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Items you should and shouldn't be recycling

Posted at 5:44 AM, Feb 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-05 16:51:36-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — (NOTE: Wednesday, Kent County announced its recycling center will be closed for equipment upgrades from Feb. 24 through Mar. 13. Steve Guitar, spokesperson for the City of Grand Rapids, tells us the city's recycling pickups will not be affected and will proceed on schedule during that time.)

The City of Grand Rapids offers what is called single stream curbside recycling pickup, and 80 percent of residents take advantage of the free service. But is the right stuff going into the recycling carts?

To answer that question, I invited the Director of Public Services James Hurt to take a look at how my family filled our cart.

First, terminology and process. Single stream refers to the recycling process where residents don’t have to sort materials going into the cart: cans, paper, cardboard, it all goes in. The City of Grand Rapids provides free use of small or large recycling carts to any resident who wants to participate. Collection is made on the same day the city picks up the trash, though recycling is picked up by different collection trucks than the trash.

Hurt used the word "contamination" a lot.

Contamination happens when undesirable matter enters the recycling stream, which makes surrounding recyclable material worthless or less valuable.

Some materials gum up the machinery used in recycling. That’s why the Kent County system announced that plastic grocery bags and shredded paper will no longer be accepted.

The most unusual things people throw into the recycling? "We see window blinds; oh, yeah, 2-by-4's. You can recycle wood, but that’s not what goes into your recycling cart."

Then there’s the icky stuff that contaminates the recycling stream: "We see trash, we see car parts, we see diapers, we see cat feces, things like that nature, " Hurt said.

He didn’t find anything like that in MY cart.

But Hurt found a problem the moment we dumped our cart’s contents into a city recycling truck: There was a cardboard box filled with more cardboard broken down from other boxes. "First thing, boxes should always be broken down,” he noted. Unless cardboard is broken down into pieces that are smaller than the space in the cart, they can cause a jam that keeps some of your recycling from unloading into the truck.

As for any containers of food or other material like detergent, rinse them out. The recycling center runs best with “good, clean, rinsed out material," Hurt said. My cart’s cans were rinsed, but not the detergent container.

The biggest surprise? Styrofoam, from egg containers and meat trays to styrofoam used in shipping. "You do see some residents that are putting styrofoam in, and they think they’re doing the right thing, but styrofoam should not be in the recycling," Hurt explained. A few companies accept styrofoam for recycling, but they have restrictions.

Where does all the good recycling material go? First, said Hurt, it all goes to the Kent County recycling center and then to market. "Kent County has markets throughout Michigan, and I think there are some in Indiana where they sell paper and cardboard and glass to those markets that they can use them in other products."

How did we do?

"I gave you an A-minus, Robb," Hurt pronounced.

I was always an A-minus student in school.

Details of Single Stream Recycling in GR: What you can and cannot recycle

Recyclable content