Recycling and waste at the Transfer Station: Questions and Answers (Updated)

This year, Public Works included some helpful tips on what can and can’t be recycled. Unfortunately, the two different flyers and a referenced state guide caused more confusion than clarity for some of us*. So, I followed up with the DPW for answers.

The issues specifically relate to recycling of plastics.

On one flyer, the DPW shared that not everything with the ♲ recycle symbol can actually be recycled – at least not through the Transfer Station. Referring to the numbers inside the symbol, residents were told that our Town recycles plastics #1 & #2. That left some of us wondering if that meant that other plastics aren’t recycled. Meanwhile the state’s recycling FAQ flyer indicated that MA residents should recycle all plastic bottles and tubs.

DPW Superintendent Karen Galligan explained that she had been surprised to learn about many of the items that can’t be recycled. Her department’s intent was to make residents aware of the restrictions and how to check. (Next year, she’ll try to make the materials clearer.)

Southborough does recycle many plastic items beyond ♳ & ♴. But not everything can be recycled just because it has the ♲ symbol. To find out if your item can be recycled, you should check the state database. However, you don’t need to check for items that have the #1 or #2 mark – they are definitely covered.

Looking up other numbers on the state website (#3 – #7), I got the following answer:

The numbers on plastics are not great indicators of whether something can be recycled in a typical recycling program. Our advice is to think about the shape of your plastics. If they are clean and empty plastic bottles, jars, jugs or tubs, they are what we are looking for!

While the state’s flyer seems to give a big no on black plastic – it doesn’t necessarily mean all plastic that is black. Since plastic bottle caps are recyclable, I’d say it’s safe to recap your powerade bottle before you recycle. The black reference is specifically to common takeout containers.

Galligan explained:

I wish the whole thing was clearer. Unfortunately, I thought that a lot more items were recyclable than actually are. With the issues with China, there have been a lot of press about this and I’ve learned a bunch. Weird stuff, like some of the black plastic food containers actually have Styrofoam in them and that is why they can’t be recycled. They look like plastic. I always thought that they recycled Tupperware type containers, red solo cups and toothpaste tubes – I was wrong.

I looked up on the state website what to do with other common items. Here is my A-Z list of what you can/can’t recycle. (Note: all recyclable items must be cleaned first, except for plastic bottles which can just be shaken empty and capped): 

  • Aluminum baking tray or pie plate (disposable) – Yes
  • Bags – plastic – not through the Transfer Station. (You can check for other drop-off locations here.)
  • Cans
    • Metal/aluminum – Yes
    • Frozen Juice – No
  • Cardboard Canisters – (food canisters/spiral wound containers are made of mixed materials) – No
  • Cartons – plastic/wax lined milk, juice and soup boxes – No
  • Coffee Cup Tray – paper – Yes
  • Cups
    • Clear plastic – Yes (but not the lids and straws) 
    • Colored plastic – No
  • Deodorant tube/case – No
  • Deli meat container – clear plastic – Yes
  • Drinking glass – No
  • Egg cartons
    • Paper – Yes
    • Styrofoam – No
  • Envelopes
    • Paper (even with plastic windows) – Yes
    • Padded – No
  • Gift Bags – Only if they don’t have metallic inks, foil, wire, or glitter (but remove string handles first)
  • Gift Wrap – No
  • Glossy ads and circulars – Yes
  • Greeting Cards – Only if they don’t have metallic inks, foil, wire, or glitter
  • Hangers – No (though you are encouraged to find places to bring back wire ones and to donate good condition plastic or wooden ones)
  • Jugs, plastic – Yes
  • K-Cups – No
  • Lids 
    • Clear plastic takeout lids – Yes
    • Metal can lids – Yes
    • Metal lid to glass jar – only if screwed onto the jar, not loose
    • Plastic cup lid – No
    • Plastic tub or jar lid – yes
  • Napkins – No
  • Paper Towel roll – Yes
  • Pill Bottles
    • Over the Counter (vitamins, medicine, etc) – Only ones bigger than 2″ in diameter
    • Prescription – No
  • Pizza Box – Yes – (Grease is OK, but no food and no pizza savers or liners) [Editor’s Note: The signs at the Transfer Station will be updated]
  • Plastic containers
    • Clamshells – clear plastic – Yes
    • Clear containers (like for produce or deli meats) – Yes
    • Colored – No
    • Tupperware – No
  • Toilet paper tube – Yes
  • Yogurt tubs – Yes (but not the foil lids)

There are additional listings on the state website. They also allow you to suggest an item for clarity that isn’t listed. (I asked them to weigh in on plastic lined food cans.)

