Most of those carry-out orders aren’t recyclable

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, recycling centers have seen a lot more materials coming in.

Especially cardboard boxes and carry-out items.

“People are doing all that online shopping and so there’s been a ton of that cardboard, which is great and easy to recycle,” Patience Melnik, the city of Knoxville’s Waste and Resources Manager, said.

Speaking of the pandemic, Melnik said most PPE isn’t recyclable, such as masks, gloves and aerosol cans.

However, hand sanitizer bottles (with the pump removed) and disinfectant wipes bottles can be recycled.

Cardboard boxes might be easy to recycle, but most carry-out items aren’t, Melnik said.

“The kind of cardboard, brown boxes that you see that look like they’re paper are typically lined with plastic, and so they are not recyclable; straws are not recyclable,” Melnik said.

Melnik said plastic utensils, disposable foam containers and plastic bags aren’t recyclable either.

She said that this is essentially the rule of thumb to follow: “If you see that little plastic recycling symbol on the bottom of your plastic, go ahead and put it in with one caveat: do not put (foam cups or boxes) in. It does have that symbol, but it is not recyclable,” Melnik.

Melnik said the materials are technically recyclable, but can’t go to the recycling facility because they are too expensive to recycle.

“At the end of the day recycling is a business, and if it’s too expensive to process the recycled material, and it becomes more expensive than the virgin materials, then we just can’t recycle,” Melnik said.

She said although people may wish to be eco-friendly and recycle more often, recycling items that shouldn’t be can be more harm than good.

Melnik said there’s a lot of materials that have multiple issues when recycling.

For example, glass is tough on the machinery and there’s no good market for it.

Melnik said when glass goes through an unsorted line at the plant, it gets mixed in with little bits of trash and it looks like a pile of glassy trash.

“Whereas if people bring it here to the city’s recycling centers, and it’s sorted and it’s just glass, that product still has some value,” Melnik said.

She said that’s why glass is no longer accepted from the at-home recycling bins, but is accepted at the recycling centers.

Melnik said there is also an issue with contamination when it comes to recycling materials that shouldn’t be recycled.

There are some contaminates that recycling centers can handle; they can pull out those materials a little easier.

However, some items, like plastic bags, are really hard on the whole system, therefore can contaminate the rest of the recyclables.

“Those bags kind of wrap around the cogs and they numerous times a day have to shut down the equipment, a guy has to jump down in there, pull out all those bags,” Melnik said.

Melnik said she knows what can or can’t be recycled often changes and can be confusing.

That’s why the City partnered with Waste Connections to make it even more simple.

First, they are in the process of updating all the recycling facilities with easily readable signs.

Second, the City is updating their website at knoxvilletn.gov/recycling so residents can enter in any item they have questions about and find out if it’s recyclable.

Melnik said that new search system will be available next week.

In the meantime, here’s a list of what can be recycled in your bins at home:

  • Plastics: plastic bottles and lids, plastic cups, plastic jugs, milk jugs, detergent containers,
    all plastic containers #1-7 (#6 foam containers are not accepted)
  • Metals: aluminum cans, steel cans, tin cans
  • Paper/Cardboard: newspaper, magazines, junk mail, sticky notes, envelopes (not necessary to remove plastic windows), notebooks, office paper with or without staples and tape, cereal boxes, cardboard, shredded paper (placed in a paper bag to prevent scattered pieces)

Here’s what you should do before putting them in your bin:

STEP 1: Rinse all recyclable containers
STEP 2: Flatten all recyclable boxes
STEP 3: Place recyclables into cart
STEP 4: Take cart to within 3 feet of curb on collection day

Melnik said even the smallest amount of properly recycled items helps keep the eco-system clean.

“Don’t worry that if you make a little mistake in your bin, that your whole bin is contaminated and it’s not going to be recycled. It will be. But we really want everybody to just do the best they can, be as careful as they can so as a whole, the system is working well and we can continue to recycle,” Melnik said.

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