I was recycling WRONG and I bet you are as well

I was recycling WRONG and I bet you are as well
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Update at 11:24am (9/1):
Denada Jackson (Public Information Officer City of Charlotte | Solid Waste Services): “Starting today the County will now accept all lids, tops and caps as long as there are screwed onto the bottle or container. We want the customers to know we can accept them now.”

First, I need to confess something: I WAS a horrible recycler. That’s why, with the best of intentions, on Earth Day this year I bought a blue recycle bin for my kitchen. With my new bin, I was now officially helping save the world!

I threw everything that I thought could be recycled in that shiny blue bin.


Unfortunately, I now know, some of those items should have never made it into the recycle bin.

I was recycling wrong.

The City of Charlotte Solid Waste Services runs 23-24 recycle trucks every day. These trucks dump your curbside recycle bin and rush those recyclables to Mecklenburg County’s Materials Recovery Facility operated by ReCommunity off of Graham Street where I met Nick Crawford, Sr Environmental Specialist for Mecklenburg County, and he dropped one of several bombs on me…

Plastic grocery bags are not approved to be recycled in the recycle bins.

Wait… What? (Confession 2: I don’t bring my own reusable bags to the grocery store.) I was throwing ALL my plastic grocery bags in the recycle bin. That. Was. Wrong. My mind was blown.


Being understandably shocked, I finished my coffee and went to toss the almost empty cup in the recycle bin in front of Nick. Surely this was right. I was saving this cup from the landfill.

Nope. Not even a little.

That’s when Nick dropped bomb number 2. That cup shouldn’t be in the recycle bin at my house either. First, the lid was ‘Plastic #6’ (an unaccepted version of plastic that seems to be EVERYWHERE) and the cup itself had ‘food’ (coffee) in it. Sadly, I tossed that cup in the trash bound for death in a landfill.

I was crushed at how unrecyclable my life had just become.


A look into Mecklenburg County’s Materials Recovery Facility

The ReCommunity facility (where the contents of your recycle bin at your house end up) is a single-stream public-private recycling partnership. Single-stream means that recyclables come to the facility all together (you don’t have to sort it at home, which is different than 5 years ago and much more convenient).

ReCommunity processes the recyclables and sells them on the commodities market. Mecklenburg County residents see the benefit in lower fees.

The facility runs like a mini-city and handles 400-500 tons of materials per day. The massive volume of materials that need to run through the facility each day is a pivotal reason to recycle correctly.

Every time a belt gets jammed the workers at the facility have to stop working.

By sending the wrong items to the facility you are hindering the facility’s ability to actually recycle.



So what can and cannot be recycled?


Prohibited items include:

  • Plastic Grocery Bags
  • Styrofoam
  • Shredded Paper
  • Plastic #6
  • Ceramic Cups
  • Pyrex/glass dinnerware or plates.
  • Paper contaminated with food residue/plastic food containers
  • Diapers
  • Text books

*Other unaccepted items include electronics, batteries, scrap metal, and fluorescent lights. Many of these items are recyclable at different facilities (i.e.: many grocery stores have a place to recycle grocery bags) or you can take them to a Mecklenburg County Full Service Facility.

The toll that unacceptable items play on the efficiency of the facility.

While I was touring the facility, workers removed this from a belt.


This one piece of metal caused a shutdown of the facility. Items like this metal stake show up at the facility frequently. Workers have even found dead animals in the recycle stream.

When these items slip through and jam up the belts in the facility, time and money are lost.

ReCommunity has to budget for this type of thing occurring because they know that we are going to send the wrong items and that they will have to have down time.

Here are some additional unacceptable items collected over just a few days:



Changing your recycling behavior

You are the first line of defense in keeping the recycle facility running smoothly. By only recycling accepted items, and therefore keeping the belts running smoothly, you are making Charlotte just a little bit greener.

There are no laws requiring you to recycle according to Crawford. There are laws, however, banning items like plastic rigid bottles and aluminum cans from landfills. Here is a full extensive list of ALL items that are banned from landfills that we all need to know.

Education is coming. Get involved.

At the facility there are lots of areas that local school groups and citizens can get information.


The City of Charlotte Solid Waste will launch a Healthy Communities initiative this fall to teach the waste management process to communities who have a low recycling participation rate.

You can also read the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan here

Changes in my behavior are by far the best thing that came out of my tour of the recycle facility. It’s important to remember that the reduce and reuse part of the recycle triangle are also important. For me, using a travel coffee cup and bringing my own grocery bags can dramatically reduce my ‘footprint’ on landfills.

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