each time we deliver a ton of recyclables for processing the City receives $33 per ton; however, every time we take a ton of trash to the landfill it costs us about $13 per ton.  This means the City is able to save money every time someone takes recyclable material out of their trash cans and puts it in a recycling cart.  Consequently, less of your tax dollars are used for solid waste services.

Despite recent reports about the depressed market for recyclables (much as every other market has been depressed), there remains a demand for this material and market prices are slowly increasing.  Since recycling is a commodities market (that is the demand for recyclable materials is based on the demand for recycled content products), it is important to remember that recycling does not stop when you place material at the curb.  Recycling is a closed loop system and consumers must purchase recycled content products to ensure the cycle continues.  To help residents “close the loop,” Denver Recycles has developed an online service that allows people to share information about what and where they are buying recycled products.  Check out our “Buy Recycled Shopping List” and post where you have found local recycled content products for sale.

FALSE.  Pizza delivery boxes can be recycled in the Denver Recycles purple carts.  Pizza boxes that have the food remains scrapped out and have a minimum about of grease soaked into the cardboard can still be recycled.  However, pizza boxes soiled with grease and food debris should not go in the purple recycling carts.  Heavily soiled pizza boxes can be composted in your backyard compost bin (cut them up first) or through the Denver Composts pilot collection program.

Remember, even if the bottom of the pizza delivery box is contaminated with grease or food, you can still rip off the top of the box and recycle that part in your purple cart.

FALSE.  Recycling is a great way to keep material out of the landfill, however, there are lots of other ways to reduce the amount of waste going into your trash that are also good for the environment and your wallet.

A great way to make less trash in the first place is to look at the products you are purchasing.  By selecting products with less packaging or products with no packaging at all, you can significantly reduce your waste.  The U.S. EPA estimates that $1 out of every $10 dollars spent on products goes toward the costs of packaging.  So, if you can purchase products will less packaging you can save yourself money and help the environment. For example, in stores that sell items in bulk or by the pound, bring in your own reusable containers to fill them up and eliminate packaging waste all together.

Purchasing reusable goods and more durable products is another great way to keep materials out of your trash.  Not only will this reduce your waste, but will also likely save you money in the long run.  For example, avoid spending money over and over again on disposable tableware, such as paper plates and plastic cups.  Reusable tableware will last longer, creates less waste and will cost substantially less over time.  

When spring cleaning or moving, donate unwanted furniture, clothing and other items to local charities instead of throwing them away.  Old clothes and linens can be recycled by most charities.  Many charities will even take clothes no longer wearable or in bad shape, and recycle them as textiles or other markets.  Also, think about giving old books to nursing homes, hospitals, schools or other charities.  Remember to check with individual charities prior to delivering items for recycling.  Items that are no longer useful to you can be used again by others.

Don’t forget composting and grasscycling are two other ways to reduce your trash output.  Here in Denver, as much as 57% of what residents put in the trash is organic waste.  Backyard composting is a great way to reduce organic waste and save money by producing your own compost for your home garden, lawn or around the base of trees and plants.  Don’t forget some food scraps and kitchen waste can also be composted.  Grasscycling is the natural way to recycle grass clippings and provide your lawn with the valuable nutrients and water that it needs.  By grasscycling there’s no need to pile bags of grass clippings out on your trash day.

FALSE.  Electronic recyclers have costs just like any other business.  The revenue generated through recycling the small quantities of metals and other components contained within the electronic equipment only covers a small fraction of the overall recycling costs.  There are significant labor costs associated with the trained personnel that safely disassemble the equipment.  Also, there are storage and transportation costs when dealing with getting the numerous different components of electronic equipment to the appropriate manufacturers and markets.  Thus, most electronic recyclers charge a fee based on the number of units or pounds brought in for recycling.  (Note:  Be inquisitive of electronic recyclers not charging a service fee, as this could be a sign that they might not be dealing with the material responsibly).

So if it is going to cost money to recycle electronic equipment, then why bother?  Simply put, it will likely cost us as a society a lot more in the long run not to recycle electronics.  First, electronic equipment often contains many types of toxic materials that could potentially pollute our environment.  Lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium, arsenic, zinc and PCB’s (polychlorinated byphenyls) can all be found inside computers and other electronic equipment.  The Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) inside monitors and televisions can alone contain 3 to 7 pounds of lead.  When televisions or monitors are placed in landfills and break apart, they release lead and other toxins that potentially could get into the ground or air and create pollution problems.

Second, the heavy metals found in electronic equipment are rare.  Every little bit of those metals that we can recycle helps to lessen the need for expensive mining operations to find new sources of them.  By recycling these materials, we can conserve our natural resources and lower the environmental costs of producing new electronic equipment.

How can I recycle my electronic equipment?  To apply for an “E-cycle Coupon” that can be used to reduce the cost you’ll need to pay to recycle your electronic equipment or to find information on electronics recyclers here in Denver that are listed in our online “Recycling Directory."  There is a limit of one “E-cycle Coupon” per home and only a limited number of E-cycle Coupons will be available.

FALSE.  Actually, recycling is one of the easiest, hands-on activities that make a big impact in helping to reduce global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.  The amount of material that Americans procure, produce, deliver and dispose of as goods and services accounts for 42 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (U.S. EPA, 2009).  This percentage factors in emissions generated by land use, food and product production across the entire life cycle of a product.  The life cycle of a product includes extraction (mining, agriculture or forestry), manufacturing, packaging, transportation and ultimately disposal.

The potential greenhouse gas emission savings from waste reduction, recycling and improved product design are significant. Currently, the U.S. recycles approximately 32 percent of its waste which saves an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases to removing 39.6 million cars from the road.  Increasing the recycling rate to 35 percent would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 5.2 Million Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent.

You can calculate the emissions savings from recycling your materials online using the EPA’s “WARM” model at www.epa.gov/climatechange.

FALSE.  In fact, recycling (specifically recycling paper products) greatly reduces the pressure to turn natural forests into tree farms.  Our demand for paper and wood products seems to be ever growing.  Recycling paper can supply manufacturing companies with the old paper fibers they need to make new paper products, so they don’t need to use trees from natural or “old growth” forests.

A popular misconception is that all our wood and fiber products come from tree farms (lands where trees are planted and harvested over and over again).  However, cutting down trees in old growth forests continues today in order to generate enough fiber material to meet product demand.  Paper fibers can only be recycled a limited number of times before they become too weak and break apart.  This means that in order to meet demand, manufacturers need a continuous new supply of recycled paper. So, the more paper we can recycle the less pressure there is to cut down new trees, thus less pressure to invade old growth forests.  The demand for recycled fiber material exists and all we need to do is keep feeding it.  It is estimated that if all the newspapers in the U.S. were recycled for just one day, that it would lessen the need to cut down 41,000 trees (Worldwatch Institute).

Recycling paper is even more important in old growth forests when you take into account the global demand for paper and wood products.  In many less developed countries, the forests are clear cut and no trees are replanted.  Often, once an area is stripped of all trees, the soil is degraded to a point where growing trees again on that land is not possible for decades or centuries.  Placing less strain on these resources can help lead to better management of forests, reduced environmental damage and more sustainable economies in these countries.    

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