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What Can Actually Go Into The Recycling Bin?

Benoit Rochon, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recycling has gone way up during the coronavirus pandemic,

A new survey by Republic Services, which hauls trash and recyclables in Clark County, found that 65 percent of those surveyed said spending more time at home has made them more aware of their impact on the environment, and 33 percent are sorting recyclables more. 

Jeremy Walters is the community relations manager for Republic Services. He believes recycling has gone up because people now have an idea of just how much trash they throw out.

"We each have what I call two waste streams," he said, "We have our home waste stream and our outside lifestyle waste stream. When you're out at the house or out a school you're creating trash. If you're in an office, you might have a janitorial staff who actually takes that trash and recycling out for you to the bin. So, you're a little removed from that process and you may not realize how much trash you actually generate."

Now that a lot of people are working from home or are home a lot more, Walters said, they're starting to see just how much trash they're creating. However, the upside is people are now shifting to more sustainable choices because of that awareness. 

But there are still challenges to recycling, and Nevada is still below the national average when it comes to recycling.

The survey by Republic Services also found about one-fourth of respondents said they don’t understand what  can and can’t be recycled.

Essentially, paper, cardboard, aluminum, and glass can be recycled, but styrofoam, wax-covered cardboard, yard clippings and food scraps can not.

Pizza boxes are a great example of the recycling problem. They are usually heavy-duty cardboard, but they're also usually covered in grease and food scraps. 

Tara Pike is the sustainability coordinator at UNLV, and she deals with a lot of pizza boxes on campus. 

"Any paper product that's covered in food or grease or anything that can mold or be stinky needs to go in the landfill or your compost bin," she said.

Pike said if there is no grease on the top of the pizza box you can pull it apart and recycle that part. She also advises people to rinse out recyclable plastics and glass jars. They don't have to perfectly spotless but giving them a rinse helps. 

One of the biggest questions about what can be recycled and what can't is plastics. 

Walters said rigid plastic containers like milk jugs and water bottles can be recycled. Republic Services takes plastics that are stamped with a 1, 2 or 5. 

Plastics that are flexible like plastic shopping bags, plastic wrap for food storage, the plastic film that some products are wrapped in, or bubble wrap and other packing materials are NOT recyclable.

In fact, they are a big problem at the recycling plant.

"It creates a number of challenges at the recycling center and I would say, universally, flexible plastics are probably the number one problem that we have at any of our recycling centers across the nation," he said.

Walters said consumers need to make better choices about packaging like picking products with less packaging, choosing products in recyclable packaging, and using reusable grocery bags.

Another thing that is not only not recyclable but is actually dangerous is lithium-ion batteries. Regular alkaline batteries can't be recycled either but they can be put in the trash.

Walters and Pike said electronics with lithium-ion batteries or rechargeable batteries need to be taken to special drop-off points that specifically take in e-waste.

"These lithium-ion batteries are probably the single most scary thing that we see come through our recycling centers but also our transfer stations and ultimately to the landfill," Walters said, "If they crack, if they puncture, they get oxygen to them and fires start and these fires are very significant, especially when you think about the composition of the material at a recycling center. There's a lot of paper and cardboard that's a great fuel source for a fire to get out of hand."

Walters said never put things like tablets or smartphones into the recycling bin. There are mail-back programs for some batteries and products. There are also specialized e-waste recycling programs.

People can also contact those programs for out-of-date TVs. However, Pike said you may have to pay a small fee to the program to have the TV taken off your hands. 

One of the final findings from the survey by Republic Services is that 15 percent of respondents didn't think recycling makes any difference. 

Pike said it does make a difference in keeping our environment clean.

"Materials made from recyclable materials use less water. They use less energy. They make less air pollution. So, yes - you are making a difference when you recycle," she said.



For more information:

UNLV Recycling Drop-Off

Republic Services Recycling Drop-Off

E-Waste - Nevada Recycling

E-Waste - Nevada State Recycle

Electronics and Appliances - Best Buy

From NPR:  How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled


What Republic Services accepts:

Paper Recycling:

- Newspaper

- Envelopes

- Junk Mail

- Phone Books

- Brochures

- Magazines

Aluminum/Metal Recycling:

- Aluminum beverage cans

- Food cans

- Aluminum foil 

Cardboard Recycling:

- Ream wrappers

- File Folders

- Poster Board

- Frozen Food/Cereal boxes

- Cardboard boxes

Plastic Recycling:

- Water bottles

- Soda bottles

- Milk jugs

- Food containers

Glass Recycling:

- Glass bottles

- Glass jars

Not Acceptable:

- Grocery bags or light-weight, bendable plastics like dry cleaning bags

- Styrofoam containers/cups

- Food scraps

- Batteries

- Yard clippings

- Pizza boxes

- Wax-coated cardboard

- Electronics

Remember ---  Try to make sure the material is:

Empty - Clean - Dry


Keep It Loose

Jeremy Walters, community relations manager, Republic Services ; Tara Pike, UNLV sustainability coordinator 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.