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Are you making the right recycling decisions? Here's what you need to know

How well do you know Sacramento’s recycling rules? Test yourself

See if you know what goes in the blue bin under the current recycling rules for the city of Sacramento and Sacramento County.
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See if you know what goes in the blue bin under the current recycling rules for the city of Sacramento and Sacramento County.

It seems you have more questions than answers when it comes to recycling.

Each day, you make a split-second decision: recycling bin or trash can?

Now comes word that curbside collection programs face problems with contractors and Chinese recyclers rejecting more of our recyclables. That's either because our containers are too contaminated or there's just no market to reuse the materials. One snafu last month led to Sacramento County sending an estimated 290 tons of curbside recyclables to a landfill.

With insight from recycling expert Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, and half a dozen other interviews, The Bee attempts to answer some of your questions here.

Every plastic container with a number gets recycled, right?

Just because it's stamped with the ubiquitous recycling symbol and a number doesn't mean a company wants to make something from it.

It gets complicated fast. But soda bottles, water jugs, milk jugs and detergent cartons all have an after-market value and can be turned into something useful.

However, the plastic containers for strawberries, salad greens or restaurant leftovers don't have any market, even though they might have the same recycling symbol and number on it. In general right now, plastics labeled 3 through 7 don't have markets for them.

Still, Sacramento city and county accept clean plastic containers and leave it to sorting facilities to figure out what can be recycled.

So what happens to the unwanted plastics that I recycle?

After the leftover plastics are bundled at a materials recovery center, recycling contractors pay foreign or domestic companies about $20 a ton to take it.

That company then re-sorts the plastic to pull any valuable materials missed in the original sort. The remaining plastic containers are mostly sent to a landfill.

What about plastic-coated cardboard milk cartons?

Neither China nor domestic recyclers want them. Put them in the trash.

Do I need to wash my jar of spaghetti sauce?

Food containers should be empty before you attempt to recycle them, but you shouldn't waste water cleaning them, Murray says. Instead, he suggests clearing out as much debris as possible before tossing it into recycling. This may conflict with what some jurisdictions say.

What about small paper scraps and receipts?

Most paper scraps are lost in the mechanical sorting process and won't make it into the mixed paper bundle. You're better off putting them in the trash.

Why isn't there a California Redemption Value for wine bottles?

The wine and spirits industry has successfully blocked efforts to add a CRV to their products.

Does my local jurisdiction make money off my CRV-labeled beverage containers?

When collected curbside, they're often crushed along with other glass and marketed as mixed glass bits, which have less value.

Why doesn't Sacramento County have one waste can like Placer?

That's a political question, but adopting mixed-stream recycling would require a large expense to build a materials recovery center. Beyond the cost, some people oppose taking personal responsibility out of recycling.

How can I be fined when anyone could have put trash in my recycling can?

Action plans are being drafted, but both Sacramento city and county seem interested in dealing with the worst offenders only after several rounds of education. Elsewhere, some municipalities have placed bad actors on "recycling probation" by taking away their recycling bins and requiring them to use more expensive, full-sized garbage cans instead.

I just had a party. Can I toss five pizza boxes into recycling?

If the boxes are stained with grease, you're contaminating your recycling load. Some jurisdictions say you can tear off the clean portions and toss them into recycling. But others say you're best off just throwing the biodegradable boxes in the trash.

What about styrofoam containers or packing peanuts?

No. Just no.

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