A worker at the Stutzman recycling plant in Hutchinson pulls items from the top-level sorter. Wichita recyclables picked up curbside in end up at this plant.
A worker at the Stutzman recycling plant in Hutchinson pulls items from the top-level sorter. Recyclables picked up curbside in Wichita end up at this plant. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Local environmental activist Jane Byrnes was so excited after her group ReGreening Wichita toured a recycling plant in April — recorded here on video — that she created flyers to spread the word and contacted local media. 

The flyers declare: “Recycling in Wichita is NOW much, much easier! NO more washing or rinsing! Pizza boxes welcome! NO more scraping off labels or bottle rings or lids!

“We don’t have to clean out that peanut butter jar or cut off the ring around the milk jug,” she enthused in an email.  

Recycling in Wichita and Sedgwick County still isn’t easy or free for residents. And questions still remain about how much work is required of the person tossing cans, papers and other items into the recycling bin. 

Still, it’s becoming a habit for more people. 

Here are answers to common questions about the practice.

Is curbside recycling in Wichita available?

Every trash company permitted to operate in Wichita — there are seven — is required to offer optional curbside recycling. The service costs extra, but to find out how much, you must call each company and ask. (This reporter uses Waste Connections and pays an average of $13 per month.)

What can I recycle curbside?

Rules about what you can recycle are complex, but generally, local trash haulers accept plastics, paper, glass and metal. This includes bottles, jugs, jars, cans, food containers, newspapers, magazines, office paper, junk mail and cardboard.

There are many things you cannot recycle — too many to list here. But some common examples include paper towels, napkins, hardback books, broken glass, lightbulbs, paint cans, spray cans, garbage bags, foam packaging, six-pack rings and plastic bags of any kind. 

Do I need to sort or clean recyclables first?

In the early days of recycling, people had to separate their items by material type. That made recycling complex and difficult, discouraging people from doing it. Single-stream recycling was introduced in the 1990s to allow people to place all items in one bin. The change boosted recycling rates dramatically. Wichita offers single-stream recycling. 

It’s also been a long-standing expectation that you must rinse and clean recyclables. City, county and several local haulers websites still publicize that information. But Keith Shaw, plant manager at Stutzman Recycling Center in Hutchinson, where most recyclables collected curbside in Wichita end up, says that information is out of date. 

 “We do not require any of that prep work to be done,” Shaw said. “The mills are OK with it in an uncleaned condition.”

Really? I don’t have to rinse first? 

Asked to confirm this information, neither officials with Sedgwick County nor the city of Wichita could.

“The solid waste committee has just asked my department to work with recyclers to determine what products they receive that contaminate the recycling products,” said Susan Erlenwein, director of Sedgwick County Environmental Resources and Household Waste. “Our goal is to then educate the public on the proper way to recycle and what not to put in the recycle bin.”

Sedgwick County maintains an online recycling guide that details how and where to recycle a wide range of materials that go well beyond what can be picked up curbside. 

“The statements about not having to wash or rinse items, or remove labels, and recycling used pizza boxes might not be correct,” Wichita Public Works Director Gary Janzen said. He noted that Stutzman is owned by Waste Connections, whose website still states all items need to be rinsed and that greasy pizza boxes should be put in the trash. 

“City staff contacted Waste Connections’ Wichita MRF (Materials Recovery Facility). The Wichita MRF collects the local recyclables and transports them to the Stutzman MRF for processing. City staff was told items still need to be rinsed and used pizza boxes placed into the trash,” Janzen said.

Shaw, however, said go ahead with the greasy pizza boxes. “For want of a better term, I would be the one to know,” he said. 

Would easier recycling in Wichita lead to more people doing it?

Trash collectors are not currently required to report the number of their customers who recycle curbside. But three permitted collectors in Wichita did volunteer the information in 2019, and those numbers mirrored national trends of about 1 in 3. 

 “Data on household recycling should improve in the future,” because trash haulers will be required to report on recycling amounts as a condition of renewing their permits, Janzen said. Haulers renew annually at the end of each year.

Is there a downside to recycling?

Some environmentalists do see a downside, beyond the extra cost for curbside pickup and effort required. 

Lori Lawrence, another member of ReGreening Wichita, says she recycles glass and cardboard, but not plastics. 

“Recycling is not the answer, it just contributes to the problem,” she said. Instead she recommends declining single-use products as a consumer, favoring reusable bags, containers and utensils. “Refuse, reduce, reuse, then recycle,” she said.

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...