Sorting it Out: What’s Recyclable and What Happens After?

 Recycle or Rubbish? 

Have you ever wondered whether you need to pour out the last half-inch of soda before recycling it?  Do you need to remove staples from paper? The rules of recycling can be confusing.



Plastic bottle caps:

Unattached caps are too small to be sorted by the machinery at a Materials Recovery Facility. Instead, crush up the empty bottle and keep the cap screwed on when you toss it in the recycling bin.

Source: Lynn Morgan, Waste Management public affairs manager




Paper with paperclips or staples attached:

These are all recyclable, along with sticky notes, envelopes with plastic windows and the glossy paper used in flyers and magazines.







In Wisconsin, TVs, computers, phones and batteries can’t be thrown out with the rest of the trash. Drop-off sites include self-serve centers in Milwaukee and multiple Goodwill and Best Buy locations. On campus, used batteries can be disposed of in the gray bucket behind the switchboard.

Sources: Wisconsin DNR



Plastic bags:

Keep them separate from other recyclables. Single-stream facilities cannot process them, and they can jam up machinery. Many stores collect clean, dry bags and non-food plastic film for recycling, including Pick ’n Save, Walmart and Target locations.







Plastic pouches:

Multilayer plastic pouches – made of layers of plastic and foil – are a growing trend in packaging, used for products ranging from laundry detergent to applesauce. Most facilities currently cannot recycle these items, so throw empty pouches in the trash.

Source: Lynn Morgan


What Happens to the Materials We Recycle?

Waste Management handles Mount Mary’s trash and recyclables collection, while the City of Milwaukee services residential locations. Both use a single-stream or single-sort recycling system, which means recyclables don’t have to be sorted before being thrown in the bin.

After the recyclables are collected, they go to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where they are sorted.

Materials are loaded onto a conveyor belt that runs through the plant. After workers check for non-recyclable items, a series of rollers separates large, flat pieces of cardboard from smaller items that fall through.

“What we’re doing is one-by-one pulling these materials away from the other recyclables using some specific characteristic or quality,” said Lynn Morgan, public affairs manager at Waste Management.

Further screens and manual sorting remove paper. Glass is crushed into small pieces that drop away from the metal and plastic. Magnets pull out steel cans and a magnetic current pushes aluminum away from the plastic.

An optical sorter identifies each type of plastic and uses a jet of air to separate them.

According to Morgan, on average, an item passes through the MRF in fewer than five minutes.

Sorted cardboard, paper, metal and plastic are compressed into bales, and glass is ground into “cullet.” These raw materials are shipped to manufacturers to make new products, starting the whole cycle over again.

Ideally, this is the path of the items you toss in the recycling bin. But certain items can’t be recycled by MRFs and still end up in the trash or even get stuck in the machinery. Food and liquids can contaminate other materials, turning whole loads of recyclables into trash.

“It’s important to take a moment to find out about these things, and just build them into your daily habits, so you know you’re getting the right thing in the right place. If we get a product that we can’t recycle, like a plastic bag, because it gets dirty in the process and the markets won’t take it, that’s not what the recycler wants, it’s not what we want, it’s not what anybody wants.”

– Lynn Morgan


Learn more at Milwaukee Recycles and Recycle Often. Recycle Right.

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