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Diving into the recycling stream

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By Tom Nagawiecki

As the Environmental Services Specialist I spend a fair deal of my time working on recycling program planning and education and outreach.  What I do not get the opportunity to do very often is get my hands dirty and see the recycling stream up close and personal.  That opportunity presented itself recently when we were down two collection vehicles and needed additional staffing to get the recyclables collected.  So I threw on my steel-toe boots, gloves and safety vest and headed out to the Western Area.  
Dumping residential recycling roll carts by hand presented a wonderful opportunity to analyze how well the community was doing in terms of generating a clean recyclable stream, and strengthen some arm and back muscles.  Each recycle roll cart that was serviced was visually inspected for contamination.  If it appeared that more than 15 percent of the materials in the bin were unacceptable items the household was marked down as having a contaminated recycling load.  Using this methodology, 13 of the 95 loads were contaminated.  It should be noted that the majority of bins had some level of contamination.
The type of unacceptable items ran the gamut, but there were some common contaminants.  The most consistent contaminant was unacceptable plastics.  You could tell we were getting into summer by all of the plastic clam shells for strawberries.  In Los Alamos County we only recycle #1 and #2 plastic bottles because that is what is accepted in Santa Fe where we send all our recyclables for sorting and shipment to market.  The decision by Santa Fe to only accept these items is driven by economics.  Other unacceptable plastics found in the recycling stream were plastic planting pots, plastic packaging and plastic bags.  The only plastics that can be placed in your blue recycling bin are #1 and #2 plastic bottles.
There were three other common contaminants found in multiple recycling roll carts: paperboard, food waste and food contaminated paper. Examples of paperboard are cereal boxes, beer/soda boxes and cracker boxes.  Paperboard is not recyclable but can be commonly confused with corrugated cardboard, which is recyclable.  The main way to tell them apart is that paperboard is flat and when ripped does not contain any bumps, whereas corrugated cardboard is thicker with wavy lines seen between two layers of paper and if ripped contains bumps.  
So, no bumps means not recyclable.  Food waste and food contaminated paper (tissues, paper towels, paper plates/cups) are not recyclable and can contaminate an entire truck load of recyclables.  These materials can be utilized in a backyard composting program but must not be placed in the blue recycling roll cart.     
After having dove into the recycling stream I found that there is still some work to be done in terms of educating residents about what materials are and are not recyclable.  More information on recycling in Los Alamos County can be found on the Environmental Services webpage at losalamosnm.us/gogreen.  
Magnets that provide information on acceptable recyclable materials are also available and can be obtained by stopping by the Eco Station or contacting me at 662-8383 or tom.nagawiecki@lacnm.us