Earth Day Webinar Q&A

RethinkWaste and Recology San Mateo County held a Webinar Q&A on Earth Day’s 50th Birthday on April 22, 2020. We received many engaging and thoughtful questions, and we promised we’d share them all here for future reference. If you have more questions, fill out the form below!

Q: How do we dispose of empty prescription bottles? I have heard that even though there is a Renewable Identification Number (RIN, also often referred to as a chasing arrows symbol) #5 on them, they are not actually recyclable – is this true?

A: Rigid plastic containers that hold their shape can go in the recycling. We recommend removing the label to protect your personal information. If you still have unused medicine, you can dispose of it at various locations including police stations and local pharmacies, such as CVS. 

Q: How do we dispose of the metal lids on glass jars? Are they trash or recycle?

A: Although they are two different materials, both are recyclable and should be put into your blue recycling cart with the metal lid on the glass jar. When the glass jar comes to the Shoreway Environmental Center to get sorted, the glass is easily separated from the metal lid so you can keep it on. We prefer all lids from containers be replaced back on before putting it into the recycling to protect clean, dry paper products. 

Q: How clean do plastic and glass containers need to be in order to recycle them properly? For example, does peanut butter need to be completely scrubbed out before putting them in the recycling?

A: The cleaner the container is the better chance it has to be recycled. Please take the extra step to rinse or wipe your containers out, then let the container dry before placing into your blue recycling cart. Additionally, keep the lid on to prevent any remaining food residue from contaminating the paper products. 

Q: Do labels need to be taken off of jars/bottles? And what about the glue that is stuck on it from the removal of the label?

A: We do not require labels to be taken off of jars and bottles, as they end up getting taken off in the recycling process. Labels on medications should be taken off for privacy. Glue that is stuck from the removal of the label can be left on and does not need to be cleaned off.

Q: Can compostable pet waste bags (BPI certified) and their contents go into the compost bin? And kitchen compost bags?

A: No, we don’t want any kind of pet or human waste in the green compost cart because it presents a health risk. The finished compost gets sold to farmers and vineyards to fertilize our food supply, so we want our compost to be clean. The BPI certified pet waste bags are still a good alternative to plastic, however if they contain feces, please discard them in the landfill cart. 

Q: How can we encourage others to compost? 

A: Sharing the many benefits of composting and how you compost at home can encourage and lead others to start! A huge benefit of composting is its ability to return valuable nutrients to our soil and plants. It has the added bonus of combating climate change as diverting organic material away from the landfill reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Diverting this material will also lead to a reduced amount of landfill garbage you discard—you might even save on your bill as compost is offered at a reduced rate!  It’s easier than people realize, and you can share that with them. 

Q: Are biodegradable items compostable? 

A: Biodegradable and compostable are often used interchangeably, but not all things that are labeled biodegradable are actually compostable. The only non-organic items that can go in the compost are those that are BPI-Certified compostable. BPI certification indicates that the product has been tested by a third party, and guarantees the material will break down in an industrial composting facility within the appropriate time. The term biodegradable is often used, along with other greenwashed marketing words such as eco-friendly and nature-made, as a marketing tool. It has no certification associated with it, and there is no guarantee that the material will break down at the composting facility. Non-BPI-Certified products should go into the black garbage cart. 

Q: What about single use utensils that say they are compostable?

A: Single-use utensils that are labeled BPI-Certified compostable are okay to go into the green compost cart, as that stamp of approval means they can break down in an industrial composting facility. All other plastic or non-BPI-Certified utensils should go into the black garbage cart. 

Q: What is the difference between compostable vs biodegradable?

A: The difference between BPI-Certified compostable and biodegradable products is that items that have gone through the process of becoming certified compostable can break down at an industrial composting facility. In contrast, items that have the ‘biodegradable’ label are still made up of some plastic and will not break down in a composting facility.

Q: I heard China isn’t buying our recycling material anymore. Is it true that our recycling material eventually end[s] up as landfill?

A: In March 2018, China enacted the National Sword policy requiring imported recyclables to meet more stringent contamination rates. This made it harder to market plastics and mixed papers. Despite this, most the recyclables collected in the Recology San Mateo County service area are still being sold, either domestically (glass and metal) or internationally to other countries (mixed paper, cardboard, plastics #1 & #2). Currently there are no markets to sell plastics #3-7, and these plastics are being landfilled. This should encourage people to refuse plastic items, knowing that not all plastics are recyclable, and choose metal and glass options which can be recycled.   

Q: If we see the three chasing arrows on the black plastic can we put it in the recycle bin?

A: No, black plastic should be placed in the black garbage cart because the optical sorter at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) cannot sort it out. Additionally, black plastic is a low-quality plastic that is difficult to market. It is important to note that the three chasing arrows symbol does not mean that the plastic is recyclable, please refer to only our acceptable items as a guide to placing products in your blue recycling cart. 

Q: We were told at one point that we could put recyclable plastic bags into the blue bin (preferred all placed into one bag), but now is that no longer the case?

A: If you work and live in different cities, you will want to check if there are differences for what items are accepted in the recycling. The plastic bag policy you are referring to is for Recology San Francisco, please check with them if plastic bags are still accepted in their recycling program. For Recology San Mateo County service area, plastic bags are not accepted in the blue recycling cart. Like other soft, flimsy plastics plastic bags are hard to recycle and can become entangled in the machinery at the MRF. 

Q: Can you recycle plastic bags?

