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When in doubt, throw it out: recycling holiday waste

via Flickr

People use a lot of stuff during the holidays. Foil-covered dishes, wrapping paper, cardboard boxes and Christmas trees will soon need to be discarded.

In the days following Christmas, many materials will be brought to the curb. Bob MacGregor, the forest properties director at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said Christmas trees are recyclable too. Real Christmas trees have lots of benefits for the environment as they take in carbon from the air during their growing period and those benefits from the tree could continue past Christmas.

"It's not good to put a real tree into the landfills and just have it burned or something," MacGregor said. "That puts those methane right back into the atmosphere. But if you can take it to a mulching place to recycle, that's great, it goes back in the soil"

Some municipalities have curbside pickup where trees will be taken to mulching centers. For people without that service, Tammy Palmer, of the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, said to drop your tree at a compost site.

"We want it in the most natural form possible," Palmer said. "Get rid of all of those decorations. You don't want bits of glass and plastic and other trash mixed in with your mulch in the spring. Because our goal at the end of the day is to reuse that tree in another way to help people in the spring."

Artificial trees cannot be composted. Some thrift stores will accept donations, but if an artificial tree is no longer reusable, it will need to be disposed of as trash.

Packing materials from online orders can require special attention. Cardboard boxes should be flattened before being put into bins. Air pillows and bubble wrap made out of film plastic can be dropped off at chain grocery stores to recycle into new goods. Palmer said mixed material products, like a bubble mailer that is plastic on the inside and paper on the outside, will have to be tossed.

"Any time you have those mixed materials, even if they're both individually recyclable when they're mixed together, it makes it very difficult to be able to recycle them because they'd have to be completely pulled apart," Palmer said. "They need to go in the trash"

Other packing material items that cannot be recycled include Styrofoam and paper pulp — material often molded around items to keep them protected. Paper pulp has been recycled too many times that its fibers are not large enough to be recycled again.

Wrapping paper and gift bags, which can no longer be reused, can be recycled if the material is strictly paper. Any gift wrapping that has another medium on it like glitter, foil or a metallic surface will need to be thrown away. Gift ribbons and bows are also unrecyclable when they reach the end of their lifespan.

Palmer said to keep recyclable materials loose in the bin as recycling machines can sometimes have trouble distinguishing items from one another if they're compacted together inside a bag.

If a person is not sure whether something can be recycled, it's best to put it in the trash. This avoids "wish-cycling" which Palmer said can be the enemy of good recycling and is especially prevalent during the holidays.

"We call that 'wish-cycling" because there are a lot of plastics that are not recyclable and they contaminate the rest of the recyclables in your bin," Palmer said. "We never want people to wish-cycle. We never want them to accidentally put something in the bin that doesn't belong there. It will contaminate other recyclables and it could cause them to end up with the trash and not get recycled at all."

Palmer said, ultimately, when in doubt, throw it out.

Ava Pukatch joined the WRVO news team in September 2022. She previously reported for WCHL in Chapel Hill, NC and earned a degree in Journalism and Media from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Ava was a Stembler Scholar and a reporter and producer for the award-winning UNC Hussman broadcast Carolina Connection. In her free time, Ava enjoys theatre, coffee and cheering on Tar Heel sports. Find her on Twitter @apukatch.