Bruin Waste Management says customers can resume placing recyclable items in their recycling bins starting next week. (Photo by Bria Light/The Watch)

Many things have come to a screeching halt during the past two months, among them the ability for many residents in the area to recycle their cans, bottles and other containers marked with the telltale triangle. Bruin Waste Management, which holds trash and recycling contracts for the towns of Telluride, Mountain Village and Ridgway, temporarily halted recycling collection during the pandemic as part of efforts to protect workers’ health and safety. As the curve flattens and restrictions ease, however, Bruin will resume the collection of recycling, beginning Monday.

“It’s pretty much back to normal,” said Chris Trosper, manager at Naturita-based Bruin Waste Management. “People can just put their bin out as usual, and we’ll pick it up as usual and start sorting again.” He added that while people do not need to bag recyclables, it’s always preferable for trash to be placed in the garbage bins in bags.

However, now that recycling is once again a green light for Bruin customers, even the most avid would-be recyclers may be scratching their heads, wondering which products are actually a go and which ones must be relegated to the trash can.

Jake Niece, at Eco Action Partners, provided a helpful primer on proper recycling.

“I try to choose things that are in glass containers, or in metal, paper or cardboard packaging, because glass and metal are actually a lot more recyclable,” Niece said. “Plastic can really only go around the cycle once.”

And what exactly do all those numbers inside the little recycling triangle symbol mean?

“One and two plastics have the best market for remanufacturing,” he explained. “Three through six are all different kinds of plastic compounds, some are made out of recycled plastic and some aren’t. Seven is kind of a catch-all category. What’s interesting is that those compostable cups, which have a seven on the bottom, can't be recycled. They're actually a contaminant because they need to be composted in a commercial composting facility. So if people are making buying decisions on something like plastic cups, one and two are the best to go with.”

However, he said, one and two also mean that the container is virgin plastic from petroleum products, and although it’s the easiest to recycle, it can only effectively be done once. Thus, if you have the choice to purchase goods that don’t come in plastic packaging, that’s best.

“Eliminating plastic is the goal, but that’s not realistic to tell someone right now,” he added. “It feels overwhelming. So reduce. Reduce plastic use.”

Another key factor to remember when recycling is to rinse out food containers before chucking them in the recycling bin. When items such as pasta sauce jars, yogurt containers and peanut butter jars are simply tossed in the mix coated with food residues, that food contaminant can cause an entire batch of recycling to be thrown into the landfill. At Bruin’s recycling processing facility in Montrose, workers sort recycling by hand on large conveyor belts, but it’s not possible to catch every item that might be a contaminant. If enough contaminated items get bundled into the large bales ready to be sold to larger buyers, that’s when it can cause a problem. The bales, which get stacked onto large 18-wheeler flatbeds, are then sampled by the buyer. If contaminant levels in the sample exceed the buyer’s standards, the entire flatbed trailer of recycling gets rerouted to the landfill, with the sorting, baling, trucking and disposal costs then shouldered by Bruin.

“So if we do just a little bit of work, that helps so, so much,” Niece concluded. “If you're too lazy to rinse out your food container, then it’s better to just throw it in the trash. And it doesn't have to be perfect. You don't have to wash it sparkling clean, but just give it a solid rinse in the sink, get most of it out, then recycle.”

And while it’s easy to be what Niece called a “hopeful recycler” — throwing something in the recycling bin hoping that something good will happen to it — it’s better to throw it out if you’re not sure. Items that must be trashed include coffee cups, juice and milk boxes, aluminum foil, six-pack rings, plastic bags, bottle lids and utensils, sticky notes, and neon paper.

In general, Niece suggested that the best practice is to “try to buy less trash in the first place, though it’s not always easy. It’s something to work towards. You don’t have to be perfect, but you can reduce your impact, which also counts.”