Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Do you know that the items listed below that can be found in your grocery bag cannot be recycled? Some of these items caught me by surprise too.
To my understanding, papers, metals, glass, rubber and plastics are recyclable. But that is a general statement. Many items are classified as "non-recyclable" mostly due to technical complexities in recycling them and also due to economic reasons — not that the materials cannot be recycled. I will delved deeper into these topics in some other posts.
Let's see what are the most common non-recyclable items in a grocery bag.
It should be common knowledge by now that styrofoam cannot be recycled.
Styrofoam is made from polystyrene foam, which is 95% filled with air. This made the foam ultra-light and is commonly used in packagings for many household items. It is also ultra inefficient to recycle styrofoams, which are usually large in sizes but yield little plastic. That is why the material is classified as "non-recyclable" — recycling companies will be paying to recycle styrofoams into plastic.
In a grocery bag, styrofoam can be commonly found in instant noodle cups/bowls, foam wraps around fruits and century eggs, clam-shell containers (takeaway boxes), foam trays for chilled food, etc. These white foams belong to the rubbish bin as general wastes.
The best way to reduce styrofoam is via reuse programs. This calls for the food industry, supermarkets, stores and household product manufacturers to collect back used styrofoams and reuse them. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening in Singapore.
On our part, we can leave foam wraps behind when buying fruits — and other styrofoams if possible. And bring our own reusable container when taking away food — I find it silly to pay for styrofoam boxes (20 cents each) and then throw it away. If bringing your own container is too troublesome, just eat out.
2. Contaminated Packagings
The most common contaminant of plastic and paper / cardboard packagings is oil. It is not possible to clean oil-stained paper / cardboard and trying to wash oil off plastic requires large amount of detergent and water. In almost all cases, oil-stained packagings have to be discarded. Other forms of contaminant can be raw food stains and sauces.
Contaminated packagings straight from the stores are commonly found in packets of oily seasonings, and in wrappings of raw, frozen and processed food. Apart from plastic wrappings and paper, aluminium foil packagings can also be contaminated.
If given a choice, get oily seasonings and sauces in glass jars or glass bottles instead of in multiple plastic packets — convenience usually comes with higher price tags. Glass containers are easier to wash after use and can be reused as storage containers before sending for recycling. Glass is 100% recyclable.
3. Rubber Bands
All forms of rubber, be it from the grocery bag or households, are not recycled. The mass from households is just not large enough for efficient recycling. Do a search online and you will find "rubber recycling" typically refers to tyres.
The most common rubber to be found in grocery bags is the rubber bands and also the rubbery pads on the handles of certain brands of toothbrushes. Toothbrushes are usually recycled for its plastic after removing the rubber parts at the recycling plants.
Instead of throwing rubber bands away, reuse them for tying things. Rubber bands can also be collected and made into skipping ropes — make some for your kids or donate them.
4. Packaging Fused with Aluminium Foil
Many items in the supermarkets came in plastic packagings. Normally, clean plastic packagings can be recycled but one particular type of packaging falls out of favour with recycling programs even if it is super clean — those that are fused with a layer of shiny or silvery aluminium foils.
The objective of fusing plastic with aluminium foil is to enhance the packaging in order to prolong the shelf life of the food items by being more air-tight. But the fused materials are impossible to be separated and are therefore non-recyclable.
Foil-fused plastic can be found in a wide range of products such as packet coffee and beverages, instant noodle wrappings, biscuit wrappings, packet seasonings, chip and cracker wrappings, sweets wrapper, etc. Noticed that they are usually found in items meant for "convenience" and usually more costly than similars items in glass or metal or single-plastic packagings?
All these packagings go into the general waste bin. We can reduce such wastage by opting for products that use less plastic wrappings. For example, buying coffee powder in glass jars or in single-packagings instead of those in convenient sticks. Same goes for dried noodles and biscuits too.
Bigger foil-fused plastic packagings, such as instant noodle or chip packagings, can be used to hold food waste as they are waterproof and stronger than flimsy plastic bags. Use a rubber band to tie up the plastic with food waste before disposal.
5. Plastic-Lined Paper, Wax or Grease-proof Paper
Similar to foil-fused plastic, paper lined with a thin layer of plastic to make it waterproof or looks glossy are also impossible to be separated by recycling machinery and therefore not recyclable. The same applies to other papers that are lined with anything but paper.
Plastic-fused paper is usually used in sticker decals. Wax paper, or grease-proof paper, is used for baking. When it is hard to ascertain whether a material is paper or plastic, chances are they are classified as "neither" in recycling terms.
What?! Receipts cannot be recycled?
It was a surprise to me when I first learnt about this. Apparently, receipts that look smooth or glossy on the printed side has a layer of chemical coating on it that allows heat transfer from thermal printers to the paper. That technology allows receipts to be printed super-fast and cut down queuing time at cashiers.
The same technology has also turned those long strips of specially-treated paper into non-recyclables.
Receipts from supermarkets, taxis, shops, credit card transactions, etc, are usually printed on thermal paper, so they cannot be recycled. Paper receipts can still be recycled but they are hardly used these days except in some small or old shops and maybe provision shops.
The simplest way to reduce receipt wastage will be to request for NO receipts to be printed. But not all supermarkets and stores provide this option mainly because receipts are often used as proofs of purchase against mischarging. The Healthy 365 app by the Health Promotion Board also uses QR codes on printed receipts for shoppers to accumulate points on healthy purchases, which makes printing receipts inevitable.
With advanced technology and popular use of mobile applications, it would be easy to develop apps that can receive transaction records from in-store cashiers and make payments via Internet. Even the Healthy 365 QR codes can be generated in the app. Unfortunately, most supermarket apps are geared towards online shopping and delivery services, not for shoppers to visit the physical outlets, receive bills from the cashiers and make payment with just one button.
7. Oxo-Biodegradable Plastic Bags
Plastic bags can be recycled but not all of them as some are made with different materials. Oxo-/bio-degradable plastic bags cannot be recycled in Singapore due to its use of easy to be broken-down (degradable) materials, which is deemed as having insufficient quality for recycling.
Most supermarkets overseas use oxo-/bio-degradable plastic bags but not the major supermarkets and stores in Singapore. Fortunately, oxo-/bio-degradable plastic bags are usually clearly marked to differentiate it from other plastic bags.
Since oxo-/bio-degradable plastic bags cannot be recycled and will break-up by itself over time, they are of not much use in households except to bag general wastes for disposal.
Be it oxo-/bio-degradable or the usual plastic bags, it would be best to reduce their usage. Do bring along reusable carriers or cloth/canvas tote bags when shopping for groceries. And bring along two every time, one for chilled foodstuff and the other one for any other non-chilled stuffs.
Remember! All the above goes into the general waste bin. We can all do our part to save the environment by being selective, simply based on product packagings, to reduce wastes that channeled through our households.