Does imperfect recycling get dumped?
May 11, 2017 1:23 AM   Subscribe

I just found out that my local council's recycling programme will recycle plastic bottles, but not their caps. You are not my local recycling plant, but what has likely happened to all the bottles I've put in the recycling bin in the past - does someone go through removing caps, label sleeves etc? Or has it all gone in the trash since it's not technically within their requirements?
posted by Gordafarin to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My place changed the rule a few years ago as part of a national campaign. The recycling industry says it's OK, but your local might do something weird.
posted by Lame_username at 2:07 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]

I worked briefly for the environment department of my local council (in the UK) and I think there was a legal requirement that recycling go through some kind of sorting process after collection. This usually meant people standing by a conveyor belt as everything went by, taking out rubbish, sorting the different classes of waste (we have mixed recycling collections) etc. I've actually seen a video of this very recently, I'll see if I can find it. Of course, in your area, YRMV.
posted by penguin pie at 2:08 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Depends on the area and the item. As an example, CD jewel boxes from Hennepin county (which contains Minneapolis) used to be handled by a company in Wisconsin. When that company closed, the effort to separate the jewel boxes into their components (the inner bit is a different kind of plastic from the shell) meant it was no longer worth recycling them, so they got sorted into the trash and burned or landfilled. Bottles with caps on are similarly trash unless there's a company to buy the "mixed" plastic, or the recycler uses equipment which grinds the plastic first and then separates it (the current state of the art, but not everyone is current).

Having a human unscrew the bottle caps generally doesn't pay, so it generally isn't done. They're either machine separated or treated as trash.
posted by DaveP at 3:17 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

I just asked my local council (Brighton) and they still ask caps to be removed, so unfortunately the "caps on is OK!" page is not universally applicable yet. I asked what happens to bottles with caps on, they said they have to be hand-sorted and have the caps removed manually. Your council may vary.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:37 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]

So... should one generally put caps in the trash, or in recycling separately?

(I'm in the US, but interested in the locally relevant answer for the OP)
posted by amtho at 4:42 AM on May 11

It depends.

There was an excellent thread on this at reddit recently: [REQUEST] someone involved high-up in the Australian recycling chain.

Your stuff is taken to a Materials Recycling Facility. This could be anything from a barn full of low-paid workers with few incentives all the way to a sophisticated de-manufactory that can separate material in remarkably clever ways.

This post describes how it's done.
posted by Combat Wombat at 5:07 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Aveda salons collect caps to recycle separately in the US, they have big bins near the door.

The reason you can't send caps (or at least the reason I locally couldn't send caps in mixed recycling) is that in older sorting systems, they can shoot out of machines like bullets and hit workers. They've since upgraded the machines and now I can throw caps in mixed recycling.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:21 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Different local recycling programs have different capabilities. I attended a presentation by a representative of the recycler that handles my workplace's program, and its capabilities had changed in the last year due to new equipment being installed. (Really nice to be able to ask detailed questions about things like bottle caps and how greasy is too greasy for recycling cardboard pizza boxes.)

Most recyclers put non-compliant items into the trash stream rather than working to separate recyclables from non-recyclable caps or whatever. Mixed materials can be a real problem, like non-microwaveable disposable coffee cups. They're not recyclable, since there's ‚Äča plastic layer in between the cardboard layers, and way too difficult to salvage with current equipment.

Anyway, ask about your local program, since you might find out about things you didn't know were recyclable that are, and it's nice to know how it all works. It was a great comfort to me that even though plastic bags aren't recyclable in the usual stream for my local, they don't make the entire batch a waste. They do make the workers stop frequently to clean bag crud out of the machinery, though.
posted by asperity at 5:59 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

It may help your thinking about the answer to this question if you reframe your view of recycling from a stream that goes from your collection point to a 'recycling' factory that remanufactures your old goods into new goods and, instead, try to view your recycling as an economic comodity. Your recycling will most likely be packaged and sold to a buyer for a price that changes according to many factors including how your local sorting facility prepares what is sent there, the quality of the recycled good, market demand and shipping costs:

1. The sorted items may be sold... the price would depend on quality. Glass sorted by color, glass a specific color, plastic without caps, plastic with caps... who knows.

2. The recycling facility may have to pay for the items to be collected and taken for furrther sorting

3. The demand might be low and the recycling sorting facility may simply trash the items (depending on the level of freedom they have) by sending them to a landfill or incinerator.

4. Pre packages items might be sent to an intermediate handling sorting center who will try to add value by sorting, crushing, prepackaging the material etc. and then reselling it.

5. The whole system depends also on local, national and international shipping rates... It may be more profitable to send the recycling locally or to china or africa for example.

6. 'imperfectly sorted' recycling will either lower the value of the items to be sold, or it will make the work at the sorting facility more expensive. At the sorting facility, they may have a policy to 'fix' improperly recycled goods, or they may just toss them, depending on costs and rules.

A good way to understand this is to read some of the reporting that has been done about donated clothing that ends up as a comoditiy shipped to customers all over the world, instead of, as a lot of people believed going directly into the wardrobes of people who need clothing.
posted by jazh at 7:49 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Patience until your local plastics recovery facility modernizes. Here's a video about the latest plastic sorting technology. The video shows the conveyors and mechanical separators and grinders. The video's plastics recovery facility wants the caps to be left on the bottle/container. They shred everything together, including foam/styrofoam and then separate it. There isn't a group of workers manually removing the caps.
posted by dlwr300 at 8:28 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

Here's an article describing single stream recycling in detail.
posted by ambrosen at 2:55 PM on May 11

Here's your answer direct from your council (assuming your profile location is correct).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 12:46 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]

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