Changing the way we think

November 26, 2008

I said yesterday I would have to think about the Solving Problems vs. Providing Services dilemma.

I was thinking about just that when I was reviewing an article I had saved from the Beloit Daily News.

With the installation of hydrogen boosters in three city vehicles, the City of Beloit will be the first municipality in the nation to test decades-old technology that can significantly increase gas mileage.

“This is another one of the things we’re cutting edge on,” said Chris Walsh, director of operations for the Department of Public Works.

The on-demand hydrogen boosters were purchased from a company named Protium Fuel Systems back in May. Dan Lutz, fleet supervisor for the Department of Public Works, returned from Oklahoma on Friday with the three boosters, which will be tested in three city vehicles: a Department of Public Works pickup truck, a garbage truck and a police squad car.

Hydrogen boosters work using tap or distilled water, which is split into hydrogen and oxygen by way of electrolysis. The hydrogen is then injected into the combustion cycle of an internal combustion engine and used as a supplemental fuel.

Vehicles with a hydrogen booster usually get at least a 20 percent increase in miles per gallon, but most vehicles get an increase of 48-52 percent, said Lutz.

Six months ago, Lutz built his own hydrogen booster for his 2004 Dodge Ram truck after researching the idea on the Internet.

“At that time I wanted to see if this technology really worked,” he said.

It did. Lutz’s truck went from only 11.1 miles per gallon to 21.9 miles per gallon after the first 70-mile test trip.

“That’s nearly a 100 percent increase in fuel mileage,” Lutz said.

For only $200 and a little bit of elbow grease, Lutz is still seeing big returns on his investment six months later. If people put in the research and know what they are doing, “anyone can do what I did,” Lutz said.

For $900 each, the department purchased its own hydrogen boosters and is eager to test the boosters out on the three city vehicles. The department is always looking for ways to cut costs, especially in a time where costs are skyrocketing, Walsh said.

“If you don’t do that, what kind of public employee are you?” she asked.

Solving Problems…?


Providing Services?

November 25, 2008

I believe the function of local government is to provide services. That is what I have always believed … basic services ….
Police, Fire, Streets, Library, Water, Sewage, etc.

Then I read this from Frank Benest:

The core business of localities is solving problems, not delivering services. Providing services is a good role for local government, but it is only one aspect of a total problem-solving approach that must engage citizens to be effective.

Solving Problems vs. Providing Services?

I have to think about this…

21st Century City Hall

November 24, 2008

There is absolutely no excuse for any local government to have a crappy website. Most still do, but there is no excuse for it.

Read  Mayor Ryan’s Mostly Report from Binghamton, NY.

While the tough economic times remain with us, our guiding principles show the way to promise, and we’re already seeing positive results. Transparency is one of my administration’s main tenets, and in recent months my administration has made several gains in realizing its potential, making City Hall more accessible, efficient, and responsive.

Just take our website, which we’ve constructed as a virtual City Hall. One of the site’s key functions is informing constituents about breaking news, new and ongoing efforts, and existing resources. After overhauling the website two years ago, it now includes not only our latest press releases and department overviews, but also dedicated pages for projects and initiatives, complete with meeting minutes and regular updates, contact information for project coordinators, and links to related information. (Considering the tough financial challenges now facing us, I highly recommend reviewing our Finance page, which includes a detailed overview of budget process.) It’s proactive openness like this that will make City Hall more accountable and helpful in moving Binghamton forward.

Our website also makes it easier to do business in Binghamton, including with the City itself. For instance, the Binghamton Local Development Corporation’s dedicated page features opportunities for low-interest commercial loans. Our Bids and RFPs page allows anyone to sign up to receive an electronic notice whenever a City RFP is issued. Thanks to our shared services agreement with the County’s Office of Real Property, the online assessment page offers the opportunity to review real estate information in the city and countywide from in at the click of your mouse. The online-payment page gives residents the convenience of paying water/sewer bills, parking tickets, and code violation fines via credit card and electronic check over the internet. And our public meetings page highlights our commiting to informing and engaging citizens in the democratic process.

