by David Goldstein

In the early days of curbside recycling, a popular slogan was “When in doubt, leave it out.” Recycling program coordinators encouraged residents to err on the side of caution when deciding what to put in recycling carts; lists of accepted material were short, and the danger of contaminating good recyclables by mixing in bad garbage was worse than the problem of discarding questionable items.

It is still important not to put trash in your recycling cart, but some recyclable items are not well-known. For example, you can put broken plastic toys, plastic deodorant stick tubes and plastic trays and pots from nurseries (emptied of dirt) in your recycling cart. These are sorted with mixed plastics and baled, usually for export. In areas of Ventura County served by Harrison Industries, you can also recycle drink boxes, milk cartons and aseptic packaging. Even though these are made from multiple materials bound together, an association of manufacturers subsidizes some sorting centers and manufacturers to make their products recyclable in some places.

Cans and jars should be emptied before being placed in recycling carts, but you do not have to remove the last bit of residue. You do not have to wash items before recycling. Cleaning food out of containers is a courtesy to recycling workers, not a necessity for recycling. Most recycling is done at very high temperatures, so food is vaporized in the manufacturing process. A solution is to wipe out large leftovers to reduce odors and avoid sticky messes for the workers, but washing out the last bits of residue is not necessary.

Based on calls local recycling coordinators receive, it seems that wood is the most commonly discarded recyclable. Lumber should not be placed in your recycling cart, of course, but it can be recycled with yard clippings. You do not even have to remove nails or other small metal hardware (e.g. hinges) to recycle a piece of wood. At mulch-making sites, loaders lift wood and yard clippings into giant tub grinders, and the resulting shreds pass by powerful magnets, removing metal. The guideline for recycling is, any metal attachment is fine as long as it is smaller than a door knob (in other words, no door knobs). Larger metal items can get knocked around by the hammers of a grinder and become dangerous projectiles, posing a risk to workers.

Of course, many items are still not recyclable. In the category of wood, “treated” wood is banned because it can make mulch or compost unfit for use in gardens or on farms. Wood treated to prevent insect damage or rot is usually identifiable by its green dye or by a series of small holes in symmetrical patterns, and can be legally disposed of only by making arrangements with a local landfill (calling ahead and then notifying the scale house staff so you can be directed to a portion of the landfill designated for those types of loads).

Particle board is also better disposed of than recycled. Even if you remove its plastic veneer, particle board is undesirable for mulch or compost. Yard waste collected in Oxnard or in east-county cities usually ends up at Agromin’s Simi Valley facility, which sorts out particle board and sends it to cogeneration facilities for fuel. Particle board in the yard waste from other local cities, however, generally must be sorted out for disposal.

Unfortunately, another popular solution for diverting discards from landfill is also not available for particle board. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores in Simi Valley and Oxnard generally accept donated home improvement items, but they do not accept furniture made from particle board.

Palm fronds are another category of wood leading to recycling confusion. Although fronds no longer jam grinders at yard waste processing facilities, they are still discouraged from yard waste recycling carts because they do not decompose into good compost and they make low-quality mulch. In large amounts, or when mixed with palm “rounds” (pieces of palm trunk), they can become problematic for recyclers. Ivy and yucca are also still on the banned list for yard waste carts.

Some items considered technically recyclable are still better left out of curbside carts. Plastic utensils, drinking straws, plastic tags, cut-up credit cards and other small pieces of plastic are hard to sort out of mixed recyclables and are too likely to become contaminants in a paper mill instead of items in a bale of mixed plastic.

Plastic bags and polystyrene (e.g. Styrofoam) are still unwelcome in curbside recycling carts because their volume-to-weight ratio makes them too expensive to sort and not environmentally beneficial to transport. You can recycle plastic bags in indoor containers at some supermarkets.

Keep your “eye on the environment” and recycle the right items.

Upcoming compost bin and rain barrel sale

On Saturday, May 14, at the County Government Center in Ventura and in the city of Moorpark, people who pre-order by May 8, by 11:00 p.m. can purchase discounted rain barrels and compost bins. Order at RainBarrelProgram.org/VenturaCounty, or call 919-835-1699 for phone orders.

David Goldstein is an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.