Clearing up Recycling Confusion

Recycling, for all its important qualities, can be quite confusing. Over all the different containers, numbers, locations, and types of materials, recycling has a motley of rules. And then these rules can vary by location – states, cities, and counties have different sets of guidelines.

The University of Rochester recycles in accordance with Monroe County guidelines. The Monroe County Recycling Center currently operates under a dual stream recycling program, meaning that it has two different conveyor sorting lines; one for paper and the other for containers. The double stream method yields cleaner products which are easier to sell to manufacturers. However, many Monroe County residents are not aware of the dual stream system because most waste haulers offer one curbside recycling bin for their clients to put all of their recyclables in. What most are not aware of, though, is that the haulers sort the materials into the two streams before entering the facility.  Here at the University, the dual stream system is more apparent through our standard “trio” collection container system shown at left.

Recycling is sometimes prone to misconceptions because of the varieties of rules and materials accepted and rejected based on location.  For example, it is false that the recycling container beside your desk at the office can hold all types of recyclables – bottles, cans, papers, and cardboard.  The truth is you should only put paper and cardboard in that bin. This is again due to the county’s dual stream system.

Another misconception is that Styrofoam can be recycled because it is technically a #6 plastic. However, it is the air blown form of #6 plastic, which is not typically cost effective to recycle. Therefore, most municipalities including Monroe County do not accept it as a recyclable material. The other kind of #6 plastic is rigid which is “good” and can be sold to a variety of industries.

There is also confusion concerning plastic bags. Plastic bags are typically made from #2 or #4 plastic. Based on this detail, it appears that bags are acceptable to put in the recycling bin, but that is not the case. This is because when the bin is outside the bags are very easily blown away by the wind and create a litter problem. Luckily, distributors (such as stores and supermarkets) are required in New York State to offer plastic bag recycling at their facilities. Such recycling programs bail the bags first to prevent them from becoming windblown.

An example of regional differences is the county one over from ours, Ontario County. It currently engages in single stream recycling. This means that all recyclable materials are mixed into one stream instead of being sorted into separate streams by material. A common misconception when people first hear the words “single stream” is that no sorting is required, not even for trash. But trash still needs to be collected separately under single stream recycling systems. This method reduces the sorting effort required by residents and collection costs, storage, transportation, and operations can be simplified. However, single stream recycling requires more advanced sorting equipment in recycling centers and often more staff time to hand sort. Recyclables eventually do need to be sorted to have any value in the market, and unfortunately single stream recycling decreases the market value of materials largely due to increased contamination. Still, single stream recycling helps increase participation and recycling rates.

Monroe County will be transitioning to a single stream recycling system most likely in the 2014 calendar year. Preparations are under way at the Monroe County Recycling Center, including 3.5 million dollars in investments on new equipment and technology to handle the system. When the change happens, hopefully it will make recycling a little easier for participants to put things in the bin, as well as the staff who empties bins. It will also mean that you CAN put all your recyclables into the blue bin beside your desk!

For more information on what can and cannot be recycled at the University of Rochester, please visit and download one of our recycling posters.

By Alanna Scheinerman, Class of 2013

3 Replies to “Clearing up Recycling Confusion”

  1. Have you been bombarded with advertisements and news stories about the desperate shape our planet is in and thought to yourself, “I’m only one person, I can’t even put a dent in what needs to be done to make things better?” With all of the media coverage on issues like, acid rain, loss of rain forests, endangered animals, the depleting ozone layer and even former Vice President Al Gore’s pet project, global warming, it’s an easy thing to feel over-whelmed and small on this great space. But the reality is this; if not you, then who?

    As an individual you can’t control factories pouring toxins into water ways or prevent oil leaks that endanger some species, but you can make an impact, none the less. How? First, by not adding to the madness and wasteful ways others are handling items and materials that can be recycled and secondly, and maybe more importantly, you can make an impact by being a leader in the crusade to save the planet by doing the right things.

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