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What’s Your Recycling IQ?

A lot is going on in the fast-changing world of used plastic and paper
      It’s spring, and the garden is calling. With the threat of hard frost past, you’ve turned on your outdoor water and reattached your hose. But it’s spraying you from leaks all along its length. What should you do with that hose?
a. Recycle it
b. Trash it
c. Use if for a sprinkler hose.
d. Make it into recycled art.
      Are you sure? Better think about it for a second. Okay, here’s how you did, recycling experts say.
      B, C and D are all acceptable uses for a faulty hose. If you said A — like I did — you are what the pros of the recycling world call wish-cyclers. 
      We’re such believers in recycling that we stretch the limits of the possible past their breaking point. For all our good intentions, wish-cyclers actually make recycling less efficient and more costly.
       That hose can’t be recycled anywhere.
       Once your hose reaches sort-stage in the recycling process — for Anne Arundel County that’s Waste Management Recycle America in Elkridge — a guy working the line will grab it and toss it into the trash. 
     Then, at a cost to taxpayers of $45 a ton, your hose and all the other wish-cycling is hauled to some landfill. Handling accounts for part of that cost. Transportation for another. Your hose might be trucked to our own landfill at Millersville or to the Annapolis Junction Transfer Station. 
      If it’s the latter, it will then take a 75-mile rail trip to Virginia’s King George Landfill. Alternately, it could travel to Baltimore to be burned in the Wheelabrator incinerator.
       Clearly, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. 
How Dumb Am I?
      By now, you’ve probably got a question of your own: Am I a dummy?
      No. Recycling is complicated, controlled by interacting forces from the global to the local level.
      At the global level, the world is reeling with China’s withdrawal last year from the recycling market, where it had been a kingpin. Anne Arundel County is protected by what Recycling Program Manager Richard Bowen calls “a good contract, where the maximum price is what we’re now paying.” But the whole marketplace is in flux as new players jump in.
       There is much to remember. From the plastics — the most challenging item in our recycling — we have resin codes, numbers 1 to 7 set in triangles to identify the nature and properties of the various common plastics. 
      The two most recycled are No. 1 for PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is used for single-use bottles containing drinks and cooking oil. And No. 2 for HDPE (high-density polyethylene), used in jugs for milk and cleaning agents.
      As guides to recycling, the coded triangles are not all that useful. Both Anne Arundel and Calvert allow us to include in our recycling some plastics graded non-recyclable, mingling them in mixed-plastic bales that bring the lowest price.
      At the local level, our counties determine their own recycling practices. To achieve the high participation it values — consistently over 40 percent — Anne Arundel has made recycling easy, with curbside pickup and single stream recycling.
      Single stream is an enticing concept for wish-cyclers. When you’re invited to throw all your recycling into one bin, you tend to define all pretty broadly, in favor of just about anything.
      Direct mail like last July’s Know Before You Throw flyer, newspaper stories and advertisements keep us educated, so we all know what we can put into the stream and what we can’t — sort of. 
       Except in Chesapeake Beach and North Beach and neighborhoods or communities with private contractors, Calvert County does it differently, relying on citizens to sort recycling into more categories and drop it off ourselves at community recycling centers. 
      To keep sharp, maybe you could schedule family lessons and recycling quizzes.
Do We Need a Cheat Sheet?
      Broadly speaking, in both Anne Arundel and Calvert, your bin recyclables fall into four categories: paper, plastic; glass; and metal. 
      The easiest kinds of plastic to recycle are 1 and 2, which are easy to identify as they’re typically bottles that have necks. The most valuable plastic for recycling, they’re separated from the other numbers in sorting and bailed separately, in No. 1 No. 2 natural and No 2 colored bales. Certainly recycle those.
     In sending recycling to your county, where participation and volume are prized over material quality, you can recycle just about any other plastic that will fit into your bin. The exception is Styrofoam (one kind of No. 6. PS, Polystyrene). Thus toss in your plastic food containers, from yogurt and margarine tubs to lettuce clamshells to lidded take-out dishes.
      Calvert gives specific advice for any recycler game to read the resin codes: Commingle plastics 1 through 5 and 7, including lids and plastics with attached paper labels.