The site also answers what happens to recycled items:

If recycling is a mystery to you, you’re not alone. Whether you place recyclables in a bin at your curb or take them to a community recycling center, they eventually wind up in the same place: one of several Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF) in Massachusetts.

Once at the MRF, the materials are loaded onto a series of conveyor belts for sorting. Workers attempt to remove non-recyclables – including plastic bags and bagged trash. Some of these items make it through and jam the sorting equipment. As the “good” recyclables − paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic containers − move along the conveyor belts, they get separated mechanically and crushed. The cleanly separated materials are compressed into bales and shipped to businesses that transform them into new items. Understanding the process helps all of us do a better job recycling.

What about trash vs hazardous waste? Here are some common ones:

  • Aerosol Cans
    • Empty – Trash
    • Non-Empty that you know do not contain hazardous chemicals – discharge outdoors into a deep cardboard box or paper bag, and allow the box or bag to dry before placing in the trash.
    • Other – Save for Hazardous Waste Day
  • Batteries:
    • Alkaline – Most single-use household batteries (AAA, AA, C, D and 9 volt) – Trash
    • Button –  (small, round, silver-colored, used in watches and hearing aids) Do NOT dispose in the trash. Many stores selling watches or hearing aids will accept spent button batteries. Otherwise look for the Transfer Station’s separate collection bin
    • Lithium – (AA, C, 9 volt and button; mainly used in computers and cameras). Do NOT dispose of in the trash. Save for Hazardous Waste Day
    • Rechargeable – (including Li-Ion, Ni-Cd, Ni-MH, Ni-ZN and SSLA/Pb) Do NOT dispose in the trash. Take rechargeable Batteries to a retail collection location or a municipal recycling center that accepts rechargeable batteries. There are more than 400 collection sites in Massachusetts that are free to residents.
  • Light Bulbs
    • Fluorescent – Look for the Transfer Station’s separate collection bin
    • Non-fluorescent (incandescent or LED) – Trash
  • Thermometers/Thermostats with mercury – Look for the Transfer Station’s separate collection bin

Save the date for this year’s Hazardous Waste Day – Saturday, October 19 from 9:00 am – noon.

*In addition to a comment on the blog, I saw residents asking questions on Facebook.

Updated (7/10/19 8:23 am): Responding to a comment, I followed up on “No pizza box” signs and a collection bin for some hazardous items. Based on Galligan’s response, I updated the info above.

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3 years ago

Re: pizza boxes…above you say it’s recyclable (yes, at the state level), but there are clear signs in both cardboard recycling containers that prohibit them…you’re supposed to dispose of them in the regular trash.

Curious as to why…is it the food/leftovers? Attract rodents (more than others?)

Also, Batteries & Fluorescent bulbs can be placed in the small shack next to the can cage, on any given day. Does this mean they’re not being recycled? Does DPW just toss them in the regular trash pickup?

Sean Connelly
3 years ago
Reply to  car

Pizza boxes are made from corrugated cardboard, however the cardboard becomes soiled with grease, cheese, and other foods once the pizza has been placed in the box. Once soiled, the paper cannot be recycled because the paper fibers will not be able to be separated from the oils during the pulping process. Food is a major source of contamination in paper recycling.

Kelly Roney
3 years ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

Sorry, but the no pizza boxes signs at the recycle center are recent, not original.

I used to recycle clean pizza boxes, not the grease-saturated round cardboard liners, and I stopped recently because the signs went up.

The fundamental problem, however, is that recyclers are cavalier about the condition of their recyclables. I’ve seen all sorts of ridiculous waste in the recycle bins – half full pasta sauce jars, styrofoam, non-returnable bottles and glass among the returnables, you name it. This fouls the waste stream and destroys the value it could have.

3 years ago

Thanks for the follow up and update Beth…FWIW on the pizza signs in the 2 cardboard bins…they went up earlier this year, as hand-written signs, and then a month or so ago became laminated….and more ‘official’ looking (meaning printed, not handwritten).

Yup, the shed is nicely organized w/ clearly labeled containers for the various items, batteries, various bulbs, etc.

Anita Reeder
3 years ago

I also had many questions about what is or isn’t recyclable after receiving our conflicting inserts with our transfer station sticker information. I had looked on our town website for an up to date list of what we can recycle and it was not to be found. It would be so helpful to have that there on the transfer station page under the DPW Department information going forward…

Thanks for following up on this, Beth.

Richard Hilton
2 years ago

Hewlett-Packard (HP) has a different type of recycling symbol which is indifferent to the “recyclable” symbol for plastic resins. There are two different pairs of the number in this symbol.

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