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Recycling 101

Remember the days when we used to sort our recyclables? Those days are gone and all recyclers on the Front Range have gone to single-stream recycling. While this method encourages more of us to recycle it also means more contamination.

Recycling is helpful, but one may recall the three Rs: REDUCE, reuse, and recycle. Reducing your waste and consumption has the biggest positive impact that any one person can have on the planet, when it comes to the environment.

This examiner also adds REFUSE to the list. Buy only what you need, not what you want. Do you really need that candy bar or magazine at the checkout counter? Do you really need a paper or plastic bag to carry one item from the store? Do you really need to buy a bottle of water or a cup of coffee where the disposable container will be in your hand one moment and in the trash can the next? Do you really have to keep up with the Joneses by buying the latest fashion, toy or style?

Recently this examiner took a tour of Alpine Recycling, a.k.a. All-Together Recycling, in Denver with Brent Hildebrand, Vice President of Recycling. Alpine Recycling primarily collects commercial recycling, but does some residential recycling with home owners’ associations, condos and apartment complexes.

While commercial recycling is pretty straightforward (office paper, cardboard boxes, food containers from restaurants, etc.); residential recycling is where most of the contamination arises for MRFs (Material Recovery Facility).

So now that we single stream our recyclables, it is important to learn what recyclers will accept. The best way to keep it all straight is to download one of their flyers to post on your refrigerator.

Most MRFs, like Alpine, have sorting machines that can sort according to shape, size and weight, as Waste Management, Alpine and Eco-Cycle incorporate. Much of the plastic containers are hand sorted by human beings. Therefore shape, size, weight, color, material, and dimensions matter in recycling. Remember just because it has a recycling symbol on it, does not mean your recycler will accept it.


Paper can be recycled 6-12 times. Each time the paper is recycled the fibers become shorter and shorter and eventually will not bind together at all.

Paper should be flat, as the machines that sort the materials see flat objects as paper and “fat” objects as containers. Though we get frustrated with our work on paper and want to wad it up, try to keep it flat.

You can recycle all types of paper, but recyclers cannot recycle construction paper, neon colored paper, dark dyed paper, tissue paper (tissues, toilet paper, crepe paper, etc.), paper towels or napkins. These papers should be either composted or thrown in the trash if composting is not available to you. Tissues, napkins, construction paper and paper towels are at the end of their recycling life. Their fibers will no longer bind together for recycling.

Acceptable paper are: paper board (Eco-Cycle does not take freezer boxes), which includes toilet paper and paper towel rolls, cracker boxes, cereal boxes, etc. (these should all be flattened), newspaper (not soiled newspaper, like from the bottom of your bird’s cage), office paper (white and light colored, including sticky notes and index cards), mail, including magazines and catalogs (plastic, tape and staples are acceptable in recycling on the paper as they will be screened out during the pulping process as trash), phone books, brown paper bags, and cardboard. Please flatten all boxes because shape matters in recycling.

Aseptic containers are accepted by all Front Range recyclers now, which is fairly new. This includes all the milk and juice cartons and boxes (remove straws and plastic wrappers). Even soups, sauces, and broths are now being packaged in these cartons, which contain high quality paper. However, the plastic and aluminum coverings on these types of containers will be strained out and thrown away. Try to rinse out food containers and buy containers that use the least amount of materials.

Unacceptable paper: bright and dark office and or butcher paper have dyes that are “beaten” into the paper and if one of those gets mixed in the regular white office paper it’s like putting a red sock in with your whites in the laundry.

No soiled paper or cardboard should be placed in the recycling. This includes greasy pizza boxes. Recycle the top half of the pizza box and you can compost the bottom half. (Alpine offers compost service to businesses. Western Disposal offers residential compost service in Boulder. Eco-Cycle offers business composting in Boulder County.)

Paper cups are NOT recyclable. Remember that the majority of to-go containers are NOT recyclable. Most paper cups are coated in plastic and contain a great deal of glue. Wax coated cups can be composted, but you must scrap the coating to verify that it is indeed wax coated. Paper plates cannot be recycled. However, uncoated paper plates can be composted.


Metals can be recycled infinitely! Sadly, we only recycle 50% of all the metal we use in the U.S.

Most of the items that first come into the facility are sorted by material. A huge magnet lifts all the steel containers from the tons of material that is delivered to each of these facilities each day.

Acceptable items of steel are: steel cans (including aerosol cans, which must be completely emptied) and steel caps and lids, not matter how small or large.

Try to keep small lids inside of larger steel containers and keep the steel can lids on the can to prevent yourself or anyone else from cutting themselves on the sharp edges.

Aluminum is all treated as a container and are NOT magnetic. Aluminum is light and should NOT be flattened. Yes, we want to save space and have been flattening cans for many years, but with the newer equipment the aluminum is treated as a container and should not get mixed in with the paper.

This means you should ball up your foil to at least two inches in diameter. Foil trays are an acceptable recyclable material but be sure to remove as much food as possible. Food is not recyclable, however many recyclers offer industrial composting (see above), which can be added to your waste stream.

Any scrap metal should be taken to a scrap metal recycler directly. Do not place large scrap metal in your residential or commercial recycling containers.


Plastic is probably the most confusing material of them all for most people. While most recyclers will take 1-7 plastics, this does not mean all 1-7 plastics are created equally. Alpine, as many other MRFs, will not take to-go containers or food trays, including the plastic trays in frozen foods.

The MRFs biggest pet peeves are plastic bags and Styrofoam®, also known as polystyrene. All to-go cups (paper or plastic), including the plastic lids are trash. All polystyrene peanuts and to-go containers are trash. However, Eco-Cycle will take block polystyrene from packaging of electronics at CHaRM.

Plastic bags (#2 and #4) can be easily recycled at your local grocery store, where they are turned into long lasting composite decking and fencing material made by TREX. Do NOT place ANY plastic bags in your recycling. These bags become entangled in the machinery at the MRF and it takes away employees’ time from sorting materials (not all materials are machine sorted).

However, those bags were made from petroleum products, which are rare and in limited supply. So what would be a better option to “disposable” shopping bags?

There is one city on the Front Range considering banning plastic bags. Other cities and countries have already banned plastic bags or charge consumers to use them. (See previous article by this examiner.)

Recyclers most widely accept durable plastics like yogurt and cottage cheese containers (no lids) and all types of plastic containers with necks (keep the lids on). This includes beverage bottles, laundry detergent bottles, etc.

You cannot recycle #7 PLA compostable plastic. This is a plant-based plastic. Recyclers will not accept biodegradable or bio-plastics, as these are mixed material plastics. (Learn more about these plastics from a recent study by Eco-Cycle.)


All types of colored glass are accepted at most MRFs. However, do NOT place your drinking glasses or broken glass into the recycling. Recyclers will NOT accept any ceramics, light bulbs (recycle compact fluorescents at your local hardware store) or dishware at their MRFs. If glass containers are broken, please dispose of them in the trash. If they are still in great condition sell them or donate them to a local charity or thrift store.

Americans do a better job at recycling glass (80%) and this is in part because of long running bottle deposits on glass drinking containers in many states (not Colorado) . Only eleven states have bottle-bills, which encourage more people to recycle more glass. California is one of the leaders and recycle 80% of their glass containers.

Recycling not only saves resources, but it also saves energy and money. When you go shopping, look for items that are made from recycled materials.

However the best way to save money, energy and resources is to consume less.

Read the labels and study the packaging. Green living means that less is more.

Want to learn how plastics are impacting our planet; check out Eco-Cycle’s latest study?


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