Dear Recyclebank: If liquid and grease make paper unrecyclable, do things like cigarette smoke make paper unrecyclable, too? –Jayne
Dear Jayne: Great question! There are no clear-cut rules for less common contaminants like smoke, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make educated choices. When we think of things that make an item “unrecyclable,” we’re generally talking about one (or more) of the following five issues:
- The material itself may not be recyclable, or it can’t be handled by your particular facility. For example, electronics and ceramics are not always recyclable through curbside pickups because they require more sorting and manpower, or because there’s no local market for the recyclable material.
- The item may be in a form that the recycling facility’s machinery can’t process. For instance, plastic bags and films can get caught and cause costly shutdowns. When it comes to paper, some towns are not able to accept shredded paper scraps, so check with your local hauler before tossing those in the bin.
- The item may be contaminated with foreign materials that will degrade or possibly ruin the quality of the finished batch. This can be accidental, such as food remnants on packaging, or deliberate, like wax coating on paper or cardboard.
- The quality of the material itself may be below what’s needed to produce a usable recycled product. As we discussed in this article, paper can only be recycled so many times before its fibers are too short to use and it becomes better suited for the compost bin.
- The material may not guarantee a high profit. If a plant can’t get significant value out of something, they may decline to accept it. Thermal paper (the kind used in receipts) is an example — it’s coated with BPA, which not only makes it harder to recycle but has also raised health concerns in people who regularly handle it. This lowers its value as a commodity.
What does this mean for paper that’s been around cigarette smoke? Consider the paper’s contamination, quality, and profitability. It seems unlikely that a stray waft of smoke is going to damage your paper irreparably. However, repeated exposure to heavy smoke may cause discoloration and stray burns that are bad for the paper’s integrity. If the paper hasn’t sustained visible damage (indicating that it hasn’t picked up more than trace residue and chemicals), it’s likely to be alright. If you’re still unsure whether your paper is recyclable or not, contact your local facility directly!