I Am The Great Sticker Marauder

I used to adore stickers. When I was in middle school I had a whole three-ring binder full of them: puffy stickers, heart stickers, stickers with pictures of unicorns gazing meaningfully at rainbows…

Today, my thoughts about stickers are much less fanciful. And occasionally involve adult language.

That’s because stickers are one of the more confounding elements when it comes to recycling. So many questions and so few answers. I wonder:

-When is a sticker a sticker… and when is it a glued paper label?

-Will a sticker interfere with the recycling process?

– Would I rather hang out with road kill than spend time removing stickers?

Stickers on glass aren’t a problem for recycling- but what about stickers on plastic?

I started thinking about this issue way back in May when I ordered my first Terracycle Plastic Packaging Recycling box. The website description admonished me not to send in food waste or hazardous material, which I figured I could handle.

But then it said, “Do not send in plastic with paper stickers.”

Oh. That was harder.

And now I have a confession to make. I did everything I was supposed to do: I cleaned my plastics; I made sure they were all completely dry. I sent my box in as densely packed with plastic as any box could ever be but… I did not remove any stickers.

I wondered… what would happen? Would they issue me the equivalent of a recycling speeding ticket? Would they send me my box of plastic back? Or worst of all, after all that effort from cleaning and drying to shipping and paying: in the end would they just discard my whole box into the landfill?

The Five Stages of Wish-cycling:

  1. Hope— I crossed my fingers. I really, really hoped my box was recycled.
  2. Rationalizing— After all, you used to have to remove paper labels from cans before recycling, and now you don’t anymore! Maybe it’s like that!
  3. Pretending I’m an expert— Well, they’re probably melting all these plastics down, so heat will just melt those labels too. Right?
  4. Anger— You know, how on earth are we supposed to remove all these sticky labels, anyway? It’s practically impossible! What is this my new freaking JOB? Sticker-remover??
  5. Acceptance— Who the heck knows?

The problem was I just didn’t know. There are so many things about recycling that we just don’t know, that prevent us from doing it correctly and efficiently, and I’ve pretty much spent this whole year trying to figure them all out.

Ultimately, I forgot about the sticker conundrum. That is, until recently, when I watched a video featuring a recycling expert who talked about removing stickers from the plastic films you put in the recycling bin at the supermarket. He said that sticker labels must be removed, or cut out. If not, the sticky part of the stickers will gum up the recycling machinery.

Of course, we are talking about two different things here. Plastic film recycling and Terracycle plastic packaging recycling are two different processes, so their answers to The Sticker Question may very well be different. But this was the first time I’d heard anything about sticker labels presenting a problem in plastic film recycling. There I’d been going along, blithely putting my bubble mailers and Tyvek envelopes into the supermarket bin all this time, never removing any of the shipping labels. Was that a problem?

Was I a sticker offender on multiple fronts?

So I emailed Stephanie, my e-friend at Trex who has been so helpful in the past on questions about plastic film recycling.

And then I contacted Terracycle too. Better to resolve all this sticker business once and for all. And Terracycle’s answer was actually surprising.

Customer Care Associate Angelica answered, “… oftentimes the reason we aren’t able to recycle the items is not so much due to the residue itself but rather the fact that many of these labels are made from paper-based products. (Emphasis mine) If you were to send in a clear tape, for example, this would be more easily processed through the Plastic Packaging box then something made with paper products.”

Now THIS was good news. At last, it seemed I could relax about all those label stickers in my Terracycle box, because I was pretty sure they were all plastic themselves.

And then I got more good news from Stephanie. At least as far as Trex is concerned, “paper labels are not an issue for Trex.  They can remain on the plastic packaging when dropped off for recycling.”

So either the expert video I watched was incorrect, or there are different kinds of plastic film recycling and it all depends who is collecting it. So now I have to figure out who exactly my supermarket is sending their plastic film to…?

Which brings me back to my previous point: Who has time for this nonsense? Nobody.

Recycling in this country isn’t supposed to actually work, I’m realizing. Recycling is broken.

At best, we only recycle 8% of our plastic in America. Eight percent.

Despite the sincere efforts of companies like Trex and Terracycle, these are mere drops in the ocean, an ocean of garbage Americans are tossing out every day. There simply isn’t enough of a standardized approach in this country to make recycling work in any real, effective and comprehensible way. Instead, we’re just supposed to think it works, so we keep buying the products made with materials we as a society don’t know what to do with.

Shut up and buy stuff!

At least I can relax a little on the sticker anxiety. It’s not the recycling machinery that has a problem… it’s just the whole damn system.

6 thoughts on “I Am The Great Sticker Marauder

  1. Back to “The companies have tp get pn board, really mean it and figure out how to take most of the solution away from the consumer who, in fact can’t, or won’t figure it out.” They are the ones in a position to develop new packaging that CAN EASILY be recycled. Your educating consumers as to where the problem solving must occur is just the ticket. Go get ’em….

  2. I feel your frustration. It seems that way with many of the systems we operate within. What can we do? Go the zero-waste method and buy everything in bulk? If only we could during COVID. Sigh!

    1. The first most important step is for people to understand exactly where their recycling is and isn’t going. This will cause people to rethink how they shop and recycle. And in the meantime we work within an imperfect system.

  3. HI Eve! I laughed, cried, and got angry right along with you when reading this! I’ve found a new recycling soulmate! I try so hard to do the right thing, and have 3 big bags of plastic film in my trunk to take to supermarket plastic bin. Now I feel like I should go through it all again and remove stickers! AAAARGH!
    My new mantra (mostly courtesy of Jane Fonda, being interviewed about her new book on NPR) is “don’t buy single use plastic!” which of course is easier said than done, but with a little searching I have discovered companies like Bite Toothpaste Bits (no tube), and all the shampoo bars available now. But it’s got to start flipping from the manufacturers down, not the consumer up, with standardized packaging, and more use of the plastics we spend our leisure time trying to recycle correctly!

    1. Anne- Yes! Recycling soulmates!! I am crossing my fingers for you that all that film is going to the good people of Trex and you can just leave all those sticky stickers alone. You’re right that it’s a great mantra, even though it is rendered virtually impossible by the manufacturing sector— what shampoo bar do you like? Do you have to order your Toothpaste Bits or can you find them in, say, the local health food store?— But I’m realizing more and more that “individual responsibility” by itself is not going to solve this problem.

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