One of city government’s main duties is to respond to local problems, and by introducing the Online Report a Problem service, we’ve streamlined this process for both City Hall and citizens alike. The service offers citizens the convenience of an electronic form to report the problems and request the services provided by the City. And by submitting the form online, it goes directly to the appropriate department, where it will be processed and addressed, and from which citizens will receive an email summarizing the timeline and considerations for resolving the problem at hand. That’s efficiency, and it’s the look of a 21st Century City Hall.

A 21st Century City Hall … Every city should strive to have one.

Who needs authorization to spend money?

November 21, 2008

While the size and scope of this controversy is peanuts compared to many controversies, it is certainly causing a stir in Burnett County, WI. 

The Burnett County Sentinel reports…
In the end, a lack of communication caused some uneasy moments for Burnett County supervisors last Thursday.

At issue was a fact-finding trip to the east coast which appeared no one had authorized.

The trip in question was a land protection tour, including discussions on issues such as conservation easements and development rights. The tour was in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

But where did the money come from?

“Jake (forestry administrator Jake Nichols) comes to us looking to hire a new position. We don’t have the money, or Health and Human Services comes looking to hire a new position, we don’t have the money,” supervisor Norm Bickford said at the natural resources committee meeting.

“But we have the money for two county supervisors to go off on a junket?”

The tour was brought to the committee’s attention by Dave Ferris, the county conservationist, earlier in the fall, but no one from the committee signed up.

“This trip wasn’t approved by any committee, it wasn’t in the budget — how’d it happen?” supervisor Maury Miller questioned.

No one had an answer.

Except board chairman Phil Lindeman, who told The Sentinel he authorized the trip.

“I think what happened is we were on a short time line and we didn’t have a chance to go to the full board,” Lindeman explained. “It was a training type of deal and even though there wasn’t money in the budget, we have a discretionary budget to use for these things.”

My question about this whole issue?

Why is there no money in a “training” fund?

There should be.

Do as we say … Not as we do

November 20, 2008

It irks people when someone says one thing then does another.
It really irks people when it is the government saying one thing and doing another.

This may sound petty, but it really irked me when I read this in the LA Times…

At Los Angeles City Hall, the earthquake drill coincided with the regularly scheduled meeting of the Planning Commission, which had two high-profile issues on its agenda -– digital billboards and a 49-story tower planned for Century City.

The nine-member panel interrupted its meeting, moved to another room, had difficulty with its microphones and struggled to get its video system up and running. None of those problems had anything to do with the drill, however.

Instead, the disruptions were caused by the huge turnout for the Century City project. When the actual drill occurred, a City Hall security guard told the audience in the packed council chamber -– a room filled with lobbyists, union members and neighborhood activists — that they were experiencing an earthquake drill and should immediately “duck, cover and hold.”

No one did.

If the gavel had been in my hand it would have been different.

Writing a quota of speeding tickets

November 19, 2008

Ticket writing quotas. Do police have ticket writing quotas?

Most places they don’t, but none of us are naive enough to think that no cities have ticket writing quotas for their police departments.

How often do you hear a Mayor come right out and say it?   This from Monona, Wisconsin…

If Monona’s mayor has his way, a new police officer will focus only on speeders in this Madison suburb.

Mayor Robb Kahl says the officer’s $77,000 salary and benefits package would be paid mostly through speeding tickets the person would write if the 2009 city budget is approved.

But some are questioning that plan.

The new officer would need to issue about 1,600 tickets at a minimum fine of $48 a piece – almost one an hour.

Monona Police Chief Walter Ostrenga says he doesn’t know if it’s possible to write that many.

The department’s 20 officers issued 416 speeding citations in the first 10 months of 2008.

Kahl says he doesn’t expect it to completely balance, but wants the officer to issue at least three or four tickets a day.

Come on chief … we all know it is possible to write one speeding ticket an hour. We also know that minimum fine could be doubled or even  tripled.

Times are tough for local governments.

Could this become a serious form of revenue enhancement in not just Monona, but other cities?

Everything you wanted to know about recycling…

November 18, 2008

The Blogging Mayor of Round Lake, Bill Gentes, had a great post yesterday.

He grabbed this information from  Real Simple.

Everything you wanted to know about recycling, and a whole bunch you didn’t. 

