Whether you’re new to Nashville or have lived here your whole life, we all know that recycling can be a challenge. Do you need to remove that plastic film from your envelopes before you toss them in with the rest of the paper? Can you recycle styrofoam? And what’s the deal with pizza boxes?! Earlier this week, we hosted another installment of our Engage Green sustainability workshop series with Urban Green Lab to help get some of your most pressing recycling questions answered. Here are the 10 most helpful things we learned:
So do you need to need to remove the plastic film windows from things like envelopes and pasta boxes before you recycle them? Nope! While it certainly doesn’t hurt to remove them and recycle them with the rest of your plastic bags and films (more on this later), the modern paper recycling process is equipped to handle a small amount of contaminants like these little windows, so there’s no need for you to take the time to separate these pieces before recycling your boxes and envelopes. On a related note, you also don’t have to remove tape and staples from cardboard boxes before you place them in with the rest of your recyclables.
2. Pizza Boxes
What’s the deal with pizza boxes? Can you recycle them? Yes and no. If your pizza box is covered in grease, it cannot be recycled because the grease is considered a contaminant in the paper recycling process (oil and water don’t mix, and water is used in the pulping process when paper and cardboard are recycled). Some pizza boxes, however, come with liners on the bottom, protecting the exterior box from being soaked with grease. In this case, recycle your pizza box! If you’re feeling ambitious, you can also cut the top of your pizza box off and just recycle that half, since those little cheese protector tripods usually prevent the top of the box from getting greasy.
Glass is not recyclable through Metro’s curbside recycling program! Glass is heavy, making hauling costs really expensive, and most curbside bins are not equipped to handle the weight of glass. For this reason, you can only recycle glass at one of Metro’s recycling convenience centers around town. If you do throw glass in your curbside bin, it’s considered a contaminant and will be sent directly to the landfill (more on this later), so don’t do it!
4. Plastic Bags and Films
Plastic shopping bags, bread bags and other films are all part of the LDPE (low-density polyethelene) family of plastics, usually labeled with the number 4. These types of plastic cannot be recycled in your curbside bin, but many grocery stores will take them for free as long as they’re clean. You can also recycle zip-lock bags this way, as long as you cut the zipper portion off first.
All styrofoam is considered to be in a class of waste called “expanded plastics.” These materials are not recyclable through Metro’s curbside recycling program, even if they have a recycling symbol and number on them! On the bright side, some Publix grocery stores will take your old egg cartons and recycle them for you.
6. Black plastic trays
Once upon a time, you couldn’t recycle black plastic trays (like the ones you find in microwaveable dinners) in Nashville. Usually made of plastic #1, these trays are often easily recyclable, but were difficult to detect by sorting machines during the recycling intake process, which is why they weren’t allowed in your recycling bin. Advances in sorting technology have changed the rules on this, so go ahead and throw these in with the rest of your recycling – just rinse them first (more on this later)!
7. Plastic Bottle and Can Labels
Do you need to remove paper labels from plastic bottles or steel cans before recycling them? No way! Both plastics and metals are eventually melted down at really high temperatures (up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit for steel), and these paper labels don’t stand a chance in that heat, so don’t worry about removing them!
8. Food Contaminants
People are often curious how well you need to clean something before you toss it in the recycling. The general rule is to give anything that had food in it a good rinse before you recycle it. You’ll want to try to get rid of any large food particles as well as large amounts of things like sauces and gravies. While all plastic and metal recyclables are cleaned at recycling facilities, large amounts of food residue can contaminate paper and cardboard recycling while in transit (because Metro Nashville’s curbside recycling program is single-stream, meaning all recyclables are placed in the same bin). Basically, small amounts of food won’t hurt, so you don’t have to throw recycling in your dishwasher before you recycle it, but you will want to give things like yogurt or pasta sauce containers a reasonable rinse before disposing of them.
9. Milk Cartons
Yes, wax-coated cardboard milk cartons can be recycled! The same goes for any and all of those Tetra Pak-style containers like what you often find coconut water, orange juice, or easily-portable wine in. And no, you don’t have to worry about removing the plastic spout from these containers before you toss them in the recycling. Drink up, Nashville!
10. Aerosol cans
As long as they’re completely empty, aerosol cans can be recycled along with your other aluminum and steel containers in your curbside bin, so you don’t even have to worry about taking them to a special drop-off center.
Bonus: “Aspirational Recycling”
As mentioned before, contaminants can mess up the recycling process if present in large quantities. Anything that doesn’t fit into Metro’s requirements is considered a “contaminant,” even if those things can be recycled elsewhere (e.g. egg cartons or plastic bags). If contaminants are present at a rate of over 20%, then Metro doesn’t get paid for that batch of recycling, which raises disposal costs in the long run. Given that, Public Works encourages everyone to avoid being an “aspirational recycler,” or the type of person who throws something in their recycling bin with the noble thought that “this seems like it should be recyclable, so I don’t want to throw it away, and Metro will sort it out anyways if it’s not recyclable…”. If you’re unsure if something can be recycled or not, look it up!
In addition to some of these recycling tips, we also learned several other fun facts about waste disposal more generally in Nashville. Here are some of the best ones:
- It costs Metro Nashville $34.50/ton to landfill garbage, which added up to more than $5 million in landfill costs in 2014. Conversely, Metro makes money on every ton of recycling they collect, so the more we recycle, the lower our waste disposal costs are and the higher our chances of making waste disposal a net financial win overall!
- Metro collects roughly 30,000 tons of yard waste per year and turns much of it into mulch, which is available for purchase to the general public (at a really low cost!) at Metro’s Bordeaux facility.
- Metro will haul away your bulk trash items for free if you request it! Eligible items include furniture, appliances, car parts, and more.
- Several of Metro Nashville’s Recycling Drop-Off Sites are at local public schools. These schools are in charge of monitoring these areas and keeping them clean, and in return, Metro pays the schools $15/ton of recycled material. That means you can support your local school while recycling your waste – a win for kids and Mother Nature alike!
- East Recycling Center is the rockstar of all of Metro’s recycling facilities. As your best one-stop shop for properly disposing of anything and everything, they’ll take things no other drop-off center in Nashville will take, including household hazardous waste and refrigerators. If you need to get rid of something and aren’t sure where to take it, give the East Recycling Center a call first.
Still have questions? Check out the Metro Nashville Recycling Services website for more information. A big thanks again to Metro Public Works for taking the time to show us around their facility, and keep on recycling, Nashville!
– Matt (Team Green’s Event Coordinator)