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Sustainability at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Sustainability at Oak Ridge National Laboratory > Questions, Comments, Ideas > Questions > Categories
Recycling wastes from laboratories
Donna Kridelbaugh poses the following question:
I noticed in the recent newsletter that there is a mandate to reduce the amount of waste at ORNL. In my area (Biosciences Division), there can be a lot of waste generated from packaging material (i.e., styrofoam shipping boxes) and empty containers (i.e., pipette tip containers) in the laboratory. I was told items that have been in the laboratory cannot be recycled, since people would be worried about the origins. Is this true that they cannot be recycled? If this is not true, I would like to suggest that perhaps more recycling bin areas could be set up on each floor of a research building to allow researchers to discard these materials. Thanks for your time.
How to recycle used paper towels
Tiffany Mintz poses the following question:
After reading about ORNL's desire to increase its recycling effort for municipal waste, I thought about the abundance of paper towels that are used throughout the campus. I have read that paper towels are not able to be processed at traditional recycling facilities, but that there are more unconventional ways of recycling them. Two very good suggestions that I read about were to use paper towels as compost to create high-quality mulch, or adding paper towels to yard waste. Is ORNL connected with any facility or program that implements these practices or similar, less traditional methods for recycling?
Recycling old textbooks
Debbie Ottaway asks,
Do you have any suggestions for disposing of or recycling very old (>25 years old) textbooks that are clearly outdated? I don't want to just throw them away, but have not found a "green" way to get them out of my house. McKay's will not take them.
Bob Conrad of the Information Technology Services Division responds:
The Oak Ridge solid waste facility can recycle old textbooks as mixed paper, but not with the hard back covers. The covers should be torn off first and disposed of in regular trash before placing the pages in the mixed paper bin.
According to John Homa, Knoxville Solid Waste Project Manager, hardback books, including the covers, can be recycled in mixed paper bins at the Goodwill recycle center at Cedar Bluff (341 Parkvillage Rd). The web site indicates that other Knoxville recycling centers will also accept hard-bound books in the mixed paper bins.
Recycle clothing and shoes
Lots of times we retire safety shoes, jackets, coveralls and such because it has reached the end of it's useful life... many times resoling would give the leather uppers new life, and just because a jacket does not have it's flame retardent capabilites and/or is badly faded doesn't mean it cannot still keep someone warm.  We live in some of the poorest parts of the country with children and families of the Appalachia who would love just have shoes to cover their feet and coats for their backs.  It would be nice to rad clear this clothing and donate it to charitable organizations who can give this 'experienced' clothing a second life without them landing in a landfill and help out the less fortunate.
Old clothing
Is there a local organization that will recieve old clothing no longer fit for use as clothing, to be used as rags?
Susan Michaud of the Environmental Protection & Waste Services Division responds:

I called three larger clothing donation organizations in the area: the Salvation Army in Knoxville 525-9401, Goodwill’s material sorting and recycle facility (423) 586-6514 and Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries (KARM) (521-0770).  All three organizations employee lots of people who efficiently sort the clothing into items that are in good enough condition to sell and are likely to sell.  Items that are in poorer condition or are in abundance are sorted based on suitability for rags or overseas markets.  In many cases, the people doing the sorting are those who are getting their lives back on track and developing an employment history before they move on to the next stage of their lives.   All three organizations want your donations of clean, dry clothes and they will do their best to avoid putting anything in the landfill.   When you drop items off, you can let the staff know that the items are likely to be rags. 


I had a long conversation with the creative, energetic person who manages everything that cannot be sold immediately in the KARM stores.  She makes a sincere effort to divert anything she can to local markets.  Cotton material is sold to a rag dealer in Knoxville who sells the rags to local garages and painters.  Wool sweaters are sold to a crafter in Norris.   Non-working appliances are sold to Quality Used Appliances on Washington Pike for repair/resale or parts.  Non-working vacuum cleaners are sold to Bargain Hunters on Broadway for repair or parts. 


All three organizations send clothing that cannot be marketed locally to overseas markets.  There are several wholesale dealers; additional information from one of those wholesale dealers, American Clothing Exchange can be found on their website:  If you click on the “Vintage Clothing” tab, you’ll see that photo number 12 features a Vols fan!  Some of the clothing is still usable; torn or stained clothing can be disassembled to supply fair trade textile and craft industries.


While I contacted three organizations, don’t forget there are others; Habitat for Humanity, Council for the Blind, etc.  Also don’t forget to shop at Goodwill, KARM and Salvation Army retail stores.  They have great deals, and many of their items have never been worn.  KARM has a Christmas store on North Peters open for the holiday season.  When you shop at these retail outlets, you’ll get a good deal, but you are also supporting important charities. 

New recycling containers
We just received our new recycling containers in 4500S and I'm very glad about that. However, they came with a separate "plastic & aluminum" sticker and no instructions about where that sticker goes. There's a spot for garbage, there's a spot for mixed paper, and there's a sticker for plastic and aluminum. Why no instructions?

