Can I Recycle This Aluminum Foil? How About This Milk Carton?

Listen as Tufts' recycling coordinator shares tips for being a better recycler and explains why the rules are so much more complicated than most people know

Turns out, recycling is way more complicated—and fascinating—than we expected. In this audio story, hear from Kaitlyn Reed, Tufts’ recycling and waste reduction coordinator, as she shares tips and tricks for improving your household recycling, and details the challenges and successes of today’s recycling system.  


A portrait of Kaitlyn Reed

Photo: Courtesy of Reed

Kaitlyn Reed is the recycling and waste reduction coordinator for Tufts University's Office of Sustainability, which she joined in June of 2021. A graduate of Appalachian State University, she studied sustainable development and how society interacts with and impacts its environment. Prior to coming to Tufts, she worked for the non-profit Clean Ocean Access, where she created programs for commercial businesses and schools to implement sustainable waste management practices. She is passionate about environmental education and the intersections between social, racial, and environmental justice. In her spare time, Kaitlyn enjoys helping her friends go zero-waste, running, hiking, and playing rugby.

Anna Miller: Getting rid of stuff can feel good. But just because it’s out of your life doesn’t mean that it’s really gone.

Kaitlyn Reed: “When it comes to thinking about your trash, you just have to realize that whatever it is, it doesn’t just disappear. Whatever you are recycling, whatever you are throwing away, whatever you are using, even though it’s leaving your hand, it’s leaving your house, it’s leaving your dorm room, it still has an impact wherever it goes.”

Miller: That’s Kaitlyn Reed, the recycling and waste reduction coordinator at Tufts University. She says that even though a lot of things are being placed in the recycling bins, a lot of items don’t end up getting recycled.

For example, that plastic water bottle that you just finished? And chucked into the recycling bin at your house? It’s out of sight and out of mind, but where does it end up?   

Reed: It’s usually thrown as trash. If you would like a statistic, I'd say there's a 30 percent chance right now that that recycled water bottle will be turned into something new. The likelihood depends on how contaminated your recycling is. And that goes not only for your own bin, but also for everyone on your block.

Miller: Contamination happens all the time. Items might have food scraps left in them, or paper products might become wet, or there’s just too much garbage mixed among the recyclable items. All of it leads to everything being dumped as trash.

So to boost your chances of your recyclables actually being recycled, Reed says that your items need to be three things:

Reed: Clean, empty, and dry.

Miller: And if it’s not, it’s likely to end up in one of two places: a waste-energy facility or a landfill.

Reed: And waste-energy is exactly what it sounds like. It's taking your trash, and it's incinerating it, catching it on fire, and turning it into energy.

Miller: Burning may sound like a great solution, but it also has major drawbacks.

Reed: Because there can be a high emission rate of carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas.

Miller: So there’s option 2: The landfill.

Reed: A landfill is a giant trash pit. And I think a lot of companies, they try and tell you that it's not that bad, but in reality, when you put a bunch of different things together into a pit, they eventually start to decompose, and they start to break down if that item isn't biodegradable. Those items start to leak toxic chemicals, and then they can actually leak into our groundwater.

Miller: In addition to our trash being dangerous, we’re also running into a different problem. Are we running out space just even where we live for the stuff we no longer want?

Reed: Yes, definitely. San Diego County in California already has to sell all of their trash out of the county. They have no space.  Rhode Island, they have one landfill in their entire state, and it will be full by the year 2034.

Miller: Whoa.

Reed: Yes. Twelve years from now, Rhode Island, the entire state will have a huge, huge waste problem if they don't find a solution now. So yes, we are running out of space to put our waste.

Currently, in the U.S. we ship the vast majority of our recycling overseas.

And basically what happened in 2018 is China said, I don't want your trash anymore because what was happening was they were buying our recycling quote-unquote, but it was so contaminated that they were having to throw it as trash. So basically we're shipping our contaminated recycling that we already can't use over to China. And we're telling them, "Here you go, you can use this." And they were paying for it. But then instead of having a recyclable material that they can use to turn into new products, to then sell, they're having to throw a lot of that away and then putting the burden of that waste on China rather than the U.S., right? But I think the perception became after that, that we can't recycle anymore because no one's buying it. And that's incorrect. The reality is that no one wants our trash, but if we have a clean recyclable material, it is still bought and sold, domestically and internationally.

