Waste not this holiday season – or at least recycle as much as possible

This story was originally published on the Detroit Free Press.

While the holidays are a time to spread joy and happiness among family and friends, they’re also an opportunity to show Mother Nature a little love.

Americans create 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than any other time of year, according to statistics compiled by Stanford University.

The output includes boxes, packing materials, wrapping paper, electronics and disposable eating utensils. And although some of that holiday-related waste should go directly into the trash, much of it is recyclable.

But even among the hustle and bustle of holiday gatherings, it’s important to take the time to recycle the right way, said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).

“We’re urging Michigan residents to be nice to the environment over the holidays by properly recycling whatever they can,” he said. “Sound recycling practices should never take a holiday.”

That’s a message that EGLE has been spreading since June, when it kicked off its statewide “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoon Squad.

Quality and quantity

EGLE’s primary goal is to improve the quality of materials people are putting into recycling containers by educating them about best recycling practices. At the same time, EGLE is aiming to boost the quantity of material recycled by doubling the state’s recycling rate to 30% by 2025 and ultimately reaching 45% annually.

“Achieving those goals would produce a gift that keeps on giving,” Flechter said, citing not only the statewide environmental benefits but also the potential $300 million annual economic impact that would result from meeting the 30% recycling rate benchmark.

Recycling specialists statewide are getting into the spirit and endorsing the “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign. They are also urging residents to take steps to limit the stream of waste produced during the holidays.

“Beyond ‘recycling,’ ‘reducing’ and ‘reusing’ are also important ‘R’s,’” said Natalie Jakub, executive director of Green Living Science, the educational arm of Recycle Here!, Detroit’s drop-off recycling center and neighborhood recycling program. “While the message of recycling is certainly important, cutting down on consumption whenever possible is another way to reduce the amount of material going into the landfill.”

As a holiday-related example, try placing gifts in reusable bags instead of wrapping them in paper, she suggested.

A recycling list to check twice

Recycling rules can vary by community or even from one recycling center to another, so Michigan residents are urged to check with their local provider about what is acceptable in their area to ensure they don’t end up on a list of naughty recyclers, Flechter said.

Here are some general guidelines for handling common holiday items:

  • Cardboard and gift boxes. While it’s best to reuse boxes, they’re also almost universally accepted by curbside recycling services, Flechter said. “Just be sure to break them down before placing them in your recycling container,” he said. “That saves valuable space for both you and the hauler.”
  • Disposable eating utensils, plates and cups. These should go in the trash because, among other reasons, they likely contain food residue – a contaminant that can ruin a whole recycling load. Even never-used paper plates are potentially problematic because they might have an outer layer of wax, Jakub said. Can’t stomach the thought of throwing them away? “Use your fine china and silverware instead,” she said.
  • Paper towels and napkins. Put these in the trash or a compost bin, Flechter said, since they’re probably soiled by food. Aluminum foil that is free of food contamination, however, is recyclable.
  • Wrapping paper. The answer here is “maybe.” Wrapping paper is recyclable, provided it isn’t adorned with glitter or metal. However, “that’s not always easy to determine,” Jakub said. “So the recycling center would probably typically tell you it doesn’t want it,” she said. Instead, try wrapping presents in newspaper or plain brown craft paper, which is always recyclable.
  • Packing materials. The packing peanuts, clear plastic padding and Styrofoam that protect electronic devices are typically not recyclable curbside. However, many communities – including Detroit – have drop-off centers where Styrofoam blocks and packing peanuts are accepted, and many large retailers collect clear and other types of plastic bags.
  • Plastic shopping bags. “With the exception of a couple of municipalities in Michigan, these are almost never acceptable for curbside recycling because they can clog a recycling center’s machinery,” Flechter said. However, large retailers such as Meijer, Walmart and Target will collect plastic bags for recycling.
  • Holiday lights. Recycling centers don’t want holiday light strings because they can get tangled in machinery, so they shouldn’t go in curbside recycling containers. Places that sell lights, on the other hand, will often accept them for recycling. Jakub also advised to avoid putting lights in the trash because they might contain harmful chemicals.
  • Batteries. Almost 40% of battery sales occur during the holiday season, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Home improvement stores such as Home Depot often offer collection bins for rechargeable batteries, or check for local hazardous waste collection events where all types of batteries are accepted. Visit michigan.gov/eglehhw to find local drop-off sites. Like holiday light strings, batteries should not go in the trash or curbside recycling.
  • Electronics. Retailers such as Best Buy or local collection events will take your used tech.
  • Disposable tablecloths. Discard both the plastic and paper varieties of these because chances are they contain at least some traces of food contamination.
  • Greeting cards. Just like any type of paper, these are typically recyclable in your curbside container, Flechter said. Just make sure there is no glitter or metal on them.
  • Receipts. All those glossy, thermal paper receipts you collected while buying awesome gifts are not recyclable because they are coated in plastic to make them durable.
  • Tinsel, ornaments and artificial trees. All of those should go in the trash or be donated to someone else for use.

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