Recycling no-nos

This really has nothing to do with anything on this blog to date, but I recently received a calendar from the DC Department of Public Works that, among the more exciting pages, listed the kinds of items that could and could not be recycled. The list of no-nos includes yogurt, cottage cheese, and margarine tubs.

That has always bothered me. They can take so many, many things — cereal boxes, food cans, caps and lids and all kinds of detritus. But not yogurt containers! I decided to find out why.

So I called the DC mayor’s hotline — 202–727-1000 — because generally when I call there I get an immediate answer to any question I have. They’re really very good — must have a great database backing them up. This time, though, they just referred me to the Department of Public Works for the answer. Fine, so I called them and asked my question. They didn’t know and referred me to another number. Called them. They were the business recycling group and couldn’t help me, and referred me to residential recycling. I called residential recycling and they didn’t know the answer but suggested I talk to a particular person. I called him and was told, again, that yogurt containers couldn’t be recycled. I persisted and he referred me to a Ms. Klum.

After trying a couple of times, I reached Ms. Klum, who was either knowledgeable or could fake it well. Ms. Klum said the reason margarine tubs were forbidden was because of the oil products that got into the plastic and made it unrecyclable. That was interesting. More interesting was the yogurt reason — apparently some kinds of yogurt are made with plastics that are made of the wrong boojie boojie to allow them to be recycled. Not all yogurts; indeed, most are fine now. But some. And so they eliminate all yogurt containers.

This seems bizarre to me. But if it’s true, what a great niche, if someone could only fill it!Our landfills are bursting at the seams with yogurt, cottage cheese, and margarine tubs; hardback books, disposable napkins, towels, plates, and tissues; foam or plastic packing materials; window glass and mirrors; deli or takeout cartons; dry cleaning bags, and pizza boxes. One would think someone would figure out a solution to this exclusionary recycling.

This reminds me, though, of the problems — and promise — of mine tailings. When people dig up stuff from the ground — be the stuff gold, silver, lead, or whatever, they discard the chaff (tailings) in a big pile. This typically represents a severe ecological threat — the tailings often end up in groundwater or used for fertilizer. But they’re also an opportunity. When I was in Leadville, Colorado, I was told that originally miners were looking for gold and silver. Then when that ran out, they started sifting through the tailings for lead. When the lead ran out, the tailings sat around for a while until the 40s, when the US suddenly had a need for uranium. Turns out the lead tailings contained a fair amount of uranium-235! You know, atomic bomb stuff.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, clearly! (And most of the trash is still trash —
in the uranium tailings are a whole lot of the results of uranium breakdown (including thorium-230,  radium-226, radon-222 (radon gas) and the radon progeny, including
polonium-210). I’m sure it’ll all be useful someday.)

I fantasize about next century’s treasure hunters digging through today’s landfills, crushing up the junk and extracting whatever good stuff is lying in wait.

One can only hope.