Are you guilty of “wish cycling”?

That’s the practice of tossing questionable items in the recycling bin, hoping they can somehow be recycled. The term arose this weekend in a Star Tribune story about how low material prices are hurting the Twin Cities recycling market.

A number of materials in particular frequently show up at local processing facilities that cause problems for the complex machines that make curbside single-sort recycling possible. They ultimately end up as “residual” waste that facilities cannot recycle.

Websites for the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a comprehensive list of what to do with a wide range of materials. The three processors contacted by the Star Tribune, Eureka Recycling, Dem-Con Cos. and Waste Management, each responded with a different list of problem items. Here is a selection:

Plastic bags

Plastic bags are enemy No. 1 for the facilities that process curbside recycling. They wind around the spinning shafts that help sort materials, constantly clogging the machines.

“It causes significant problems, not just for us but across all [recycling processing facilities],” said Kate Davenport, chief of business development at Eureka, which services the city of St. Paul among another clients. “Sometimes two hours a day can be spent cleaning them out.”

Plastic films like grocery bags, Ziploc bags, bread bags and newspaper bags should all be taken to a special drop-off bin located in just about every grocery store. Companies like Trex in Virginia can then turn them into plastic lumber for decking, for example.

To find a nearby plastic film drop-off location, visit


Food pouches are an increasingly common form of packaging, but they are very difficult to recycle. This includes Capri Sun, as well as the newer flexible pouch packages that hold food like nuts, coffee, rice or granola. “We’re seeing a lot more food in pouches,” Davenport said.

The challenges are twofold. Often the packages are a composite of two different materials, such as aluminum and plastic, which are very difficult to separate for recycling. “So there aren’t markets or really ways to recycle pouches,” Davenport said.

They also flatten, which confuses processing machines that treat flat items as paper. “Flat pouches end up going into paper and contaminating the paper,” said Bill Keegan of Shakopee-based Dem-Con.

Loose, shredded paper

Paper is recycled more than any other material in the state. But since shredded paper is much smaller, it confuses the processing machines. Minneapolis advises residents to put shredded paper in closed paper bags.

“The reality of the modern recycling systems [all of them] is that it is very hard to capture any products that are smaller than 2 inches in dimension, and they end up being sorted with the glass and contaminating the glass material stream,” Keegan said in an e-mail.

Glassware, window glass, ceramics

Drinking and window glass melts at different temperatures than bottles, so it is problematic when they commingle at a sorting facility. Minneapolis residents can take these to the South Transfer Station with a voucher. Ceramics cannot be recycled at single-sort facilities.

Electronics and batteries

Cities and counties have different methods for recycling electronics (Minneapolis has a method for curbside pickup), but they should not be put in the single-sort bin. Keegan said batteries are a large problem because their small size means they typically end up in the glass pile.

Garden hoses, extension cords

These items are particularly problematic because, like plastic bags, they wrap around the equipment and clog the machine.

Loose bottle caps

Keegan said loose bottle caps are so small that they contaminate the glass stream. They should be screwed back on the bottles that are being recycled.

Other problem items

Some other problem items mentioned by the processors include sharp items such as needles, car parts and tires. They also mentioned tissue paper and paper towels, which should be composted. Davenport said bulky plastic items like kitty litter buckets are problematic since the machine can’t process them and they contain several different types of materials. Keegan said he gladly takes them, however.

Polystyrene, Styrofoam

One of the grayer areas in recycling is polystyrene, also known as No. 6 plastic. The acceptance of polystyrene differs somewhat by facility, but there is a higher chance it won’t ultimately be recycled since it currently has a limited end-market. This category includes Styrofoam and the red Solo cups that are ubiquitous at college campuses and weekend barbecues.

None of the three facilities the Star Tribune contacted accept Styrofoam. But Waste Management and Dem-Con accept No. 6 containers like Solo cups. Eureka does not.


Twitter: @StribRoper