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FAQ City: Caps On Or Caps Off? Your Recycling Questions Answered

We get it: Recycling can be confusing. Do you keep the bottle caps on plastic water bottles or take them off? Should you break down cardboard boxes before putting them in the bin? What about office paper with staples? Do you have to take the staples out?

More than a dozen listeners have written into "FAQ City" asking for help with recycling-related questions,  including a listener named Sarah Spaid, who we interviewed for this episode. She asked the above questions and also wanted to know, more generally, what the staff of the Mecklenburg County recycling center are seeing and wished they could tell the general public.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Sarah Spaid, a WFAE listener.

To find out, we took a trip to the Mecklenburg County recycling facility on Amble Drive, off North Graham Street, and met up with Jeff Smithberger, Mecklenburg County's director of solid waste. He gave us a tour of the facility and dispensed answers to our listeners' questions.

Listen to his interview above or read on for answers.

What Materials Can Be Recycled?

To keep things simple, there are four basic types of materials allowed in your curbside recycling bin: plastic, glass, aluminum, and paper/cardboard. There are exceptions — not all plastic can be recycled, and tin/steel cans are OK — but, for sure, if you have something that doesn't seem to fit one of those categories, don't try to recycle it.

That means no metal (people seem to think wire coat hangers and car parts are OK; they aren't) and no mixed materials (like McDonald's or Starbucks cups, which are made of paper coated in wax).

All your materials must be clean, dry and loose (meaning not tied up inside a plastic trash bag; more on that in the next bulletpoint). 

No Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are firmly banned from the recycling center. This includes plastic grocery bags, plastic trash bags, plastic shopping bags, even plastic film for that matter. All must be kept out of your recycling bin.

Smithberger says that's because the plastic tends to get tangled up in the sorting machines (see the picture below) and can slow down the sorting process. Similarly, garden hoses and Christmas lights will also get tangled in the machines and cause headaches for the staff — not to mention they aren't among the approved materials.

You can still bring your plastic bags to grocery stores, which usually have dedicated bins for plastic bag recycling.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Plastic bags tend to get tangled up in the recycling center's sorting machine, causing major headaches for the staff. The only way to remove them is to stop the machine and have an employee rappel in with a box cutter to slice off each bag.

Bottle Caps On Or Off?

"Bottle caps on or off is the least of our worries," Smitherberger says. His staff is far more concerned with plastic bags or garden hoses jamming up the system than making sure bottle caps get recycled.

But since we asked, he says it doesn't really matter. If you leave the bottle cap screwed onto a water bottle, the bottle cap will get recycled. If you take the bottle cap off, the bottle will still get recycled, but the cap will fall through the sorting machine and go off to the dump.

"Anything smaller than a business card is going to fall out through those screens," Smithberger says. That means bottle caps, small scraps of paper, those metal soda can tabs — they're all too small to get recycled.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE

Do Cardboard Boxes Need To Be Flattened?

Yes. Doing so will help the sorting machines quickly move the cardboard to where it needs to go. It will also ensure you don't leave anything inside the box — like shredded paper, packing peanuts or plastic bags — that can't be recycled.

Can You Recycle Office Paper With Staples?

It's better for you to take the staples out if you have the time.

Can Pizza Boxes Get Recycled?

Yes, but they can't have any leftover cheese or grease slathered all over the inside. The recycling center isn't able to wash off the material that people send in, and the companies purchasing the raw materials don't want a bunch of food and grease gunking up their cardboard.

If those companies do get a bundle of cardboard that has a bunch of leftover pizza mixed in, they may send the bundle back — on the county's dime. If it happens too often, the county can get blacklisted.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Workers at the Mecklenburg County recycling center try to fish out any bad materials that make it through the sorting machine on fast-moving conveyor belts.

What's The Most Commonly Mis-Recycled Item?

Smithberger says it's probably wire coat hangers. Who knows why people keep thinking they can toss them in the recycling bin, but as we already said, they aren't made of plastic, glass, aluminum or paper/cardboard, so with apologies to Joan Crawford: No wire hangers!

How Is China's Decision To Stop Accepting Foreign Recycling Materials Affecting Us?

Some of our listeners wondered how China's recent decision to stop accepting foreign recycables might be affecting us here at home.

Smithberger said at one point, China was purchasing about 20% of our recyclables. When China left the market, it left the U.S. (and Mecklenburg County) with a glut of material, causing the selling price of recyclables to drop.

Luckily, Mecklenburg County has many other buyers that want our recycables, but the county is selling its bundles at much cheaper prices, and in some cases, the county has actually paid companies to take recyclables off our hands.

It could be worse. Some smaller cities and towns have begun scaling back their recycling programs to save money. Greensboro, for example, no longer allows residents to put glass in their recycling bins.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Jeff Smithberger is Mecklenburg County's director of solid waste.

Is Mecklenburg County's Recycling Program Profitable?

Sadly, no. "If you base it purely on a dollar for dollar, we're not making any money. It costs us money to recycle," Smithberger says. "However, if you factor in the cost of buying and building a new landfill somewhere, once you add the avoided cost of landfilling, then it starts to save money."

He says Mecklenburg County's recycling program isn't going anywhere if he can help it, but residents need to do their part by only placing the proper materials in their recycling bins.

What Should You Do If You're Really Not Sure If Something Can Be Recycled?

Smithberger has a simple answer to this one: "When in doubt, throw it out."

For more guidance on recycling in Mecklenburg County, visit the recycling program's website.

Do you have a question about the Charlotte region you'd like us to look into? Send it our way! Submit your question in the box below, and we may be in touch.

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal