Recycling revisited: ‘Empty. Clean. Dry.™’

By Mike Barhorst - Contributing columnist

Americans generate 25 percent more waste between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Interestingly, about 80 percent of what is thrown away during the holiday season could actually be recycled or repurposed.

Sidney residents are to be commended for their efforts to keep recyclable solid waste materials from being buried in landfills. Now it’s time for all of us to improve our efforts.

For those who have followed the trend toward increased recycling in the United States, you probably know that for years, about one-third of our recyclable materials have been exported to China. China wanted the recyclables as raw material for their burgeoning industrial base.

That all began to change in 2013, when China made the first of a series of policy changes designed to reduce the amount and types of recyclable materials allowed into their country. In July 2017 China announced that they would no longer import 24 different kinds of materials, including mixed paper and mixed plastics.

The ban went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. It was quickly followed by the implementation of a policy limiting contamination to 0.5 percent.

As a result, China no longer accepts vast quantities of recyclables from the United States. And, the U.S. is not alone. Dozens of other countries are facing the same dilemma. In addition to the U.S., Japan and Germany are all at the top of the list when it comes to exporting their used plastic. From just this country alone, more than 874 million pounds of plastic have been exported between 1988 and 2017.

Observing China’s example, a number of other Southeast Asian countries had begun to import raw recyclables and manufacture more goods from those products, having those goods available for both internal consumption and for export. For example, the U.S. exported 147 million pounds of plastic to Vietnam in 2016. That increased to 392 million pounds in 2017.

Unfortunately, countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia do not have the capacity to handle all the materials that China no longer accepts. Their markets are flooded.

If there is no longer a market for recyclable materials, they will simply have to be landfilled. Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is due to contamination. When baled, a plastic bottle that has food remaining inside can contaminate the entire bale.

Similarly, broken glass, food and liquids can contaminate paper and cardboard. All the paper and cardboard inside recycling containers placed at the curb with the lids open on rainy days are no longer recyclable. If such materials become mixed with recyclables that are not contaminated, it can cause the entire shipment to be of no value.

As a result, it is important to know what is recyclable and what you need to throw away. The following reminders have been provided by Republic Services, the folks who provide solid waste collection for the residents of the city of Sidney.

Cardboard, newspaper, magazines, office paper and common mail can be recycled so long as they aren’t contaminated by food, liquid or waste. As previously mentioned, once cardboard or paper comes into contact with food or liquid of any kind, it can no longer be recycled. For our system, it’s also important to cut down cardboard or paperboard into pieces that are no larger than 2 feet by 2 feet.

Cardboard needs to be separated from the plastic that may be a part of the packaging materials before placing them individually in your recycling container. Plastic also needs to be removed from paper products, including the plastic that is a part of window envelopes.

When two or more materials are connected they cannot be recycled as is, even if they’re all recyclable. The exception to the rule is a sticky gift tag. Often too small to be recycled by themselves, they can be recycled if they’re still stuck to an envelope, wrapping paper, or a paper gift bag.

Before recycling food and drink cans, remove paper or plastic labels and clean out any residual materials. Sidney’s recycling program currently accepts, clear, green or brown glass bottles and jars as well as aluminum, steel or bi-metal (tin/steel) cans as a part of its recycling program. Please remember that one dirty item can contaminate an entire truckload of recyclable material, so make sure recyclables are empty, clean and dry — simply remember, “Empty. Clean. Dry.™”

Hard plastic containers like water bottles, milk jugs and detergent containers can be recycled. The lids are too small to be recycled by themselves, so either put them back on the containers or throw them away. Please note that plastic containers labeled No. 3 to No. 7 are not currently recyclable — there is no market — so do not put them in your curbside recycling container.

Flexible plastics like grocery bags, bubble wrap and Styrofoam require special handling and cannot be recycled curbside. A simple rule of thumb is, if you can poke your finger through the plastic, it doesn’t belong in your recycling container.

Items such as padded envelopes, ribbons and bows, bubble wrap, packing peanuts and glittery or foil wrapping paper belong in the trash, not the recycling bin. Including them only creates problems for others downstream.

Electronics, batteries and light bulbs cannot go into your recycling container. Such items, including paint cans, require special handling. The Shelby County Recycling Center, located at 1600 Riverside Drive, ( is able to process these items from mid-April to mid-October as a part of their household hazardous waste disposal program. There is a $1 per pound fee for household hazardous waste disposal.

Other things that should not be recycled as part of our current curbside recycling program include automotive products, bowls, buckets, tubs, flower pots, microwave trays, fast food trays, mirrors, ceramics, window glass, drinking glasses, dishes (including china), paint cans, pots, pans, hangers, medical needles, diapers or appliances.

Never bag or bundle your recyclables. Items should be placed in the container individually. Plastic bags are good for transporting holiday food and gifts, but once they’ve done their job, it’s time to put them in the trash can. If they wind up in your recycling bin, they can get caught in the machinery and cause extensive delays and expensive damage to the equipment. Bundled recyclables can’t be sorted at the facility, so all of it simply ends up in a landfill.

As noted earlier in the article, the news contains stories about contamination making recycling a financially-losing venture. As a result, it is more important now and ever to be better educated about what can and what cannot be recycled.

For more information, I encourage you to visit both Republic Services Recycling Simplified website at and the city of Sidney’s solid waste website at to learn more about recycling the right way.

I would like to see every resident recycle as much of their solid waste as possible. But those who leave the lids to their curbside containers open, those who think they are being helpful by recycling their greasy pizza box, those who recycle their half-empty maple syrup bottle, and those who place the Styrofoam take-out containers in the recycling container are being anything but. If you have just one take-away from this article, remember: “Empty. Clean. Dry.™”

By Mike Barhorst

Contributing columnist

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.