      In Calvert, you must not “commingle” plastic and paper recycling. But in Anne Arundel you may single-stream them. 
      It’s a big no-no in both counties to simply stuff your recycling into plastic garbage bags. Recyclables closed in garbage bags are tossed unopened into the trash, costing the county in two ways: in loss as recyclable material and their higher handling price — $45 per ton as opposed to $12.50.
      Plastic Nos. 3 through 7 are baled together to eventually be broken down and processed into plastic flake used for lumber, furniture, carpeting and clothing. “They don’t bring a high dollar amount,” says Anne Arundel’s Bowen, “but they’re being recycled.” 
What about Big or Rigid Plastics?
      This time of year, you may be returning home from the garden center with flowers, vegetables and shrubs housed in plastic pots. You’re an earth-friendly person, so you’ll reuse some of those pots. But most of them are headed for your recycling bin. Right?
      Sort of. 
      In Anne Arundel County, flower pots fall into the roomy category of rigid plastic, along with plastic detritus such as old buckets, wading pools and junky toys. Throw it all into your yellow — Anne Arundel — but not Calvert — bin. It will wind up crushed into bales of mixed plastic.
      In both counties, rigid plastic that won’t fit in your bin can be delivered to your convenience center.
What’s the Worst Problem, Maybe?
      Plastic bags, what the trade calls film, has become the Big Bad Wolf of county recycling. And not just in Maryland. Everywhere, you can see them blowing across the landscape, befouling beautiful earth.
      Light, flexible and flighty, plastic bags do more than uglify the world: In recycling, they worm into gears of conveyor belts on which all recycling flows. Then the system screeches to a halt, and workers must dig into the mechanism to yank and scrape out the problems.
      “Plastic bags don’t play nice with the machinery at the recycling facility,” explained Mayor Gavin Buckley of why Annapolis ended curbside pickup of the lightweight bags.
     Both Anne Arundel and Calvert still accept plastic film of all sorts — including bubble wrap — at recycling centers.
     But taking them to grocery stores may be a better idea. Giant Foods, for one, recycled 1,431 tons of plastic film to be made into Trex composite decking last year.
What About Food Leftovers and Such?
     If high-grade material is your goal, as it is at the Smithsonian Institution, which recycles more than 40 percent of all its packaging and food waste, food residue left in plastic bottles and containers is a degrading contaminant. It’s also kind of disgusting and an insult to recycling workers.
      However in our counties, emptying, rinsing and washing are at your discretion. Minimal food residue is acceptable.
      That doesn’t mean recycling a jar plus the moldy spaghetti sauce still in it. If it breaks and spills all over the stuff in your bin, Bowen explains, “it can ruin all the paper it touches.”
Bonus Question 1 for Advanced Recyclers
Are Peppermint Pattie foil packages recyclable?
How about Little Stuff?
      Plastic forks and spoons? Lids? Combs and old pens? Reyclable?
      Yes and no.
      Lids can stay on containers. Leaving a cap loosely screwed on a soda bottle can keep out bees, a hazard for workers. In crushing, the lids pop off. Tightly screwed lids, especially on bottles still containing liquids, can cause explosions.
      Calvert wants no plastic eating utensils. But Anne Arundel says toss it all in.
      Perhaps it would be better if people did not get plastic utensils in the first place — and certainly not plastic straws, which take a toll both on wildlife and the environment.
What About This Darn Styrofoam?
      Don’t even think about trying to recycle Styrofoam; neither county willingly takes it. It’s trash, pure and simple, off to plug up landfills for hundreds of years.
      Styrofoam food and drink containers were banned this year first in Anne Arundel County and then statewide, and will be phased out of use by July 2020. Maryland is a leader nationally in coming to our sense about polystyrene, the first state to engineer a ban.
      Heavy packing styrofoam and those packaging peanuts that fall out of the box are recyclable — albeit with energy expenditure on your part. Recycle packaging peanuts at many postal stores, including UPS. Recycle block styrofoam at Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, 1298 Cronson Blvd., Crofton: 410-451-8340.
Any Problems with Paper?
