The small (plastic and metal) things in life

As some of you may know, I have an incredibly long list of items and topics that I intend to write about and review. Some topics are prompted by the time of year or holidays, some by personal frustration, others get brought to the top of the list by neighbor inquiry. This is one such topic.

One of my neighbor friends recently asked, “about items too small to go into the recycling carts (such as plastic ware). I am wondering if that applies to beer bottle caps and travel size cosmetic tubes and jars.” So I asked Austin Resource Recovery to clarify, they confirmed with their contractor, and I am able to provide the information listed below.

This information will be helpful to those who may classify themselves as veteran recyclers or super recyclers. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this before, you may have read an article such as The Austin Chronicle’s Public Notice: Total Garbage but didn’t put much stock in it. This level of detail is not typically shared in most educational literature as it makes up such a small portion of the recycling stream, and the City (and most cities) as a whole has a hard enough time getting residents to recycle larger items properly. Tiny bits that fall through the literal cracks are easier to deal with.

Without further ado:

  • Any plastic smaller than a credit card that is in the curbside recycling carts will fall through the sort line and get lost/trashed. 
    • These items can be recycled at the Hard Plastics station at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center.
    • This station is floor sorted and baled. The material is small and has a chance of getting lost in the shuffle, but its fine to put in the MRP (Mixed Ridid Plastics, another name for Hard Plastics).
  • Any metal smaller than a credit card that is in the curbside recycling carts will fall through the sort line and get lost/trashed. 
    • These items can be recycled at the Scrap Metal station at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center.
    • This station is floor sorted and baled. The material is small and has a chance of getting lost in the shuffle, but its fine to put in the Scrap Metal station.
  • Plastic utensils technically can be put in the Hard Plastics station at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center. ARR has prohibited plastic utensils in the curbside recycling cart. Plastic utensils fall through the curbside sorting machine and end up in the trash.
    • Plastic utensils theoretically are floor sorted from the Hard Plastics station however they’ll likely get passed up in favor of bigger pieces of plastic, and possibly still get trashed.
    • Bottom line, try to use reusable utensils. Not even all “compostable” utensils are truly compostable and compostables are still creating a disposable/single-use product made out of typically virgin products. Try the Austin Dish Lending Library if you’re getting a group of people together/having a party.
  • Plastic straws are not recyclable in Austin. Period. If you want to buy a TerraCycle All-In-One Zero Waste Box, then you can recycle your plastic straws (and the other smaller-than-a-credit-card plastics and metals). We need to push more for reusables, even over compostables. Straws come in metal, glass and bamboo. Metal can go in the dishwasher, some glass can too, and the glass that can’t go in the dishwasher and bamboo straws come with cute little brushes. Of course refusing to use straws in the first place will reduce the need for this item to begin with, but there are medical reasons why sustainable straw options should exist.
  • Six pack rings: Traditional 6 pack rings are made of LDPE, the same as plastic film. So they can go in the plastic bag recycling station at a store or at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center. These do not go in the curbside recycling cart.
  • Size and crushing: One of the City of Austin’s contractors said not to crush your aluminum cans. “People may think they’re saving space, and thereby increasing efficiency (do still flatten your boxes please), but it’s better to leave them [cans] uncrushed, and let the MRF folks (Materials Recovery Facility, where recycling is sorted) sort them out.”
  • Credit cards:  Credit cards themselves are not allowed in the recycling. There’s plastic, the magnetic strip, and the chip. It’s a mix/composite material, and too small for the single-stream sorting machines so these go in the trash. Safety share: I chop mine up with scissors so it can’t remotely be used/reassembled.

Now let’s talk about the second part of my neighbor’s question about travel size cosmetic tubes and jars.

Tubes bigger than a credit card are allowed in the curbside recycling carts, see my post, Totally Tube-ular. Tubes should be empty when put in the recycling carts. As an aside, all “recycling” should be empty when you put it in a collection container. Pour out liquids and empty contents.

Tubes and jars, and lids and such, that are smaller than a credit card, may go in their respective station at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center.

Two final notes I want to emphasize.

First, recycling is not the fix; it’s not the total answer to our problem. We should work on avoiding disposable items when we can, properly recycling items when we can’t so they get a second+ life, pushing for refillable options, and holding the manufacturers accountable for recycling and/or better yet a closed loop cycle so we as citizens are not having to do all this sorting and organizing and dealing with our “waste.”

Second, in line with the above, people can really get passionate on the recyclable and/or compostable band-wagon. I get a lot of, “well TerraCycle will take it!” I love this passion to keep things out of the landfill when the items are unavoidable, and I definitely support making your life significantly less stressful. However; I’m going to continue to push for reusables over single-use, for borrowing instead of always owning, and for second-hand items. If it’s super hard or expensive to recycle, do you really need it? Zero waste brings a lot of people together to solve issues and make change happen. We can also get people together, meet our neighbors and make friends, borrowing, renting and sharing. So find libraries (they’re not just for books), give/ask/borrow/help on Buy Nothing, use or start your neighborhood/church/community resources and groups, and get connected. <3

Point of Clarification: The single-stream sorting machines for recycling in Austin are standard recycling-industry machines. There is nothing wrong with the design. We cannot force changes or improvements to the contractors’ equipment. I’m putting this out there based on a previous comment I received about petitioning to have plastic utensils accepted in the recycling. As a reminder, Austin is super fortunate that our contractors do accept and can process the large volume and variety of materials we produce.

Recycling Resources:

City of Austin Residential Recycling / Styrofoam / Apartment Dwellers Guide
City of New Braunfels Residential Recycling / Styrofoam
City of Round Rock Residential Recycling / Recycling Center
City of San Marcos Residential Recycling / Apartment Dweller Quick Facts
Apartments should check with their provider/contractor or that provider/contractor(s) website(s) for instructions/restrictions.