Recycling with Deborah Raphael

By Jericho Rajninger

Understanding recycling:

Many “recyclable” materials are not recycled or even recyclable. While papers and metals are recycled at relatively high rates, recycling rates for plastic are below 10 percent. Most plastics display numerical codes, purporting to denote a standardized and elaborate recycling system. But the system is convoluted, sometimes confusing even recycling facilities and identifying recycling processes that are not used.

Recycling is partially governed by fluctuations in the market. Recycled materials are collected, processed and then sold to producers who make goods from these materials. But cheap new plastics often undercut more expensive recyclables. If the demand for recycled material is low, it doesn’t matter if waste is recycled: it will be stored for future sale or, more likely, shipped to landfill.

Still, most plastics are not designed to be recycled at all. Even if recycling infrastructure were maximized, less than 50 percent of existing plastic would be recycled effectively. Reprocessing some mixed plastic is not environmentally or economically viable, and can pose significant health concerns.

Best recycling practices:

So what plastics can be recycled and how can they be recycled within the parameters of the current system?

Recycling varies greatly depending on local standards and regulations. Generally, plastics most suited for recycling are of a single material, like beverage and other liquid containers. But if these plastics are not cleaned before being recycled, they will likely not be recycled. According to Republic Services, a waste collection company, food residue in one recycled item can contaminate an entire truckload of recycled material. Bottle caps, too, can cause problems at facilities unless these facilities have the correct equipment to accommodate smaller pieces. Republic Services offers the credit card test as a rule of thumb: Anything smaller than a credit card should not be recycled.

Opaque tubs and bottles are harder to recycle because they are usually made of more than one type of plastic. The same goes for paper cups, which have a layer of plastic film on the interior that is difficult to remove. Recycling authorities recommend checking with your local facility to find out how to dispose of these items correctly in your area. Small and flimsy plastics are not intended to be recycled. They cannot be sorted correctly by equipment and are either treated as trash or can be confused with paper, which, authorities say, ends up doing more harm than good.

Buying in metal and glass instead of plastic can help curb excess waste: Unlike plastic, metal and glass can be recycled indefinitely without requiring new materials or generating additional waste. In the end, the best way to reduce waste is to avoid producing it at all. An emphasis on recycling can distract from other more sustainable waste solutions.

Further Reading:


Ethan: Are you recycling correctly at home? This is Ethan Elkind of Climate Break. Determining whether or not waste is recyclable can often be confusing. I asked Deborah Raphael, Director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, for some suggestions on how to dispose of waste effectively and sustainably. 

Ms. Raphael: I like to suggest to people that you err on the side of goodwill, meaning you err on the side of saying that that plastic does have an end use, because it’s very difficult to know whether or not there is a recycling market for it.

Ethan: Not all plastic can be recycled, but we often dispose of recyclable plastic incorrectly, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions. So residents often need help understanding needed steps to divert their waste from landfill. Deborah offers helpful guidance:

Ms. Raphael: So let’s think about a pizza box that is perfectly dry. There’s no food in it, no grease. That should go in the recycling bin because that cardboard is valuable. But when that pizza box has food stuck to it, or grease all over it from the cheese, then it really needs to go into the green bin. It’s very important that they are dry. The dryer they are, the higher the quality of your recycling will be.

Ethan: To learn more about effective recycling practices, and for more climate solutions, go to or wherever you get your podcasts.

Recycling with Deborah Raphael