Plastic bags, pizza boxes and other ways you may be messing up your recycling

I am big on recycling. It’s part of my family’s weekly routine. But come to find out, a lot of what we’ve been doing is wrong — and we have been contaminating entire bins of recyclables.

Metro Public Works has started auditing recycling routes to help reduce contamination from people like me.

Ricky Lloyd, a Public Works veteran who works part time as somewhat of a recycling police officer, would definitely have given me an “OOPS!” sticker a few times.

The stickers are Metro’s way of alerting and educating residents about what not to put in our recycling bins.

Lloyd goes out several mornings a week, inspecting hundreds of carts and slapping an “OOPS!” sticker on top of ones containing contaminants like plastic bags, Styrofoam or glass.

Tagged carts, which include notes on what’s wrong, will not be picked up until the residents remove the unaccepted items. Residents are invited to rectify the situation and notify Public Works for a return pickup.

“It has gotten out of hand. So many people have moved here and don’t know what we accept and what we don’t,” Lloyd said, noting that his job is as much about educating as it is policing.

As he opened the lid of a recycle cart in East Nashville filled with white trash bags of recyclables — which you aren’t supposed to do — Lloyd said, “I run into a lot of this.”

Lloyd, who has issued about 2,200 “OOPS!” tags since November, says he checks as many as 400 recycle carts on his routes and finds 75-150 with unacceptable items.

The “OOPS!” tagging and other educational programs, which kicked off last summer, are designed to reduce that amount and prevent unnecessary contamination in the recycle carts of the 102,000 customers.

The bag misstep

What we have been doing at our house for years was mostly OK, until we put it in a bag. We recycle plastic water bottles, milk jugs, soup cans, soft drink and beer cans, magazines, newspapers, cookie packages, toilet paper rolls, takeout food boxes and mayonnaise jars.

Every week or so, I would dutifully pull out the overstuffed bag of recyclables, haul it to the alley and drop the bag in our rolling 96-gallon recycling cart in time for its monthly pickup.

I had no idea I should have been emptying the bag into the cart, not putting the bag in. And I had no idea that all plastic bags were off-limits.

The wrong way

The biggest recycling “no no” is plastic bags.

This includes all kinds of plastic bags: plastic grocery bags, baggies, wine bags, shopping bags, even bags that claim to be recyclable, and definitely not the white, green or black garbage bags that many of use to collect recycling in.

Recycling coordinator Kelly Tipler says about 30 percent of the items Davidson County residents try to recycle in their Metro-issued green carts is wrong, with the three biggest offenders being plastic bags, Styrofoam and yard waste.

She explained that her department is not being picky, but bags jam and sometimes break the sorting machines at the recycle center and end up ruining a whole batch of recyclables.

Tipler and her team also warn us not to put things like garden hoses, wires or chains in the bins because of their tangling effect. (I did know that.)

The curbside recycling program does not accept glass, but there are lots of drop-off locations for glass recycling.

The right way

Tipler says the correct way to recycle is to empty your recyclables — the paper, plastic bottles, cans and other items — from your garbage bag into the Metro recycle cart but keep the bag out.

Keeping them out will prevent wasted expenses and time from their clogging of the sorting machines, and you can reuse those bags to collect the next batch of recycling.

“Plastic bags are the No. 1 contaminant in Nashville’s curbside recycling,” Tipler said, adding that bags of recyclables — even bags that claim to be recyclable themselves, end up in the landfill.

Keep the caps

I learned another mistake we were making was the way we were recycling water bottles, plastic soft drink bottles and plastic milk jugs. If they have tops, the recycling program wants them to be recycled with the tops on the bottles and jugs, not separated.

And sometimes our recyclables have not been clean enough to suit them.

Tipler’s team recommends rinsing your soiled cans and peanut butter and mayonnaise jars, or even sending them through the dishwasher before tossing them in the recycle bin.

Break boxes down

Cardboard boxes, even cereal boxes, are welcome but should be broken down and flattened. With online shopping, the number of large boxes being tossed has increased dramatically.

Steer clear of wet cardboard, which is a contaminant. Pizza box tops are okay, but not bottoms with grease on them, Tipler said.

Accepted items

A few things I wondered about and found are accepted are: empty aerosol cans, wax-coated paper milk or orange juice cartons, clean aluminum foil, Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers, laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner containers, plastic takeout food dishes and restaurant to-go cups (not Styrofoam).

Keep it simple

If you want to be sure you are recycling properly, stick to acceptable basics of aluminum and steel cans, food and beverage cartons, mixed paper, newspaper, magazines and flattened cardboard.

Tipler emphasized that just because the Metro curbside/alley recycling does not accept certain items, “that does not mean that those things are not recyclable (somewhere else).”

Most grocery stores, including Kroger and Publix, have recycle bins for plastic grocery bags and other plastic bags. There are numerous drop-off sites for glass recycling. There is a bulk pickup service through the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department, and the Metro Public Works Convenience Centers accept mattresses, electronics, household waste, carpet and more.

Free recycling workshops

Public works invites you to the Waste Management Materials Recovery Facility for a free recycling workshop every Wednesday from 1- 2 p.m. The workshop includes an hour-long interactive presentation and opportunity to see the facility in action (through a window).

You can see how the machines and employees sort materials and learn what happens to the items next. Programs are open to all ages, and all attendees will receive a free small recycling bin at the end of the program. Registration is required through Public Works.