You can tell a lot about people by what they throw away, and the way they choose to dispose of it—messily, secretively, wastefully. And don’t think your garbage collector isn’t paying attention. Chances are, your collector knows more about your lifestyle than you think. To find out what clues waste professionals find in our trash habits, we spoke to Dawn Ratcliffe, the recycling coordinator for the city of Tempe, Arizona. Having played many different roles in waste removal, she’s just about seen it all. Here are a few things that never go unnoticed.
This might sound familiar—you’ve just had a get-together where the alcohol flowed freely, and the next morning you’ve got a somewhat embarrassing number of bottles to put out on the curb for pickup. Time and time again, Ratcliffe sees people try to discretely hide the empty beer bottles and cans in a black plastic trash bag or a cardboard box. In fact, a black plastic bag on recycling day is a dead giveaway to your collector that you’re trying to hide something since it’s not your usual receptacle (nor an acceptable container for recycling). Cardboard boxes are less conspicuous, but they can backfire on you, too. “The bottom often gets soggy from the leftover liquid and everything falls through when we pick it up. The evidence ends up all over the street,” says Ratcliffe.
There are a lot of recycling optimists out there who throw everything that seems remotely recyclable in the bin in the hopes that it will get sorted out and recycled in the facility. (Guilty as charged.) The problem is that many facilities don’t have the ability to process certain items, like plastic bags and cling wrap, and putting them in the bin just causes headaches for employees.
“Plastic bags and wrap are some of the biggest contaminants in recycling bins. They get clogged up in the machinery and employees have to spend time cutting it out, which costs us time and money,” she explains. She also notes that if there are just too many non-recyclables in your bin to sort through, everything might get tossed. You should take plastic bags to a drop-off point in your local grocery store for recycling, and cellophane wrappings unfortunately need to get trashed.
Tempe has a compost program called Green Organics, which picks up yard and garden waste for composting, but some residents are still getting used to how it works. “I’ve seen compostables mixed in with recycling since people assume it’s all going to the same place,” Ratcliffe says. Nope, they definitely need to be separate. The finished compost is sold back to schools, parks, and places like the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, as well as offered free to Tempe residents.
“There are some really dedicated people whose recyclables are pristine,” Ratcliffe says. We’re talking labels removed and sorted separately, insides scrubbed so there’s not a speck of food to be found—you could eat out of them again if you wanted to. And, hey, if you want to go the extra mile, your recycling collector is going to love you—but there’s no need to be quite so thorough. Ratcliffe says recyclables should be clean and rinsed, but they don’t need to be sparkling. Small bits of food residue are generally OK since they’ll be washed again during processing, but a jar with lots of peanut butter still stuck to the bottom doesn’t make the cut.
Clearing out your keepsakes? Your trash collector is sure to notice. “I’ve seen old photographs mixed in with paper recycling. It always makes me a little sad,” Ratcliffe says.
When you start recycling other people’s trash for them, you’re definitely going above and beyond. As a recycling coordinator, part of Ratcliffe’s job includes tabling at events to inform people about her city’s recycling and composting services. She’s observed some attendees fishing plastic and glass drink bottles out of the garbage can and transferring them by the armfuls into the recycling bin. “I’ve even had people come up to me to apologize for not doing more to reduce waste,” she says, which is a sure sign that this person already lives a very eco lifestyle. “I can tell right away that they probably shop at a local consignment store and have solar panels at home, but they still feel guilty for not doing enough, even though they’re usually doing much more than most people.”
Related: How To Recycle Almost Anything
“When people are moving, they’ll put everything and the kitchen sink out for trash pickup. Lots of items are still in great condition,” Ratcliffe says. This is most often the case in dorm rooms or apartment buildings where people are more transitional and less aware of other avenues for donation.
Recycling peer pressure is real. Nobody wants to be the only house on the block with a mountain of black trash bags out on collection day. If other people around you are recycling and composting, you’re more likely to join in since you don’t want them to judge you for having a huge eco-footprint. “These days recycling is part of our societal norm,” Ratcliffe says. “People will do it if it’s convenient and if they see other people doing it.”