Are you doing it right? Recycling 101

As everyone considers what they touch amid COVID-19, some are questioning the safety of leaving out used materials for recycling. Despite the concerns, recyclables continue to be collected in Princeton because the pick-up is considered an essential service. The recycling crews are protecting themselves wearing gloves and masks, but you could help them by recycling correctly and minimizing their need to sift through your bins. Crews have been instructed to leave contaminated materials and those that don’t qualify for our county recycling.

Turns out, many locals still don’t know the rules. Can’t all papers, plastics and glass get recycled? The answer is no!

RECYCLING REJECTION NOTICE! Have you recently seen this red tag attached to your recycling bin or to that of your neighbor? The Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA), who handles the curb-side recycling pick-up for Princeton, found too many people were putting the wrong items in their bins so it has started focusing efforts on educating and re-educating the public on what can be recycled. If your bins contain items that are noticeably forbidden, when you go to bring them inside at the end of the day you will likely find they are still full and have been tagged.

“Until a few weeks ago, I thought everything that has a recycling symbol could go into recycling,” states local resident Edye Kamenir. “Why put a recycling symbol on something that can’t be recycled?”

Seems like a valid question. The answer lies in the fact that one town may accept certain items while another town may not. Though New Jersey has had a recycling law since 1987, it allows counties and towns to choose their methods and types of recycling based on a variety of factors. Is it a county-wide pick-up or run by the municipality? Do they require you to separate certain products (dual stream) or recycle them all together (single stream)? Where do the recycled products end up? Towns are also allowed to add detail through local recycling ordinances.

Our curb-side recycling in Princeton (along with Hopewell Borough and Township, Pennington, Lawrence, Ewing and Hamilton) is handled by a county authority (as opposed to East Windsor, Hightstown & Robbinsville which are operated by their municipality) and has chosen to follow the single stream method which allows bottles, cans, certain containers and paper grades to all be collected together.

As the costs for recycling collection have increased, the MCIA launched this new campaign because they feel the only way to get people to pay attention is to refuse their bins.

“We wanted residents to know that placing recycling in plastic bags or placing pizza boxes in your curbside bucket was no longer acceptable and going forward would not be collected,” confirms Dan Napoleon, MCIA Director of Environmental Programs. “We conducted an extensive public awareness campaign including, but not limited to, social and print media, public access TV, websites, radio, and community newspapers. I also met with various community groups and environmental commissions.”

Some, like Kelly Harrison, have paid attention. “#1 and #2 plastics can be recycled in Princeton! Therefore, yogurt cups are out,” she notes. “Anything with grease (pizza boxes, to-go salad containers) are out. Tin foil – nope.”

Others are eager to do their part to help our environment but are unclear of the specifics and haven’t seen the public awareness campaign.

“I am sure we are probably not following the rules as we should. We fill almost 3 recycling bins a week but worry that we are not fully understanding what should be going in the bins,” says Riverside resident Leslie Schwartz.

To understand what is collected here, consider two things. First, is it desirable? If there’s not a major market for it in the recycling world, it’s likely not collected curb-side. Additionally, it boils down to what is “clean” versus what is “dirty.” If the item is made of pure materials or able to be wiped clean, it is likely picked up in our curb-side collection.

When it comes to glass, remember this – all colors of glass food and beverage jars/bottles can go in your bin, but drinking glasses or broken glass must stay out. The broken glass is dangerous to the collectors. Additionally, the chemical make-up of drinking glasses and mirrors, for example, contaminates the recycling process and could damage the equipment.

If you have used tissues, paper towels, paper plates or napkins, throw them in your trash. The oils and other residues left on them render them unusable for recycling. Other papers, like those you print or write on as well as envelopes (even those with windows) can go in your bin. Hard and soft-cover books can also be included.

When it comes to metals, if they are pure or didn’t touch hazardous materials, recycle them. You drank from aluminum beverage containers/cans and fed your pet from a food can, so rinse those and put them in the bin. But the aerosol cans or motor oil and anti-freeze containers you emptied contained poisons, so don’t attempt to recycle through our curb-side program (they may be dropped at scrap metal locations). Our program does not accept Aluminum foil/baking pans either.

The most successful Princeton recyclers tell Princeton Perspectives they have stayed on top of the rules by printing out the recycling information notices, which are posted on both the and websites (and at the end of this article!). They post them in the kitchen or by their recycle bins as a reminder. There’s also an app! RecycleCoach can be uploaded and at your fingertips on any smartphone.

“The App allows for reminders of recycling collection days and special events such as our Household Hazardous / E-Waste Collection days or Document Shredding events,” adds Napoleon. ”Additionally, if a resident is unsure about whether a material is recyclable or not, there is a section What Goes Where that helps answer that question.”
All curb-side recycling must be placed in the official bins (either green or yellow) to be picked up. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the recent Household Hazardous Waste/Electronic Waste collection that was scheduled for March 28, 2020 was canceled. The next event will be June 20th.
There are many questions surrounding what and how to recycle. So here are some other FAQ we encountered. We hope these clarifications can help you recycle more completely:

Q: What happens to plastics #3-7? Can they be recycled anywhere?
A: Recycling is driven by the market. #5s can be dropped at Whole Foods, as there is a small desire for them. There is no market for #3, 4, 6 and 7 plastics so they are not being recycled (municipalities that collect them likely separate and discard them).

Q: I got a red tag on my bin but nothing was checked off. How do I know what I did wrong?
A: In those cases where a tag is left unchecked, residents can contact the MCIA office either via phone or through the website and they will aim to explain the problem.

Q: Why can’t I put recyclables in a plastic bag or include single-use plastic bags in my bin?
A: Plastic bags jam the equipment at recycling plants. They can be recycled but must be done in a different way and not through Princeton’s curbside pick-up. Instead, you can drop them around town at stores like McCaffrey’s, Whole Earth Center and Craft Cleaners.

Q: Can we leave caps on or must they be taken off bottles?
A: Whether the cap is left on or removed does not affect its ability to be recycled in our program. The real issue is that leaving caps on can be a safety hazard. When bottles are crushed in the trucks, caps can shoot off with force.

Q: Pizza boxes are made of corrugated cardboard, so why are they not accepted?
A: The boxes get contaminated with oil or various toppings. It is very difficult to get the aroma of garlic, for example, or other toppings out of the cardboard when it’s recycled.

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