       Paper is pretty easy. Both counties accept it with few exceptions, those largely having to do with food. Office paper, mail, newspapers, magazines, books, paperboard and cardboard all are recyclable. Flatten cardboard boxes and rinse out juice boxes and milk cartons. Even clean food boxes can be recycled. But not food-stained paper, including paper towels and used paper plates. You can bin pizza boxes in Anne Arundel and Annapolis, but not in Calvert.
      In Calvert, paper must be separate from other recyclables and bagged or tied.
      In Anne Arundel, you can toss all your paper into the single stream.
      Both counties accept shredded paper, despite its difficulty to control in air-sorting, but ask for it in paper bags tied closed.
Bonus Question 2 for Advanced Recyclers
Are potato chip bags trash or recyclable?
What Else Can I Bin?
      Glass and metal. Aluminum is the most valuable stuff in your recycling bin. Aluminum cans can come back to life nine times without downgrading. The cost of its production — mining bauxite ore, chemically extracting raw aluminum and making things out of it — is balanced by its long useful life. Recycle clean aluminum foil, too. 
      Steel and tin, even metal bottle caps and canning lids with rubber seals are also valuable. They’re pulled out of the recycling stream by big magnets. Aluminum, which isn’t magnetic, is harvested by the more sophisticated technology of an eddy or Foucault current.
Bonus Question 3 for Advanced Recyclers
Are metal hangers recyclable?
       Glass has so little recycling value nowadays that many recycling programs, including the state of Montana, no longer accept it. In Anne Arundel, says Bowen, “We pay an additional fee to help get it recycled.”
      Glass is heavy, adding energy costs. It’s also demanding, adding more costs.
       Remember back when you sorted your glass by color? There was logic in that. Now on its trip through the recycling line, the crushed cullets of multicolored glass are screened out, then optically sorted. 
      Despite the cost, in both Anne Arundel and Calvert we can bin container glass for recycling. Leave out drinking glasses and window glass. Tempered glass goes to the trash.
And That’s Not All
     That’s it for your bin. But far from it for recycling. In both counties, denizens can recycle all kinds of waste, from electronics to oyster shells, rubble to wire hangers — and way more. Most of it — with a couple of Anne Arundel exceptions — you’ll have to tote to your local convenience center.
      In Anne Arundel, curbside pickup includes yard waste, which is the second biggest component of the county’s 65,000 annual recycling tonage. 
      Some 22,000 tons are composted and sold, but only in bulk. The Leafgro we buy bagged is composted from yard waste originating in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties.
      But to get picked up, your yard waste must be in the right package. That’s a big container — any kind but your yellow recycling bin will do — marked with an X, or a paper yard waste bag. Anne Arundel outlawed plastic bags for yard waste back in 2017. Leave those out for pickup, and they’ll sit until the cows come home. 
      Calvert Countians can take all yard waste and brush to any convenience center. (SEE EDITOR's NOTE)
      There, and in Anne Arundel’s convenience centers as well, you’ll be directed to collection spots for all the other recyclables. So pack your still-wearable clothes and shoes in one bag and textiles only fit for rags in another. Haul in your fallen metal gutters and downspouts, vinyl siding, scrap metal and automotive parts. Roll in your old tires. Tote in your electronics and car batteries and motor oil, too. There are places for all of them.
      For really big stuff — fridges and appliances among the recyclables; mattresses among the trash — Anne Arundel residents get a big break: Your county will come pick them up by appointment.
Krista Pfunder Boughey contributed to this story.
Bonus Answers 
1. Peppermint Pattie foil packages are ­recyclable; they’re aluminum foil.
2. ­Chip and snack bags are not recyclable as most are made from mixed material, aluminum laminated with polypropylene, or low-density polyethylene film.
3. Metal hangers are not welcome in recycling bins. Because of their hooks and wiry form, they get caught on recycling equipment and cause massive damage to the system. However both counties accept them at recycling centers.
EDITORS NOTE: York Peppermint Patties are no longer packaged in recyclable foil wrapping but in the typical non-recyclable candy wrapper used by most manufacturers. So if your York Peppermint Pattie is fresh, its package is trash.
      Anne Arundel County’s recycling amounts to about 65,000 tons per year, plus (not including) 22,000 tons of yard waste. 
     In Calvert County, yard debris is accepted only at the Appeal Landfill, not at the convenience centers, and is charged by weight. Christmas trees recycled in the month of January are the only exception.