Each water bottle you recycle may seem like a drop in the bucket, but don’t undervalue your efforts.

America is recycling nearly 33 percent of its waste — almost twice as much as 15 years ago. But sometimes it can be tough to tell what can go in the bin, what can’t and what your recycling center does and does not accept.

To help you navigate the often murky recycling waters, check out Real Simple magazine’s A to Z guide to recycling.

These tips were first published in the September and October issues of Real Simple and written by Natalie Ermann Russell.

For more tips like these, a new lifestyle makeover series called “Real Simple, Real Life,” hosted by Kit Hoover, premieres on the television channel TLC on Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. ET.

AEROSOL CANS. These can usually be recycled with other cans, as long as you pull off the plastic cap and empty the canister completely.

ANTIPERSPIRANT AND DEODORANT STICKS. Many brands have a dial on the bottom that is made of a plastic polymer different from that used for the container, so your center might not be able to recycle the whole thing (look on the bottom to find out). However, Tom’s of Maine makes a deodorant stick composed solely of plastic No. 5.

BACKPACKS. The American Birding Association accepts donated backpacks, which its scientists use while tracking neotropical birds.

BATTERIES. Recycling batteries keeps hazardous metals out of landfills. Many stores, like RadioShack and Office Depot, accept reusable ones, as does the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. Car batteries contain lead and can’t go in landfills because toxic metals can leach into groundwater, but almost any retailer selling them will also collect and recycle them.

BEACH BALLS. They may be made of plastic, but there aren’t enough beach balls being thrown away to make them a profitable item to recycle. If a beach ball is still usable, donate it to a thrift store or a children’s hospital.

BOOKS. “Hard covers are too rigid to recycle, so we ask people to remove them and recycle just the pages,” said Sarah Kite, recycling manager of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp., in Johnston, R.I. In many areas, paperbacks can be tossed in with other paper.

CARPETING (NYLON FIBER). The Carpet America Recovery Effort estimates that 5 billion pounds of carpeting went to landfills in 2003. Go to and click on “What can I do with my old carpet?” to find a carpet-reclamation facility near you, or check with your carpet’s manufacturer. Some carpet makers, like Milliken, Shaw (, and Flor (, have recycling programs.

CARS, JET SKIS, BOATS, TRAILERS, RVS AND MOTORCYCLES. If these are unusable — totaled, rusted — they still have metal and other components that can be recycled. Call junkyards in your area, or go to, which will pick up and remove cars, trailers, motorcycles and other heavy equipment for free.

CELL PHONES. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, less than 20 percent of cell phones are recycled each year, and most people don’t know where to recycle them. The Wireless Foundation refurbishes old phones to give to domestic-violence survivors. For information on other cell-phone charities, log on to In some states, like California and New York, retailers must accept and recycle old cell phones at no charge.

COMPACT FLUORESCENT LIGHT BULBS. CFLs contain mercury and shouldn’t be thrown in the trash. Ikea and the Home Depot operate CFL recycling programs; you can also check with your hardware store or recycling center to see if it offers recycling services.

COMPUTERS. You can return used computers to their manufacturers for recycling. Check for a list of vendors or donate them to a charitable organization, such as or repairs your broken computers and gives them to underfunded schools, needy families, and nonprofits.

CRAYONS. Send them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which melts down crayons and reforms them into new ones. Leave the wrappers on: “When you have black, blue and purple crayons together without wrappers, it’s hard to tell them apart,” said the program’s founder, LuAnn Foty, aka the Crazy Crayon Lady.

CROCS. The manufacturer recycles used Crocs into new shoes and donates them to underprivileged families. Mail them to: Crocs Recycling West, 3375 Enterprise Ave., Bloomington CA 92316.

DVDS, CDS AND JEWEL CASES. If you want to get rid of that Lionel Richie CD because “Dancing on the Ceiling” doesn’t do it for you anymore, you can swap it for a disc from another music lover at . But if you just want to let it go and not worry about it ending up in a landfill, send it (along with DVDs and jewel cases) to for recycling.

EMPTY METAL CANS (CLEANING PRODUCTS). Cut off the metal ends of cans containing powdered cleansers, such as Ajax and Bon Ami, and put them in with other household metals. (Use care when cutting them.) Recycle the tubes as you would any other cardboard.

