Houston recycling guide: What's trash and what's not?

2022-06-15 12:13:55 By : Ms. Joyce zhang

Greasy pizza boxes and wrapping paper. Paper towels and newspaper sleeves. Carpets, sheets and hangers. None of these is supposed to be recycled in the green, curbside city of Houston bins. But people routinely toss in all of it — and more.

In fact, the city has found that as much as 37 percent of what people recycle is really trash. This imbalance means more work sorting out bad items at the recycling plant and time spent hauling them to a landfill.

Lots of recyclables also end up in the garbage. People may toss them because they think they should, or their green bin is full, or they don’t have a bin at all. (The city doesn’t currently pick up from big apartment complexes or businesses.)

But recycling correctly matters. The benefits, according to the Environmental Protection Agency: It saves room in landfills, conserves natural resources and lessens pollution.

This Houston Chronicle guide will get you caught up on what to trash and what to recycle, and walk you through the effort that goes into processing Houston’s toss-offs.

City trucks bring recycled items to a massive plant in northeast Houston, operated by FCC Environmental Services. Drivers dump what they’ve collected on the warehouse floor. A worker scoops the material into a bin with a front loader.

Problem items often arrive, such as T-shirts, kiddie pools and garden hoses. Animal carcasses turn up daily — cats, pigs and deer. An AR-15 once appeared in the pile at the city plant, prompting a call to police.

Bees sometimes swarm around still-full beer cans that people don’t rinse.

A drum covered in spikes rips open bags of prospective recyclables. (The city advises against bagging recycling: Black bags are tossed because no one knows what’s inside them. Plastic grocery bags jam the system.)

A conveyor belt then carries the materials up to a room where workers pluck out non-recyclables. They’re on the lookout for three main categories of erroneous items:

— Bulky metals, such as bike frames, tire rims and engine parts. These go to steel mills to be recycled.

— Rigid plastics, such as plastic pails, Little Tike bikes and laundry baskets. These are made into plastic paint cans.

— Trash, which includes “tanglers” such as measuring tape or extension cords that get wrapped in the machinery.

Items fly past the sorting crew at 45 mph. The workers grab problematic refuse they’ve spotted using their peripheral vision. Look straight down, they say, and chances are you will vomit.

Items are next sorted by size. They get bounced through “screeners.” In the first, cardboard soars over the top. Glass falls to the bottom. The next two screener machines remove paper.

From what remains, a magnet gets out tin cans, electrical currents force steel containers in another direction and special infrared machines use air to separate the plastics.

Workers and a robot correct sorting errors along the way. Sometimes the top of a plastic container is recyclable but not the bottom. A useless greasy pizza box bottom needs to be be separated from an ungreasy recyclable top. Cardboard egg cartons are OK, but Styrofoam ones have to go.

The facility can handle some items the city has told the public not to recycle in an attempt to make it run efficiently. The technology also is expected to advance with time, altering what the facility is able to accept.

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John Schultz, general manager, walk among the recycling materials at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Workers presort materials to begin the processing at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department. Plastic shopping bags are not wanted in the recycling materials.

Shown through an observation window, a front loader transfers the collected recycling material to begin the processing at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A worker sorts cardboard at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Bales of aluminum cans are shown at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Workers sort mixed paper at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A workers sorts plastic by color at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A workers pulls plastic bags as she sorts mixed paper at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Conveyors move recycling materials through FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

Non-recyclable items such as fire extinguishers, helium and propane tanks are shown at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department. Often non-recyclable items are placed in residential recycle bins.

Workers presort materials to begin the processing at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A fork lift operator moves around at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A fork lift operator moves bales of recycling materials at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A bale of metal cans are shown at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

A City of Houston Department of Solid Waste Management truck dumps recycling materials at FCC Environmental Services, 9172 Ley Rd., Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Houston. The company processes recycling for the City of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department.

The whole sorting process takes at most 20 minutes. Nineteen people pluck out non-recyclable items. Two-and-a-half miles of conveyor belts wind through the multi-level facility moving items along.

When enormous holding bins fill up with recyclables, they open onto a final set of conveyor belts. These carry the items toward a machine that compacts them and ties them up with wire like hay bales.

A worker picks out any contamination visible on the outside of these bales, such as a plastic bag that slipped through with the cans. The facility is generally allowed to sell its sorted materials to vendors with up to 3 percent contamination.

Emily Foxhall • emily.foxhall@chron.com • @emfoxhall

Alexandra Kanik • alexandra.kanik@chron.com • @act_rational Kirkland An • kirkland.an@chron.com • @kirkland_an Ken Ellis • ken.ellis@chron.com • @kenduque Jasmine Goldband • jasmine.goldband@chron.com • @fotojaz

Melissa Phillip • melissa.phillip@chron.com • @MPhillip_hc

Gabrielle Banks • Gabrielle.Banks@chron.com • @GabMoBanks

Lily Thomas • lily.thomas@chron.com  • @lbeththomas

Charlie Crixell • charlie.crixell@chron.com • @ccrixell819

Dana Burke • dana.burke@chron.com • @DanaPBurke Tommy Hamzik • tommy.hamzik@chron.com • @T_Hamzik

Emily Foxhall covers the environment for the Houston Chronicle. She joined the paper in 2015 as a suburban reporter. She has documented the city's sprawl while playing a key role in the paper's breaking news and enterprise coverage. Her reconstruction of the Santa Fe High School shooting, along with two other colleagues, won first place for feature writing from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors. She was part of the Chronicle team that was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2017 for coverage of Hurricane Harvey. Soon after, she began roaming the state as the Texas Storyteller.

Kirkland An is a data visualization developer for the Houston Chronicle. He performs data analysis, provides graphic visualization and creates interactive projects. Before moving to Texas, he worked in Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. Kirkland graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a degree in Political Science and a certificate in Journalism.