A: Plastic bags are not accepted in the blue recycling cart. Like other soft, flimsy plastics plastic bags are hard to recycle and can become entangled in the machinery at the MRF. All your recyclable materials should be placed into the blue cart loose, not bagged up in a plastic liner! Check with major grocery distributors such as Safeway or Lucky’s as they sometimes have collection centers for plastic bags. 

Q: What about bundled cardboard, we were told we can use duct tape to bundle. Is this true?

A: Cardboard can be bundled with string, which is preferred for easy removal, whereas duct tape is more difficult to remove for the sorting workers at the facility since the sorting line is moving very quickly.

Q: Can we place shipping plastic in a separate bag for processing?

A: No, we do not accept shipping plastic in the blue recycling cart. It is a type of soft, flimsy plastic that can become entangled in the machinery at the MRF. Many large shipping companies such as UPS or FedEx are willing to take the plastic packing bubbles back to reuse, but you should call ahead to check that they will take it back. Additionally, think about if you will be sending packages in the future to reuse for your own packages! 

Q: Are the foil tops to yogurt containers recyclable? And just to confirm, labels on eg. banana peels are not compostable?

A: Yes and yes! Foil tops of yogurt containers can be recycled; the foil wrap should be balled up before placing into the blue recycling cart. This includes any aluminum foil sheets. Sticker labels are not compostable and should be removed from fruits and vegetables before the food waste is placed in the compost. The sticker labels should be placed in the black garbage cart.

Q: How about shredded paper with staples, credit cards? Where does it go?

A: Staples in shredded paper is fine, but we ask that the shredded paper is in a sealed paper bag that is labeled “shredded paper” to easily identify when on the sorting line. Credit cards are unmarked plastic and belong in the black garbage cart. 

Q: I purchase almond milk that has a waxed cardboard container and plastic top. I rinse the container, tear out the plastic top, throw the plastic top away and put the waxed cardboard container into the compost bin. Is this correct or does even that waxed cardboard container have a plastic liner?

A: If you purchased your alternative milk from the refrigerated section, you can remove the plastic top/lid and place your container in the recycling. If you purchased your alternative milk in the shelf-stable aisle, this type of container is known as an aseptic container (sometimes known as Tetra-Pak). These containers are made of different types of materials – plastic, paper, and aluminum, and because these items are mixed it cannot be recycled. Aseptic containers go into your black garbage cart. A good reuse tip would be to cut the container in half and use it as a planting pot, avoiding the landfill altogether! 

Q: Can cooking oil be put into compost?

A: No, we do not want heavy liquids in the compost. Used cooking oil can be collected in a sealed container and taken to the Shoreway Public Recycling Center once it is back open after the Shelter In Place has been lifted. 

Q: Can you help me figure out what to do with mail? There’s a mixture of postcards and daily fliers made of paper materials. Does the type/quality of paper matter for recycling (specifically the thick, glossy-coated papers)? Also, what about envelopes with windows? Are those recyclable?

A: Mail of all paper types can go in the blue recycling cart. We welcome anyone going above and beyond, but do understand this is a lot to ask for so we do not require envelopes with windows to be taken off. We also encourage you to take your name off of mailing lists that you do not read, as this ends the cycle of receiving unnecessary mail! 

Q: Quite a bit of plastic packaging does not have the chasing arrows and a number on it. Does that go into trash?

A: Yes, it has to go in the black garbage cart, unless you can creatively reuse it! The three chasing arrows symbol does not guarantee that plastic products can be recycled. It is better to follow the guidelines than to “wishcycle” plastics. It is even better to refuse plastics and instead buy glass or metal products that we know can be recycled. 

Q: Living in an apartment complex, we do not have a compost bin. Does Recology provide compost bins for apartments?

A: Compost is currently available for apartment complexes. We recommend speaking with your Property Manager to set up a compost program. It is also helpful to speak with your neighbors to see if they are also interested in a compost program, because with more residents interested, the Property Manager will be more inclined to add the program. We encourage more multi-family complexes to have a compost program to divert more organic materials out of the landfill! 

Q: Many grocery stores have bulk dry foods but only flimsy plastic bags to put the materials in.  Do any stores make it easier to get the tare on our own containers if we want to bring them to the store for these bulk items?

A: Certain stores, like Whole Foods and Sprouts, will let you tare the weight of your containers. After the first time it has been weighed, you can label your container with that tare weight so you do not have to keep doing it every time! Cloth bags are also good alternatives to plastic bags and can be used for dry goods and fresh produce as well!

Q: If I have old ratty 100% cotton shirts (that aren’t appropriate for donating to Goodwill, etc) can I place these in the compost since cotton is a natural fiber?

A: Since we don’t know what the shirt is treated with, it is not safe to place in the green compost cart. Consider donating to a local animal shelter first. Another reuse idea is to cut up the shirt and use it for dusting, cleaning, etc. During this time, some people are using old shirts for making face masks. 

Q: In some areas, you are no longer allowed to bring in your own reusable bags to grocery stores.  Any tips on getting around this in a safe manner?

A: An option is to keep everything in the cart and wait until you go outside the store, you can bag it yourself in your reusable bags. Alternatively, you can choose paper bags at the grocery store instead of a plastic bag.

Q: What if my paper gets wet, can I still put it in the recycling?

A: Whenever a paper product has touched food or liquid, it should then go into the green compost cart. Now that the paper is wet it has lost its quality and will be harder to recycle, but paper is an organic material and can go into the compost instead! 

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