In the recycle bin or out with the trash?

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Have you ever stood in front of the trash and recycling bins, wondering which is the right place for your waste? Recycling is great for the environment if it is done properly, but when the wrong items go to the recycling facility, it can slow down the process and lead to more emissions.

Yesterday we took you to Recycling Works in Elkhart for an inside look at the recycling process. Unlike trash, each item at a recycling facility has to be sorted based on material type.

Unfortunately for Logan Miller, the plant manager at Recycling Works, many of the wrong things end up here.

"A lot of recycling has gotten very complicated. People don't know what to recycle, when to recycle it, how to recycle it," he said.

Here are a few things I saw that should not be at the facility: child's booster seat, car tires, metal clothes hangers, empty horse feed container, clothes, pool noodle... and that was all during my short visit.

Workers on a day-to-day basis see a lot more of these non-recyclables. A lot of them are just downright gross.

"My first day working here, I was on the line, and there was a dead rabbit that came across," Miller recalled. "Daily, I see animal bones from cooking and what not."

Organic items might be good for composting, but that doesn't make them recyclable. This includes dirty diapers, yet they end up at Recycling Works frequently.

All the gross, non-recyclable items have to leave Recycling Works. They're sent on another truck to the landfill. Not only is the garbage not being recycled - the added trip means double the travel emissions.

"We're using more people, more trucks, more resources, to throw it in the landfill," Miller said. "It's not even getting a chance to be recycled."

The facility is starting an educational campaign to help consumers understand recycling. They have a list of the "always" recycle and "never" recycle to help consumers.

The always include: all of your cardboard, milk jugs, paper (newspaper, junk mail, scratch paper), cans, tins, glass, detergent bottles, and water bottles. Every time you use one of these, give it a quick rinse and put it in recycling.

What if it doesn't fit that category? What if you're unsure? Put it in the trash.

Some of the featured "never" recycle items: plastic bags, clothing, cords, tarps, covers, liners, masks, needles, food, batteries, sandwich bags, and candy wrappers.

Just because you see the recycling arrows on something doesn't mean it should go in the recycle bin. Many times, the arrows designate a product that has already been made of recycled material, but that doesn't mean it can be recycled again.

"A lot of recycling has gotten very complicated," Miller says. "When in doubt, throw it out, rather than when in doubt throw it in."

Items can still be recycled with a little food residue, but it's helpful to clean or rinse items before sending them. Reminder: the whole point of recycling is so someone else can use these.

"We don't like icky food, neither do the people that use these products," he reminded me. "If something very gross and you can't rinse it out, throw it away."

Another helpful tip is to make a fist with your hand. If any items are smaller than your fist, they are likely too small to be caught through the sorting process. This includes plastic straws - these should not be recycled.

I saw a lot of lids (from detergent bottles, milk jugs, pop bottles) littering the ground. The lids are small, and if you keep the lids on these items when they are recycled, the lids typically pop off as items are compressed in the baler.

Getting better at keeping the gross things out of the bin can help the recycling process run faster, while getting better at putting the right things in the bin makes the process possible. We let a lot of "could-be" recycled material go to waste, literally.

It's estimated that out of 37.4 million tons of waste that could be recycled, 20 million tons end up in the landfill. That's missing out on over 50% of recyclable material. People often don't take advantage of recycling programs in their communities.

"It's a beautiful thing. It's a privilege that we can take waste that has value and divert it," Miller says about recycling. "That's not something that's prevalent all across the world."

For Elkhart residents, recycling is free.

"All you've got to do is call, ask for a bin, and it shows up," he encouraged.

Outside of Elkhart, check with your local township to see how you can participate in curbside recycling.

Recycling the right way isn't just good for the planet, it's also good for workers in Michiana. For every job at a landfill, there's an equivalent seventeen jobs at a recycling facility.

If you haven't already started recycling, now is a great time (don't forget Earth Day is on Thursday). You can also encourage friends or co-workers to recycle.

Stay tuned all week long as our First Warning Neighborhood Weather team continues to bring Earth Week coverage with even more ways that you can protect the planet.

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