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What can I recycle?

Universal recycling symbol
Universal recycling symbol

Did you travel somewhere over the holidays? Do you visit family that lives out of town or out of state? Do you recycle at home and are committed to the practice away from home as well?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you have probably encountered the issue of varying and inconsistent recycling regulations between states and municipalities. You're standing in Grandma's kitchen with an empty plastic container in your hand and are wondering if it can go into the recycle bin. On the way home you stop in at your cousin's house only to find yourself asking the very same question.

Amazingly enough, the answer to that question may be very different for each of those locations. As a result, many folks put their commitment to recycling on hold when they travel.

One solution to this problem might involve checking out the recycling website for that particular city or village, if they even have one. Some of these sites are easy to locate and navigate while others can be quite an obstacle course.

Here in Austin, the recycling guidelines appear on the front page of the website and clearly list what can and cannot be recycled in the city. The page is well organized and offers a lot of useful information.

Three hours up the road in Dallas, the site uses most of its space to educate about the need for recycling. It takes the reader a bit of effort to actually locate the listing of accepted and rejected recycling items, which is quite brief. The website for the city of Houston is very similar, mostly consisting of brochures in pdf form that barely mention what specific items you can place in your bin.

Another roadblock to widespread recycling efforts in a highly mobile population is the widely varying list of acceptable (and unacceptable) items that can be placed in the municipal bins.

At home in Austin, plastics #1-7 can be recycled with no restrictions (other than styrofoam, which is prohibited in every location investigated). Another item that is almost universally rejected is the ubiquitous plastic bag. The city will accept bottle caps and plastic lids. One item that cannot go into the bin is shredded paper along with large metal and plastic items.

In Wisconsin, it is illegal to not recycle which means that businesses and apartment complexes are also required to participate. In the city of Madison, the list of acceptable items is extremely extensive and amazingly does include plastic bags! Like Austin, Madison accepts plastics labelled 1-7 and bottle caps/plastic lids. In an unusual departure from many other locations, the city also accepts small metal appliances, license plates and pots/pans. The list also includes shredded paper if placed in a plastic bag.

In Charlotte North Carolina, only plastics labelled 1-5 and 7 can be recycled. Items with a #6 symbol cannot be included. In addition, state law requires that plastic items labelled 1 and 2 plus aluminum cans be recycled and can never be placed in your garbage. On the list of unacceptable items you will find caps and lids.

As you can see, these regulations vary widely. The main reason for this depends on the capabilities of the vendor that the city contracts with for their recycling needs (if they don't handle the process in house) and the type of equipment the recycling facility utilizes. In many locations items that are prohibited will jam the machinery and/or damage it in some way.

The bottom line is that recycling success is based on ease and clarity for the customer. If it takes a period of adjustment to the process in your home community, it is even more difficult for people on the move to adequately participate in such an important and necessary practice. The answer to this problem is not readily apparent or easy but is an issue that needs to be addressed if we,as nation, are committed to reducing the amount of trash we send to our landfills and protecting our future on this planet.

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