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The holidays are the trashiest time of the year. Here’s what to do with garbage and recyclables.

Municipal waste streams can increase by up to 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year, with Christmas as the biggest driver. And that's a problem for recycling.

Workers pull items from a conveyor belt of the "single stream" system that don't belong in recycling.
Workers pull items from a conveyor belt of the "single stream" system that don't belong in recycling.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Countless shipping boxes, tons of beverage bottles, bales of wrapping paper, oceans of leftovers: it all has to go somewhere.

Philadelphia is bracing for the annual surge -- anywhere from 20 to 35 percent more than usual collections -- in the amount of trash and recycling it receives, a glut that lasts, along with the celebrations, into January. And with the poor state of the international recycling market, municipal officials and recyclers say it’s more important than ever to watch what, and where, your trash goes.

“In December we see both our trash and recycling numbers increase, more so on the recycling side,” said Scott McGrath, environmental planning director for the Philadelphia Streets Department. “It goes from 8,000 tons in November to something closer to 10,000 tons in December. But we’ve gotten as much as 12,000 tons in December three years ago.”

The improved economy and rapid increase in online purchasing that boosts the use of shipping boxes suggests the amount of waste this year could be on the high side.

The market for recyclables has taken a nose-dive with a continued crackdown by China on the loads it processes. A typical recycling load in Philadelphia can be tainted by as much as 15 to 25 percent with non-recyclable items, or recyclable items so dirty or wet they are unusable. China now demands loads be no more than .05 percent contaminated. So municipalities around the country are scrambling to get loads as pure as possible.

Otherwise, large portions of contaminated recycling could end up in landfills or incinerators.

Another issue this time of year: as people get new TVs and computers, they toss the old ones. But most electronics, and batteries, require special disposal.

“We get a big surge of old electronics, especially in January and near the Super Bowl,” McGrath noted.

Recycling do’s

Wrapping paper: It is generally recyclable. But don’t rip it into small pieces. Those can’t be processed. said John Hambrose, spokesman for Waste Management, which handles the city’s waste and recycling. Plain, printed wrapping paper is fine to recycle along with newspapers, magazines, junk mail and corrugated cardboard boxes, which should be collapsed before putting into a single-stream recycling bin.

However, paper decorated with foil is not recyclable and should be put in the trash, he said.

Bottles and cans: These are recyclable but should be rinsed.

Pizza boxes: Can be recycled if completely clean. But greasy ones should go in the trash.

Real Christmas trees: These can be recycled for mulch rather than thrown in regular trash. The city has five locations to bring trees for a holiday recycling program that runs from Jan. 2 through Jan. 12. Residents can drop off trees from Monday through Saturday, 8 am to 6 pm. Also, the city will accept trees at 23 locations on Saturdays, January 5th and 13th.

Plastic Christmas trees are not recyclable, so try donating your old artificial tree.

Recycling dont’s

Christmas lights: Because light strings are made of plastic and may have glass bulbs, many people think they are recyclable. They are not.

“Christmas lights tangle the machinery used to sort recyclables, drive down efficiency, drive up costs, and increase the amount of contaminated found in our processed materials," Hambrose said.

Ribbons and ornaments: Many also believe plastic ribbons and even glass ornaments are recyclable, though neither are. Again, ribbons tangle machinery.

Paper plates and plastic cutlery: “We don’t want these,” McGrath said. “They just can’t separate that stuff at the plant, even if you see that they have little stamps on the bottom indicating they can be recycled. The plastic cutlery falls to the bottom and there’s just no way to separate it. The paper plates are contaminated with food and can’t be recycled.”

Bubble wrap, air-filled packing pillows or styrofoam packing peanuts: None are recyclable, at least in Philadelphia, even though they might have recycling stamps on the bottom. Consider saving such packing material for later use.

Plastic packaging: Much of today’s plastic packaging is not recyclable. For example, a toy might come wrapped in a molded, clear, thick plastic outer shell - the kind you have to cut open with scissors.

"Those items are typically made with multi-resin packaging, so the recycling industry isn’t designed around pulling those layers apart, McGrath explained. “The processing is really designed around cylindrical containers, like bottles and cans, and some of the plastic containers used to hold items like shampoo and detergent. Packaging in an irregular shape is really hard for equipment to separate.”

Electronics: Most cannot be put in single stream recycling or regular trash. Consider donating electronics that are still useable, such as TVs and computers, to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or other nonprofits. Otherwise, Philadelphia has five locations where you can drop-off electronics.

Plastic bags and plastic sheeting: Neither are recyclable at a processing plant since they also tangle machinery. Put them in the regular trash or drop them off at some stores that have plastic bag recycling bins.

Batteries: Hambrose said these should not be placed in either recycling or regular trash. They can create a fire hazard at processing facilities. But batteries can be recycled, including through Waste Management’s at-your-door recycling service.

As a caution, all municipalities have their own recycling rules, usually posted on their websites.

Hambrose offered more tips for a greener holiday.

  1. Give no-waste gifts, such as music or sports lessons, gym memberships or tickets to events or museums. 

  2. Purchase products made of recycled or organic materials, such as bags or fleece clothing made from recycled plastic bottles or clothing made from organic cotton.

  3. If your gift recipient likes vintage items, shop consignment or second-hand stores. 

  4. Place gifts in reusable bags, or use the gift itself as wrapping -- like putting kitchen utensils in an apron or decorative towel.

  5. Reuse bags and bows from previous occasions -- not everything has to be red and green.  

  6. Wrap, or pad fragile gifts in recyclable brown paper rather than bubble wrap. Avoid foil wrapping paper.

  7. A lot of food gets wasted from leftovers through to refrigerator cleanouts of old containers of condiments and food. Consider packaging food you bring to a dinner in a reusable container.  Send leftovers home with guests.  If you hosting a work party or big house party, consider donating to a local soup kitchen or shelter, but contact them in advance.