ORNL's Pollution Prevention Coordinator, Susan Michaud, responds:

The in-office recycling containers are distributed by the facility managers and custodians for each employee to use. A few days before the containers are distributed, an e-mail is sent to all building occupants describing what we are attempting to accomplish, and the positive environmental benefits of recycling. 
The e-mail says:
    Each office will receive a duo container to handle paper and landfill waste.  A plastic and aluminum recycle container will be available for your office at your discretion, or you may use plastic/aluminum receptacles in break rooms. 

Many people have a black plastic trash can already in their office for collecting aluminum and plastic containers.  If you have that container and want to keep it for aluminum/plastic recycle, you can place the sticker on it.  No everyone drinks beverages packaged in plastic or aluminum at work, or you might prefer to take them to a break area, so the beverage container in your office is optional.  If this is the case for you, you can return the sticker to me (Susan Michaud, Bldg. 2518, MS 6322) and turn in your garbage can to your facility manager.
Plastics #1 - #7

What is Plastic #1?
What is Plastic #2?

Apparently plastic bags are not Plastic #1 -#7. What else isn't allowable. #1 -#7 does not mean anything to me.

ORNL's Pollution Prevention Coordinator, Susan Mchaud, responds:

The numbers associated with plastics tell you the chemical compound used to make the container (list below).

The shortest answer is that all rigid plastics can be placed in the recycling bins.  If plastic bags are placed in the bins, you have not broken a rule, but by the time they make it through the sorting process, they are no longer marketable and will be disposed of in the garbage.  Clean bags returned to the grocery store are recycled, so we would prefer you return them to the store.

This website has lots of information about plastics, including a good description of each number, and some articles about the safety of plastic compounds

#1 Plastics - PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
Found in: Soft drink, water and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; salad dressing and vegetable oil containers; ovenable food trays.
Recycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs.
Recycled into: Polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, (occasionally) new containers

PET plastic is the most common for single-use bottled beverages, because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. It poses low risk of leaching breakdown products. Recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), though the material is in high demand by remanufacturers.

#2 Plastics HDPE (high density polyethylene)
Found in: Milk jugs, juice bottles; bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; some trash and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; butter and yogurt tubs; cereal box liners
Recycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs, although some allow only those containers with necks.
Recycled into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fencing

HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many goods.

#3 Plastics - polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

#4 Plastics - low density polyethylene (LDPE)

#5 Plastics - polypropylene (PP)

#6 Plastics - polystyrene (PS)

#7 Plastic - "other"
Can also be a combination of plastics

Please let me know if I can be of further assistance.

What plastics can go in office recycle bins?
Recently in 4500N, we received new combination office recycle bins. What types of plastic are allowed in the plastic bin? Is it only drink bottles or can plastic grocery bags or other plastic containers/items be placed in the bin?

ORNL’s Susan Michaud, Pollution Prevention Coordinator responds:


Plastics #1-#7 can be placed in our recycling bins. Plastic bags can be put in our recycling bins, but they will be sorted out and landfilled. Plastic bags can be recycled by placing them in collection locations at grocery stores, where they collect only clean, dry plastic bags. When these bags are co-mingled with other plastics, they become waste. 


On August 3, Debbie Dillener and I visited Rock-Tenn  to better understand what happens to recyclables. Rock-Tenn is a major broker of recyclables in the Knoxville area. They sort collected material at their facility on Proctor Rd and then ship to recycling markets. Plastics #1 and #2 are recycled domestically, typically into carpet in the Dalton, Georgia, area. Plastics #3 - #7 are collected, baled, and shipped overseas for further sorting and possible use. (I have posted the photographs of our tour of Rock-Tenn on the Laboratory Waste Services websiteThey are in the file named 2010 Rock-Tenn Recycling.)


If you have more questions, please contact Debbie Dillener 576-7396 or Susan Michaud 576-1562.

Plastic binders in recycle bins?
Do we need to take the plastic binders off documents before putting them in the recyle bins?

ORNL's Susan Michaud responds:

    Yes, the binders need to come off.  If they are in good condition, you can either reuse them or box them up and send them to Property Sales via eProp.
Statistics on paper recycling with the new program
Are there statistics on the amounts of office paper collected for recycling at ORNL before and after the initiation of the new program in which all paper is supposed to be placed in a bin for shredding?

I've perceived a drop-off in recycling in my work area, presumably because it's often annoying and time-consuming to either feed material through the slot or find the person who has a key to the bins. I wonder if this perception is supported by data.

I think it's nice that we now have ready access to shredding for potentially confidential items, but I have a hunch that people would recycle more (and the program would cost less) if we still also had access to standard bins for placement of old newspapers, journals, reprints, open-access government reports, phone books, and other items for which there is clearly no need for confidentiality.