Written by Kristen Haas, Environmental Educator at Park and Recreation

Don’t worry, I was doing it wrong, too. Until I went on a tour of the Mecklenburg County recycling center that processes curbside recycling bins (the MRF, which we insiders pronounce “Murph”), that is. I learned so much and left feeling empowered to make easy changes that would save money by recycling the right way.

During the tour, I kept thinking about this quote:

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

So, today I want to share my biggest take-away messages and encourage you all to “do better” too.

Mecklenburg County's Metrolina Recycling Center sign.
The Metrolina Recycling Center is also known as a Material Recovery Facility (or MRF).

We all recycle, but while we may feel good about recycling everything with a recycling icon on it, each facility has different machines that are able to process different materials. At the Mecklenburg County MRF alone, 15-20 percent (by pounds) of what is brought into the center is not actually processable with their current machines. It may not sound like much, but that translates to millions of dollars wasted sorting and hauling away trash that should have just gone in your trash can from the start.

Also, the demand for recycled products is ever changing, so some things are best to recycle because they actually become something useful or make the plant save money, saving us tax dollars. Instead of practicing “wishful recycling,” the message we want you to take home today is “recycle right.”

Here are three ways to really up your recycling game to help yourself, your community, and your earth.

1. Know your materials.

Recycling truck emptying recyclable materials.

There are basically six things that you can recycle curbside. The rest needs to go to a full-service site (or trash).

  1. Plastic: bottles and jugs with necks. This means NO wide mouth containers, no plastic food clamshells, no plastic that breaks into pieces when flattened, and no pill bottles. For bottle caps – either put them on the bottle or put the caps in the trash. All other plastics get sent to the landfill or get lumped up into other types of recycling, which contaminates it and decreases its value and the likelihood that it will actually be recycled into something.
  2. Cardboard: just cardboard – no plastic or metal attached. Pizza boxes that are clean are ok! (Please, no food residue)
  3. Metal cans: think food and drink cans as well as empty aerosol cans. Any other metal gets sorted out. For example, no wire hangers and yard sign stakes – these can cause a lot of damage to the machines!
  4. Cartons: specifically juice and milk-type cartons.
  5. Paper: whole paper and newspaper. But not shredded paper – it is too small to separate.
  6. Glass bottles: this speaks for itself!

Note: Styrofoam is another material that tends to get mixed up within other recyclables, but it cannot be recycled in our system. Although styrofoam often comes in cardboard boxes (such as a new TV), it should not be placed back in the box and then recycled all together. That causes our cardboard loads to be rejected!

2. No plastic bags.

Do not recycle plastic bags and do not put your recycling in plastic bags. While a plastic bag could be filled with everything listed above – perfect for recycling – it will all just get thrown in the landfill. Our MRF does not have bag rippers and it’s unsafe and unsanitary for workers to open them by hand.

Not to mention, plastic bags get stuck in machines early in the sorting process and decrease the effectiveness of every level of sorting down the line. Instead, you should bring your plastic bags to the grocery store for recycling or reuse them for something else at home.

3. Think before you throw.

Everything from your recycling bin is not sorted solely by machines, which means every dirty diaper, animal food container or carton of milk that you put in recycling has to be sorted out by a living person. Please consider the human impact of “just” throwing in an unwashed food container, “just” throwing a bit of trash in the recycling, and “just” doing anything out of laziness that you know is incorrect.

While following these rules will likely have you throwing more in your trash cans, you’ll really be recycling right, saving everyone money and helping ensure that the things we can recycle actually get recycled.

If you have additional questions about recycling, visit www.wipeoutwaste.com – you can visually visit the MRF as a video online. You can even take your own tour of the MRF! Give them a call at 980-209-8895 for more information.