In South Seattle, where I used to live, recycling was a breeze. Newspaper, steel cans, tinned cans, aluminum cans, bottles of every color, magazines, mixed paper, junk mail and cardboard? I tossed them together in a huge cart on wheels that got emptied, curbside, once a month.
The only minor inconvenience was that the cart would fill up prematurely, obliging us to slink down the alley in the wee hours looking for neighbors with emptier bins. We eventually figured out that the city was happy to supply us with a second cart, and all was recycling bliss.
Then we moved several miles north. Now we separate our recyclables: newspapers in the dark green crate, cans and bottles in the yellow crate, mixed paper in the pale green crate and cardboard boxes flattened and stacked vertically between two crates.
We set out the crates once a week for pickup. (I like the dignified sound of "set out." What we actually do is chase the recycling truck down the street, shrieking and ejecting recyclables as we go.)
The first week in our new house, we didn't have the faintest idea what the exact configuration for our recyclables was. Were we supposed to strip the cans? Tie the papers? Rip out junk mail windows? Too shy to ask, there we were, up to our elbows in the neighbors' bins again, trying to figure the system out. It's important to know.
Though recycling has come a long way in the past 10 years, it's hardly a moneymaker in most areas. Because the alternatives -- dumping the stuff in landfills or building incinerators -- are more expensive than recycling, communities can subsidize recycling programs and still come out ahead.
What can you do to help make recycling cost-effective for your community? You can help by not contaminating your recyclables with non-recyclable items.
Your job is to pony up your recyclables just the way your city wants them. For example: steel cans. Should they be peeled? Flattened? Ends cut off? Can you throw in the ends of frozen juice containers? What about clean aluminum foil? What about those cans that seem to have steel sides and aluminum tops and bottoms?
If you're not sure how your city wants your recyclables, find the number of a helpful person at your trash utility and keep it somewhere handy. Make a list of what the city takes, in what form it likes it and what the city won't take.
The rules vary widely from place to place, but here are a few universals:
* Rinse empty bottles and cans. Dirty ones attract vermin.
* Don't get carried away with rinsing bottles and cans. Water, especially hot water, is a precious commodity.
* Peel cans, recycle the labels with your mixed paper.
* Remove caps, stoppers and wires from bottles.
* Don't throw your old tea cup in with your bottles. The ceramic cup is made of different materials and has a different melting point than bottle glass. If the cup slips unnoticed through the system, it can ruin a whole batch of glass.
* Ditto light bulbs, glassware and window panes.
* Paper soiled with food cannot be recycled. That means no dirty pizza boxes, no used paper plates, towels and napkins, no used Happy Meal boxes with ketchup on them.
* Don't improvise. If you're wondering whether the recycler will take Spot's metal water dish you just ran over, call and ask. If you want to recycle your old paperbacks that got rained on before Goodwill picked them up, call and ask. If you'd like to throw in your aluminum tea pot that melted last week, call and ask.
And keep up the good work. Recycling is something we can all be proud of.