Miller:  What you're kind of saying is that if you really want to help boost your chances of this item being recycled, keep it clean, keep it dry, that type of thing.

Reed: Yes. And I think another number one rule is no wish cycling, right? Wish cycling is this idea that I'm going to throw it in the recycling bin because I'm—fingers crossed—I'm hoping, I'm wishing it's recyclable. Right? But that can also lead to contamination.

Miller: If there are too many items that are not recyclable mixed in, it’s not worth the energy sorting through at a facility—so it will all be dumped as trash. And sorting is a big part of the recycling process.

Reed: The sorting process is actually really interesting. And there are some videos out there where you can actually watch how it happens. And yes, there are people working at the recycling facility. There are employees who are knee-deep going through all of these items, hand-picking out what's contaminated and what's not.

Miller: There’s a system of machines that helps to streamline the process.

Reed: When you get to that recycling facility, you have all of your mix recycling: You have your glass, paper, metal, cardboard, all that mixed together. It then goes through an optical sorter. It goes down a conveyor belt. There are magnets that are pulling up your tin. There's a paper blower with these huge, large arms that are blowing up your paper. There's also these claws that are helping just sort through your recycling. And what happens is anything that is smaller than a credit card is actually falling through those cracks. These are why we don't really recycle small things, like Post-it notes.

And this is where it becomes difficult to be a consumer because technically the paper that the Post-it note is made out of is recyclable. In reality, your Post-it note is actually too small. It gets to that recycling facility and then it just falls down into a crack and it gets thrown out as trash, but it's now more expensive trash.

It's the same with, with bottle caps. Rule there is, if you can put that bottle cap back on your plastic water bottle, soda bottle, whatever it is, recycle it. Don't recycle it on its own. It's too small. And it just falls through the cracks with that machine.

Miller: The tricky thing is: what’s recyclable is not so black and white. It’s 100 percent dependent upon where you live.

Reed: You really have to start at that city and town level because there isn't a consistent uniformity into how recycling rules work.

Miller: Something that is recyclable in one town might be considered trash in the next. But Massachusetts is a bit of an outlier.

Reed: Every single recycling stakeholder came together into one room and made overarching decisions about what is going to be recyclable in the State of Massachusetts, which means that if you're in Massachusetts, what you can recycle at a university, at a company, in your house, across the board, it's all the same. What this meant, however, was that some things that used to be recyclable now aren't. Number one: your paper coffee cups. They're trash, people. I'm sorry to say it.

Miller: Reed says that if all of the U.S. could play by the rules, it would really help boost our recycling potential. It would place less of a burden on individuals to know what is and isn’t recyclable.

Reed: “I've lived in a handful of different states. And I'm originally from North Carolina, I've lived in Rhode Island, now I’m in Massachusetts, I was in New Hampshire during the pandemic, and every single time, I'm going in relearning all of my recycling and waste rules. And I have to then become the expert on it. And I'm like, I know, but I just got here. So hold on, give me one minute, because everything that I thought was true is now wrong.

Miller: I mean, I feel like I almost want to play a game with my family. Be like, is this recyclable?

Reed: I play it almost every day with different faculty, staff, and students on Tufts campuses. I'm like, is it recyclable? You tell me.

Miller: Can we, can we try it right now?

Reed: Yeah, sure. But you do have to remember that I'm going answer for the state of Massachusetts.

Miller: True. Okay. My Starbucks coffee cup.

Miller: Hot coffee cup? Trash. Cold coffee cup? Recycling.

Miller: My aluminum tin foil.

Reed: Recycling. Best way to do that is ball it up into a ball.

Miller: Really? I thought that would be the opposite. I thought that they wanted it crisp.

Reed: No, if you, because it's going to get melted down anyway. So you just want to ball it up into a big ball because the bigger that is the less likely it is to fall through the cracks of that machine.

Miller: Oh, I've been doing it wrong this whole time. Okay. My milk carton.

Reed: Paper?

Miller: Paper.

Reed: Trash. That is co-mingled container, which means that it is composed of both paper and plastic. And they're so mingled together, that it's too hard to actually separate those. So we want to throw that in the trash.

Miller: Reed says that plastic bags are a no as well.

Reed: It’s not that a plastic bag isn’t made out of recyclable plastic. It’s that when a plastic bag goes to a recycling facility it becomes what we call a tangler. It tangles up the recycling machinery and can actually stop the process of recycling. And a recycling worker has to go in and untangle the machinery, which creates a really dangerous situation.

