The Importance of Cleaning, Drying, and Sorting

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

The drive to get high quality materials.

All to often I hear statements of irritation and contempt when I walk through a line at a Recycling Take Backs™ and ask community members if their recycling is sorted, clean, and in many cases label free. Responses are generally, "Yeah, I got that, but I don't get why we have to do this?" While others shrug me off with a 'yeah'. However, in a few instances when they get into the area where we accept plastic waste for recycling, it is discovered that the community member either did not sort their recycling, perhaps its not clean, or label free when necessary or all of the above. We understand your frustrations, and while it may seem like we are overly complicating our receiving process, there are clear reasons why it is necessary.


All Recycling Needs be as Clean as the Dishes in Your Dishwasher or Cabinets.

All recycling needs to be very clean for several reasons. The first of which is the storage of materials. In order to be as efficient as possible, and have the lowest possible carbon footprint, we store materials until we have predesignated 'full loads'. Since we are still lacking a facility, much of the materials are stored in residential storage units, or at my residence. In order to maintain our rental agreements, we are not allowed to store trash. This distinction is a very fine line, and in compliance with our rental agreement, we agreed will only store clean materials.


Another reason why we require that all materials be clean is due to the restrictions and standards placed unto us. Since about half of our materials go to a recycling facility that specializes in industrial waste feed stock, it is important to know that they do not have a wash line. Their limitations are our limitations, and ones that we must operate within to ensure that we keep access to their facilities. Lane County Waste Management is the catalyst for getting the 2/4/5 materials to this processor, and they too need to store the materials until they accumulate an entire tractor trailer load. Plastics submitted to this processor will be ground down into plastic pellets and used in creating new plastic resins without ever being washed.


Lastly, a large portion of our recycling is shipped through the mail or UPS to a processing facility that will turn the waste stock into new plastics. Since a lot of the shipping occurs with the use of cardboard boxes, it is imperative that everything be clean. Furthermore, both UPS and USPS have policies against shipping waste or biohazard materials. As with our storage facility, there is a fine line between recycling and garbage.


Clean Materials- Check, but why Does it Have to be Sorted?

  • #1 Bottles and Jugs

  • #2 Tubs and Lids

  • #2 Bottles and Jugs

  • #4 All Materials

  • #5 All Materials

  • Everything Else

We ask that all your recycling be sorted into the categories listed. Some people also sort out their personal care packaging and then their health and nutritional packaging. This helps speed the process up, but is not required. We ask that your sorting be done prior to coming to a Recycling Take Back™, so that we are able to serve all community members as efficiently as possible. Our goal is to make this process convenient for all, so that we can get quality materials, in a high volume, at a fast pace. At smaller events there can be as few as four volunteers for 75-125 households and our larger events serve an even larger crowd with 30-45 volunteers. At a few of our Recycling Take Backs™, the wait time has exceeded 60 minutes, and we would like to see that time decreased for everyone's benefit. Sorting is the key behind making this possible. The only way that we can decrease wait times is if we can get your help by following our instructions on each stream (found under the learn more tab on each stream), sort your materials, and proof your own materials the night before the Recycling Take Back™ you attend.


How to Identify if it is a Bottle or Jug


It is all about the existence of a seams, threaded necks (for screw on lids), and how the bottom of the container appears. If there is a faint seam and the bottom appears to be a button (raised area in the center of the conclave bottom) then what you are holding is referred to as a bottle/jug. Another way to identify if it is a jug/bottle would be the lid. If the lid screwed on, rather than popped on, that you are most likely looking at a bottle/jug and it can be recycled in the #1 PET stream. If it is a #1 plastic, but not a bottle/jug, it must be recycled via the $20 brown paper bag stream (ie. clamshells, etc.)


This information is useful in regards to both #1 and #2 streams of recycling. In the #1 PET stream of recycling, it identifies what you are able to recycle for free versus packaging that may need to be recycled in the $20 Brown Paper Bag stream of recycling. With regards to #2 HDPE recycling, we ask that you separate #2 bottles/jugs from other #2 plastics, as we are asked to recycle the two materials separately by the processor.


Materials That Need to be Delabeled


There are a lot of materials that we accept, and not all of them require you to delabel the packaging. We outline the label requirements for each material in the stream under "learn more, here. With that being said, let's make a cheat guide for delabeling your packaging.


  • In the 2/4/5 stream of recycling, it is imperative that labels and price stickers be removed. This would include plastic labels, mixed material labels, paper price stickers, discount stickers, and anything else applied to the material after production. You do not have to cut off heat applied labels (like most laundry detergent labels for instance) or printed on labels (most butter containers for instance).

  • It is also important to remove wrap around or shrink wrapped sleeves on #1 bottles and jugs.

  • If you work to remove the labels, we are more inclined to send it through the 2/4/5 streams. However, we expanded into all of the additional streams of waste to assist the community recycle as much as possible. If the material can be recycled in another one of our streams, it is essentially your choice where you would like it to go.


Why Does Everything Have to be Dry?


Yes, we have been known to reject clean and label free materials that are still wet. There are a few reasons for this, including safety concerns. All too often we hear that the moisture is only water. We are also then invited to smell the container to 'see for ourselves'. Let's be honest for a second, that statement makes me cringe, and is likely making all science teachers cringe as well. There are odors that can damage your sense of smell, and we encourage all volunteers to politely decline to smell the container, and to also hand it back and as that the community member bring it to us when it is fully dry.


The next concern is for the safety of volunteers and myself. If the liquid is in fact not water, there is the potential for chemical reactions with other materials we would be forced to collect in a similar state, if the our policy did not exist. Think about all the possible products or chemicals you purchase in containers, and then imagine all of that coming together in one single pool. It is a bit scary.


Lastly, thinking of that same situation illustrated above, then imagine sticking your hands into the pool of liquid to retrieve materials... we didn't enjoy it either. Not to mention, sticking hands into an unknown liquid poses serious safety hazards. For instance, chemical burns; yes, I have gotten a chemical burn from processing recycling we have accepted. There is also potential for other harm beyond mild chemical burn. We must also consider Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. We are unable to provide a full biohazard suit (or other critical personal protective gear) to all the volunteers who clean recycling, which would be the standard for working with caustic and at times flammable liquids. For all these reasons, we are highly unlikely to accept materials that are still wet, damp, or have visible liquids in them.


I understand that it seems that this is all one large hassle, and to an extend it is. It is a hassle to sort and stand in a line to recycle waste. It is a hassle to process it, and store it, and transport it. Yet, here we are and until big changes happen, we are likely to stay in this position.


Each time we choose the planet over our own convenience, we make a difference. Each time we make a choice to minimize our use of plastic, we reduce the overall waste that must be recycled.

If we all clean our recycling and work to reduce our individual contamination, there will be change. Furthermore, if companies that produce the packaging make it with recycling in mind and work to use recycled plastic more, we will see real progress. Here at EcoGeneration, we will continue to choose the planet. We will continue to work towards these goals. Thank you for making a difference!

We are here to help. If you have questions please join our recycling group on Facebook where we have several people who can answer your questions in a timely manner.

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