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What you can – and can’t – recycle might surprise you

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

The rotisserie chicken “boats” always stop me.

They have black plastic bottoms and clear plastic tops. Do they go in the trash or in the recycling?

We keep the list of Charlotte-Mecklenburg recycling rules taped inside a cabinet door. Still, I end up staring at the list and trying to decide. Is it Plastic No. 1-5 and 7 (allowed), or the dreaded No. 6 (not allowed)?

So much of what we recycle is food trash. I finally asked Laurette Hall, the environmental manager with Mecklenburg County Solid Waste, to walk me through it.

You can get the full list of what’s allowed and not allowed at www.charmeck.org (click on “recycling”).

What can and can’t go in your recycling cart isn’t just a matter of what can be crushed and made into something else. It’s also based on what will work in the county’s processing plant – all those conveyors, hoppers and sensors – and the things the county has arranged to sell.

“We don’t take a material if we don’t have a place to send it,” she says. “We don’t want to send it to the landfill for you.”

Plastic bags, for instance, can be recycled at stores, where they’re easy to gather and bale, but not at the county center, where they’d catch on all those belts and be hard to pull out of the river of recycling as it rushes by.

That’s why aluminum cans are OK, but flimsy aluminum foil isn’t. Paper, even wrapping paper, and cardboard are OK. So are paper food boxes, like pasta packages.

But you can’t throw in paper plates or napkins. They’re soaked with grease and food residue, and they’re made of soft paper with short fibers that can’t be ground up and made into something else.

Here’s one I loved: I’ve always wondered why you can recycle plastic bottles, but not the caps. The caps are not only too small and fall through the sorter, but if you leave them on the bottle, you make it dangerous for the workers.

“We have really big equipment,” Hall says. “That bottle cap shoots across the room like a missile. Think about a big tractor going over a bottle.”

The juice box category, on the allowed list, is bigger than it sounds. It includes anything you’d call an aseptic box, like soup and broth packages.

So what’s the big deal about No. 6 plastic? It’s a big category, and it includes things made from resin-based or foam-type plastics. That’s your hot beverage cups and takeout containers, both made from polystyrene, your red Solo cups and those clear plastic boxes that hold berries at the store.

How about my black-and-clear rotisserie-chicken boats? Those fall into the plastic food-trays category – “not allowed.”

That doesn’t mean I have to throw them away, Hall says. I could clean them and find another use for them, like sprouting seedlings.

“If you don’t create the waste,” she says. “we don’t have to worry about managing it.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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