Miller: Cardboard is pretty obvious.

Reed: Yep. And cardboard is actually very lucrative right now. Recycle, recycle, recycle your cardboard because people are buying it. Especially in the pandemic world where we are shipping a lot out of things, having cardboard... everyone wants it.

Miller: What are some other ones that people are usually stumped by or surprised that you can recycle?

Reed: Something that I like to point out that I think always surprises people is that you currently right now in the state of Massachusetts, it is better to buy a single-use plastic soda can or a plastic bottle rather than a glass one.

Miller: Really?

Reed: Glass is very expensive and by expensive, I don't just mean monetarily, I mean like energy-wise, to recycle. We also don't have a close domestic buyer for glass. So currently, a lot of glass isn't being recycled and turned into new glass bottles. It’s actually being used in a mix for roads and house foundations. So still being recycled, but we don't have the space to turn it back into a new glass bottle. Whereas we do have the space and demand to take that plastic water bottle and turn it back into a new plastic water bottle or something else.

Another note, however, on recycling plastic: Plastic does start to lose its strength. So over time, the polymers that are connected all the way down, those start to lose their effectiveness basically. So you can't make a new plastic water bottle out of 100 percent recycled, previous plastic water bottles. You do have to have some virgin plastic. Virgin plastic means that it is brand-new and has never been used before. However, number one is aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable because unlike plastic, the bonds, like the elemental bond of the aluminum, is infinitely recyclable and it doesn't break down. So you can just reuse it over and over and over again.

Miller: The downfall is that aluminum is way more expensive—especially compared to plastic.

Reed: It’s so cheap to make plastic, it’s so cheap to ship plastic, so what are our incentives to not using it?

Miller: Plastic is everywhere. Trash often ends up in streams, rivers, and waterways, and eventually gets swept up into the ocean, where it then hurts or kills sea life. You might remember a famous picture of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose. But it’s not just big items like straws and plastic bags strangling life in the ocean. It’s also small bits of plastic too, some that we can’t even see, called microplastics.

Reed: A microplastic is anything that is smaller than five millimeters in size and microplastics come from large plastics, which become pieces, which then become macro plastics, which is anything larger than five millimeters in size, and then they become microplastics. And this happens because plastic isn't biodegradable, it can't break down. So it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. And they can become so small. You can't even see them. So you don't even know they're there.

They also start to degenerate, which means that they are also leaking toxic chemicals that we use to make the plastic in the first place. So these chemicals, these pieces of plastic, they get into the ecosystem, they get into the food web and then they impact the entire food chain.   

Miller: We have so much plastic in the ocean, it’s actually formed a huge swath called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Reed: It's about 7.7 square miles at this point. And because it's in the middle of the ocean, there is no country that you can lay responsibility on, give responsibility to, and there's no country that's willing to take responsibility for it.

Miller: Animals aren’t the only ones eating plastics. We do, too. Microplastics are in our air, water, and soil. We unknowingly consume lots of microplastics every day. A 2019 study found that people could be eating the equivalent of a credit card of plastic a week. Yikes.

Researchers recently found microplastics in living human tissues, such as the lungs, and even circulating our bloodstream.

But we’re not doomed, says Reed. She says that companies are beginning to change how products are made and consumed. And individuals are a huge part in breaking the cycle of endless plastic. 

Miller: When we are thinking about recycling or we're thinking about our environmental impact, we don't want to just think about the end life. We want to think about the entire life cycle of a product. You know, people are always asking me, "How do I make sure that my recycling gets recycled?" But the question should really be how do I think strategically so that I have less to recycle, so that I'm actually producing less waste, right? And that, you know, you have to think about that both as you're buying and as you're throwing out, right? If you're throwing away your third plastic water bottle for the month, how can I think strategically about what I do next and next time, is there something that I can do that means that I will have less waste?

Miller: Reed says it’s time for us to think more about the lifespan of each item. For example, that water bottle: You used it for five minutes, but it will take 450 years to break down. That water bottle will be here until the year 2472.

Reed: Plastic never goes away. Every single piece of plastic that we have ever produced still exists on the planet. And if we are recycling and throwing away less, then Great Pacific Garbage Patch will also start to decrease. All these things are connected to the fact that we need to use less.

Miller: This story was produced and edited by Anna Miller with help from Julie Flaherty. Thanks for listening.

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