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The List: 12 Basic Terms to Know to Talk About Recycling Like a Pro

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The recycling world has its own lingo, and learning it can pay off. By knowing the difference between MSW and MRF, you’ll sound like a recycling pro!

When my husband starts talking about his job as the technical manager for a sports website, it’s like he’s speaking another language. Between the various Internet terms, corporate acronyms, and the words for productivity and meeting protocols that his department uses, I can hardly keep up.

It seems like there’s a secret language for just about everything these days — my husband is equally confused when I start talking about casting on, purling, and blocking with my knitting buddies. Whether you work in a certain industry, play or follow a sport, or become proficient in a certain hobby, there are terms that you need to learn before becoming a true expert.

The same holds true with the world of recycling. Want to sound like an expert recycler? Study these industry terms and acronyms to impress your fellow eco-citizens. (And once you’re finished reading, take our Speak the Recycling Lingo quiz to see how conversant you are in recycle-ese!)

Bin: A recycling bin is the container that holds your recycling until it can be taken to a recycling facility or picked up by your municipal recycling service. Bins can range in size and shape from small lidded tubs to tall receptacles with wheels, similar in size and shape to trash cans (these latter versions are also called carts). They’re often a different color than your trash cans — blue and green are popular — to differentiate them from trash, and some might be further distinguished by the chasing arrows symbol. Some haulers or municipalities provide bins, and some require you to provide your own; if you’re required to provide your own, you may have to obtain a certain kinds, or you may be able to use any container you already have around the house, like a hamper.

Bulk Waste: This term refers to items that are too large to fit in the trash can or recycling bin, such as appliances and furniture. Most city solid waste programs have special bulk pickup days, or a number that can be called when you need these items to be picked up and brought to the landfill or recycling facility. Even better, though, is to try to find a way for the item to be repurposed or reused before you send it away for good. Donate furniture to a charity thrift store, or offer still-working appliances to people who may be in need.

Contaminants: In order for recycling to be successful, it’s important that the recyclable materials be free of residues or non-recyclable materials that could negatively affect the recycled product. For example, if you recycle a cardboard pizza box that’s soaked with grease, and it is processed into pulp to make paper, that batch of recycled paper could turn out covered with oil spots. When contaminants decrease the quality of finished products, they become less valuable and more challenging for recyclers to sell.

Curbside Recycling: This is a service, similar to trash pickup, that collects the recyclables you set out in your bin near the street. There is no mandate that a city or town have a recycling program, though virtually all major metropolitan areas do. According to The Recycling Partnership, roughly half of U.S. communities have a curbside recycling program. Curbside recycling programs are sometimes funded by cities via fees paid by residents as part of their waste management fees, while other communities, such as subdivisions, sometimes have to hire a private recycling pickup service. As what is and isn’t accepted by curbside recyclers varies from program to program, it’s always a good idea to be aware of what materials your program accepts, what days your pickups occur, and if the organization prefers for your recyclables to be sorted, bagged, bundled, or flattened.

MRF: These initials stand for Materials Recovery Facility or Materials Reclamation Facility, and the abbreviation is pronounced “murf.” It’s where the trucks take the recyclables that they pick up from homes and businesses. At the MRF, recyclables are sorted and packaged (usually in compressed bales) to be sold to the manufacturers who will turn the materials into new goods. A lot of what is or isn’t accepted by your curbside recycling program is determined by your local MRF machinery can or cannot process.

MSW: This stands for Municipal Solid Waste, which is everything we toss out everyday, be it trash, recycling, compost, HHW, e-waste, etc. — almost everything but industrial or construction waste. Most MSW ends up in landfills, unless the city has a plant that transforms garbage into energy through incineration.

Single-Stream: The most convenient method for consumers to collect recyclables is through single-stream recycling. This means that all recyclables — glass, plastic, paper, and metal — are placed in a single receptacle for pickup, rather than sorted into separate containers. The recyclables are then sorted at the MRF. Cities like Philadelphia, PA, and Phoenix, AZ, implement single-stream recycling for residents. If you have to separate your recyclables before they’re picked up, you have dual- or multi-stream recycling.

Organic Waste: This refers to any component of our waste that was once a plant or animal — yard waste, food scraps, and even paper. Because organic waste produces methane in the landfills, and requires lots of energy to incinerate, it’s wise to compost your organic waste as much as possible. Plus, compost often creates fertile soil and mulch, which can be used in your garden!

Plastic Film: This term refers to flexible sheets of thin plastic that are used to make disposable grocery bags, plastic wrap, zip-top bags, and packaging for everything from toilet paper to bed linens. While it’s not recyclable in most curbside programs, many types of plastic film can be recycled via other methods.

Post-Consumer: When you see this term on, for example, a package of printer paper or a plastic bottle, it means that it was made with recycled materials that had once been products used, and then recycled, by a consumer. Products made with recycled materials that don’t specify “post-consumer” may be recycled post-industrial or pre-consumer. This means that they were made with scraps or other materials that were recycled from a manufacturing process.

Recovery Rate: This figure refers to the amount of material that gets a second life, compared to the total amount that ends up in a landfill. According to the EPA’s annual waste study, we had a 34.6% recycling and composting recovery rate in 2014 — meaning 34.6% of everything we tossed out was successfully recycled or composted.

Virgin Material: Goods that are made from raw materials that are previously unused are said to be made with virgin materials. An example is paper that is made from a tree, rather than from recycled paper.
What other recycling terms should we add to our list? Share your suggestions — and their definitions, if you know them — in the comments below so we can all sound a little smarter when we talk about recycling.
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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

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  • Judy Sizemore T. 1 hour ago
    We have a wood pellet stove that produces ashes as the pellets burn down. My question is it it safe to put the ashes in my compost bin. Thanks in advance. Judy
  • Linda W. 13 days ago
    Hi, Ann: good question! If your packaging has a recycling symbol printed on it, you can take number 2 and 4 air pillows, deflate, and turn them in with the grocery bag films taken at your grocery store. Even bubble wrap can be tucked into the bags that you return. As for plastics that don't expressly say what type of plastic they are, they are a problem. Oh, and bread bags can go back to the grocer as well. Check the recyclebank website out, there's a lot of good info in here!
  • Ann L. 13 days ago
    I'm curious can you recycle plastic packing materials? The packing plastic that they fill with air. Or bubble wrap? Or plastic wrap used in protecting magazines, or new items that you purchase?
    Thank you