EMPTY METAL CANS (FOOD PRODUCTS). Many towns recycle food cans. If yours doesn’t, you can find the nearest steel-can recycling spot at Rinse out cans, but don’t worry about removing the labels. “Leaving them on doesn’t do any harm,” said Marti Matsch, the communications director of Eco-Cycle, one of the nation’s oldest and largest recyclers, in Boulder, Colo. “When the metal is melted,” she said, “the paper burns up. If you want to recycle the label with other paper, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.”

EYEGLASSES. Plastic frames can’t be recycled, but metal ones can. Just drop them into the scrap-metal bin. However, given the millions of people who need glasses but can’t afford them, your frames, broken or not, will go to better use if you donate them to Sunglasses and plastic frames in good condition can also be donated. Or drop off old pairs of glasses at LensCrafters, Target Optical or other participating stores and doctors’ offices, which will send them to

FAKE PLASTIC CREDIT CARDS. They’re not recyclable, so you can’t just toss them along with their paper junk-mail solicitations. Remove them first and throw them in the trash.

FILM CANISTERS. Check with your local recycling center to find out if it takes gray film-container lids (No. 4) and black bases (No. 2). If not, many photo labs will accept them.

FIRE EXTINGUISHERS. There are two types of extinguishers. For a dry-chemical extinguisher, safely relieve the remaining pressure, remove the head from the container and place it with your bulk-metal items (check with your local recycler first). Alternatively, call fire-equipment companies (listed in the phone book) and request that they dispose of your extinguisher. Carbon dioxide extinguishers are refillable after each use.

FOOD PROCESSORS. Some communities accept small household appliances for recycling — if not in curbside collection, then in drop-off locations. (New York City will even pick up appliances left on the sidewalk.) “If an appliance is more than 50 percent metal, it is recyclable,” said Kathy Dawkins, director of public information for New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Most appliances are about 75 percent steel, according to the Steel Recycling Institute. So unless you know something is mostly plastic, it will probably qualify.

FORMAL WEAR. Finally, a use for that mauve prom or bridesmaid dress: Give it to a girl who can’t afford one. Go to or

GADGETS. There are many ways to recycle PDAs, MP3 players and other devices so that any money earned from the parts goes to worthy causes — a win, win, win scenario (for you, the environment and charity)., for example, will send you prepaid shipping labels, recycle your gadgets, then donate the proceeds to breast cancer charities.

GLUE. Many schools have recycling programs for empty containers of Elmer’s glue and glue sticks. Students and teachers rinse out the bottles, which are then sent to Wal-Mart for recycling. Find out more at

GLUE STRIPS AND INSERTS IN MAGAZINES. Lotion samples and non-paper promotional items affixed to glue strips in magazines should be removed because they can jam up recycling equipment (scented perfume strips, on the other hand, are fine). “One of the biggest challenges we get is pages of promotional stickers and stamps,” said Matsch, “which can adhere to the machinery and tear yards of new paper fiber.”

HANGERS (PLASTIC). These are not widely accepted at recycling centers because there aren’t enough of them coming through to make it worthwhile. However, some cities, such as Los Angeles, are equipped to recycle them. You might consider donating them to a thrift store.

HANGERS. Some dry cleaners and Laundromats will reuse them. Otherwise, they can be recycled with other household metals. But be sure to remove any attached paper or cardboard first.

HEARING AIDS. The Starkey Hearing Foundation recycles used hearing aids, any make or model, no matter how old. Lions Clubs also accept hearing aids (as well as eyeglasses) for reuse. Log on to to find designated collection centers near you.

HOLIDAY CARDS. After they’ve lined your mantel for two months, you could throw them into the recycling bin, or you could give them a whole new life. St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, a nonprofit home for abused and neglected youths, runs a holiday-card reuse program in which the kids cut off the front covers, glue them onto new cards and sell the result, earning them money and confidence.

IPODS. Bring in an old iPod to an Apple store and get 10 percent off a new one. Your out-of-date iPod will be broken down and properly disposed of. The catch? The discount is valid only that day, so be prepared to buy your new iPod.

