New column: The Recycling Detective

By catalyst

Our intrepid recycling detective, Melissa Martin, will help you answer that burning question you find yourself answering at least once a day: "Can you recycle this?" This month: paper coffee cups, potato chip bags, Chinese takeout containers, and Pam spraycans.
by Melissa Martin
Have you ever been struck with panic while trying to decide whether to throw that can of Pam away or recycle it? Do plastic forks haunt your dreams because you're just not sure whether they are recyclable? You are not alone. I'm here to put your fears at ease. As your recycling detective, I've dug through trash searching for clues, and you won't believe what I found.

I thought by putting anything that resembled paper, plastic or aluminum in my recycling bin, I was doing my part for recycling. Deep down I wondered if was I recycling too much, so I decided to check with an expert.

 I contacted Debbie Lyons, health and safety manager at the Salt Lake City Corporation Department of Public Services and Salt Lake City's recycling guru, to see just what I can and cannot recycle. The first item was an empty potato chip bag. "No, those aren't recyclable," said Lyons. These bags are usually a mix of plastic and foil. Anytime foil and paper or plastic and paper are mixed in the same material, you cannot recycle it, because the materials cannot be separated once they are combined. This closed a huge door on what I had previously considered recyclable.

Some other "mixed" items include hot coffee cups (yes, the ones you conscientiously recycle); these are usually coated with plastic. Chinese takeout boxes, most dog and cat food bags, even granola bar wrappers-all mixed materials.

"Unfortunately most containers don't list what they are made of, so it can be hard to tell if something is a mix," said Lyons. Lyons suggests looking on the container for the recycle symbol. "If you don't find the symbol, when in doubt throw it out."

Recycling is not the complete answer. There are two other points on that triangle symbol along with Recycle: Reuse and Reduce. So try reducing your fooprint with reusable containers. For example, bring your own mug or travel cup to the coffee shop, and have the barista make your drink in it. You might let the business you are visiting know why you are making these changes, and ask what changes they themselves can make. Like me, they may not even know that their items are not eco-friendly.

As for the can of Pam and the Popsicle stick, neither of those are welcome in your curbside pickup either. Aerosol cans can blow up. And just because something could be recycled doesn't mean that a recycling center can or will recycle them.

I asked Lyons what some of their biggest problems were with curbside pickup. "Glass is recyclable but we don't accept it in the curbside program," said Lyons. And one broken bottle can contaminate a lot of paper, which results in the paper then being rejected. Glass must be taken to one of the  drop-off recycling centers located around the city.

Yard trimmings are another big problem. See our article "Composting Corner" in this issue for suggestions. Next year the city will offer separate containers for curbside recycling of yardwaste, which should reduce that problem.

Recycling is a great idea, but knowing exactly what you can recycle saves everyone time and money.

Want to know what else was in the bag? Tune in next time.

If you have a burning question for the Recycling Detective, e-mail me at and I will get to the bottom of it.

To find a glass drop-off center close to you:

This article was originally published on September 29, 2007.