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Why Portland does not recycle freezer boxes (hint: wet strength)

As you can imagine, being on national TV has filled our inbox with loads of wonderful questions -- looking for clarification on some of the things we said in the Nightline piece on One Garbage Can a Month (or year!). We'll post on as many of the questions as possible in the coming weeks, since that's what EnviroMom is about: sharing knowledge and spreading the baby-step approach to the green life.

One thing to always remember about recycling is that it is driven by local markets. If there is not a demand for recycled glass or newspaper in your area, you probably won't find any businesses or municipalities recycling them -- even if that seems like the right thing to do. One of the best things we can do as consumers is to shop for products that contain a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content. In this way, we drive demand for recycling. Even in these tough economic times, it's the dollar that's talking. Vote with your dollar!

So. Back to your questions. Survey said: top question....? Freezer boxes. Ages ago, when I was a Master Recycler in training we learned about the evil-sounding "wet strength." Surely this is the kryptonite of superhero EnviroMom! Wet strength is a synthetic injected into paper products such as freezer boxes to help them withstand freezing and defrosting. If you've ever frozen something in a regular brown paper lunch bag, for example, it probably turned into a wet, pulpy, gloppy mess. Voila wet strength! It helps your freezer boxes stay intact so we can burn those lovely corporate logos into our brains.

Portland has a commingled recycling system. Pretty much everything is mixed together in a big roll cart, picked up curbside by recycling trucks, then hauled to a materials recycling facility, where it gets sorted and packed based on what it is: milk jugs, paper, plastic yogurt-type tubs, etc. In Portland, freezer boxes are not accepted into the curbside recycling program due to the wet strength synthetic. I cannot answer for all areas. It's possible your town does have a way of recycling freezer boxes -- so it's important for you to ask questions of your haulers and municipality so that what you are recycling curbside is truly being recycled. We learned that tons of contaminants or non-recyclables are sorted out of Portland's system daily. Guess where they end up? The landfill.

When I learned about the evil wet strength first I went into denial. Then anger. Despair. And finally acceptance. My kids no longer eat organic frozen waffles for breakfast. And they nearly killed me when I stopped buying these. I had to change how I was thinking about food and what I was buying.

If you've ever put freezer boxes into recycling, don't sweat it. They probably got sorted out. But now that you know, please put them in the trash where they belong (at least in communities like Portland where freezer boxes do not get recycled).

Hope this helps for those who had questions about freezer boxes. More posts answering your great questions coming later today. Stay tuned!

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