Throw in the Know: Tips for Successful Sorting in Your Workplace, Home, and at Events

August 11, 2017
Categories: Live

What are common sort categories?

Recycling can be tricky.  Each region and city has its own haulers and processors, and thus each decides its own sort categories.  In general, the following items fall into the following groups.

RECYCLABLES” can mean many things depending on the community. Commonly recycled items include:

  • Metal. Metals are perhaps the most important material to recycle. It takes a ton of work and energy to initially extract that material from the earth and then form it into a metallic product. Coupled with the fact that it’s relatively easy to turn it into a new product renders metal the most important material to recycle.
  • Paper. Anything you can tear including office paper, envelopes, construction paper, cardboard, paper containers, and boxes.  Three things to be think about when it comes to paper: First, as paper fibers make their way through the recycling process, their length typically gets shorter and shorter, ultimately rendering them at the end of their lifecycle. That’s why shorter fiber paper (think tissues, toilet paper, paper towels) isn’t typically desired in the paper category.  Second, paper cups are a tricky one too: because they are often lined with plastic, paper recyclers don’t often want them.  Third, asceptics (such as Tetra Pak containers that are used as packaging for juice boxes and more) are a final category that might feel like paper, but are lined with foil and plastic and should, in general, go in the garbage.  When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Plastic. In general, plastic items with a neck are recyclable.  Others, be wary and, in general, throw them in the trash.
  • Glass. Think bottles and jars.  Glassware (wine glasses and cups) should be sent to the trash.

Organics” typically means anything that grew, and when you recycle organics you’re typically sending them to composting (an aerobic process with oxygen) or anaerobic digestion (an anaerobic process without oxygen).  Commonly organic materials:

  • Yard Trimmings.  Leaves, flowers, twigs, branches, brush, weeds, and trimmings. Grass is best left on the lawn in a process known as “grasscycling” – it will quickly break down and return to the soil.
  • Fruit and Vegetable Scraps. Peels, rinds, pits, cores: basically anything that you chop or scrape from fruits and vegetables as you prepare the food for eating.
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags. Filters are okay so long as they’re paper or something you can tear.
  • Other items: A majority of other items, such as pastas, grains, meats, dairy, seafood, and bones, are up to the discretion of the recycler and where they plan to send their organic items for composting or digestion.  In general, you want to avoid putting oils, fats, grease, bones, or seafood into your compost because those items will, in general, attract nuisance vectors such as rats or raccoons.

“Trash” or “Landfill” typically means anything that should be put into the landfill. Common items that should be landfilled include:

  • Prep items such as gloves.  They just get in the way of other recycling items.
  • Small plastics such as creamer cups and single-serve condiments. They are too small to filter out.
  • Diapers.
  • Straws and lids. Again, they’re too small to get sorted out.
  • Plastic lids.
  • Compostable plastics. In general, it takes a very specific environment to be able to capture a clean stream of compostable plastics, and then send them to a facility that can actually turn these materials into a reusable product. In our experience over the last decade, compostable plastics A) lead to confusion during sorting, B) lead to confusion during processing, C) decrease the value of the finished soil product.  For these reasons we suggest, unless you are absolutely certain your facility can handle them, sending compostable plastics to the landfill.


Why is it important to sort recyclables correctly?

Proper sorting at the point of disposal, also known as “upstream,” yields lower processing costs at the recycling facilities, known as “downstream.” This also enables cleaner flows of materials back into society.

At Harvest, our favorite type of sorting – Source Separated Organics – means sorting out only organic materials (no plastics, metals or bits of contamination) and putting them to their highest and best use. Organic materials such as yard trimmings, food scraps, wood waste, and paperboard products typically make up about a third of the municipal solid waste stream. Sending these materials to landfills is a wasted opportunity. Food waste in landfills takes up valuable space and ultimately results in higher emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas. By source separating organics (that is, sorting them at the point of disposal), we maximize the environmental and economic potential to recycle these valuable materials into compost and soil products (including our Harvest Organics line of soil) and renewable energy. A key part of that successful sorting is setting up a system to capture those materials. That system can be as simple as cans and good signage.

How can I maximize recycling and composting the correct materials in my home or workplace?

Here are four tips to dramatically improve efforts in source separating organics and recycling:

Tip One: Use Pictures

Images, or even actual objects, are more effective than text alone.

Tip Two: Point Positive

Use arrows to show where items should go.

Tip Three: Proximity is paramount.

Place your signs as close to the point of disposal as possible. Ideally the signage is above the bin at an easily viewed height. For example, placing a sign just above the bin pointing down, instead of on the bin below eye level.

Tip Four: Color Coordinate

Pair colors with categories. Match sorting categories with recognizable colors, and always use the same color scheme throughout.  In the example below, we’ve used green for compost, blue for recyclables, and red for trash.


Public sorting is tricky.  What tips have you found that work in your environment? Share with us in the comments below!