JAM JARS. Wherever there is container-glass recycling (meaning glass jars and bottles), jam jars are eligible. It helps if you remove any remaining jam, but no need to get obsessive. They don’t have to be squeaky clean. Before putting them in the bin, remove their metal lids and recycle those with other metals.

JUICE BAGS. Because most are a combination of a plastic polymer and aluminum, these are not recyclable. But TerraCycle will donate 2 cents for each Honest Kids, Capri Sun and Kool-Aid Drink pouch, and 1 cent for any other brand you collect, and send in to the charity of your choice. The organization provides free shipping, too. What does TerraCycle do with all those pouches? Turns them into colorful purses, totes and pencil cases that are sold at Target and Walgreens stores throughout the country. To get started, go to

KEYS AND NAIL CLIPPERS. For many recycling centers, any metal that isn’t a can is considered scrap metal and can be recycled. “There’s not a whole lot of scrap metal we wouldn’t take,” said Kite. “It’s a huge market now.”

LEATHER ACCESSORIES. If your leather goods are more than gently worn, take them to be fixed. If they’re beyond repair, they have to be thrown in the trash — there’s no recycling option. (A product labeled “recycled leather” is often made from scraps left over from the manufacturing process, which is technically considered recycling.) Donate shoes in decent condition to, a nonprofit that collects used footwear and distributes it to needy communities.

MAKEUP. Makeup can expire and is none too pretty for the earth when you throw it in the trash (chemicals abound in most makeup). Some manufacturers are making progress on this front. People who turn in six or more empty MAC containers, for example, will receive a free lipstick from the company in return; SpaRitual nail polishes come in reusable, recyclable glass; and Josie Maran Cosmetics sells biodegradable plastic compacts made with a corn-based resin — just remove the mirror and put the case in your compost heap.

MATTRESSES AND BOX SPRINGS. Mattresses are made of recyclable materials, such as wire, paper and cloth, but not all cities accept them for recycling. Go to to find out if yours does.

METAL FLATWARE. If it’s time to retire your old forks, knives and spoons, you can usually recycle them with other scrap metal.

MILK CARTONS WITH PLASTIC SPOUTS AND CAPS. Take off and throw away the cap (don’t worry about the spout — it will be filtered out during the recycling process). As for the carton, check your local recycling rules to see whether you should toss it with plastics and metals or with paper.

MIRRORS. These aren’t recyclable through most municipal recyclers, because the chemicals on the glass can’t be mixed with glass bottles and jars. You can donate them to secondhand stores, of course. Or if the mirror is broken, put it in a paper bag for the safety of your trash collectors.

NIKES AND OTHER SNEAKERS. Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program accepts old sneakers (any brand) and recycles them into courts for various sports so kids around the world have a place to play. You can drop them off at a Nike store, other participating retailers, athletic clubs and schools around the country (check the Web site for locations), or mail them to Nike Recycling Center, c/o Reuse-A-Shoe, 26755 SW 95th Ave., Wilsonville OR 97070.

If your sneakers are still in reasonable shape, donate them to needy athletes in the United States and around the world through Mail them to One World Running, P.O. Box 2223, Boulder, CO 80306, or call 303-473-1314 for more information.

NOTEBOOKS (SPIRAL). It may seem weird to toss a metal-bound notebook into the paper recycling, but worry not — the machinery will pull out smaller nonpaper items. One caveat: If the cover is plastic, rip that off, says Marti Matsch, communications director for Eco-Cycle, in Boulder, Colo. “It’s a larger contaminant.”

Envelopes with plastic windows. Recycle them with regular office paper. The filters will sieve out the plastic, and they’ll even take out the glue strip on the envelope flaps.

Paper FedEx envelopes can be recycled, and there’s no need to pull off the plastic sleeve. FedEx Paks made of Tyvek are also recyclable (see below).

Goldenrod. Those ubiquitous mustard-colored envelopes are not recyclable, because goldenrod paper (as well as dark or fluorescent paper) is saturated with hard-to-remove dyes. “It’s what we call ‘designing for the dump,’ not the environment,” says Matsch.

Jiffy Paks. Many Jiffy envelopes — even the paper-padded ones filled with that material resembling dryer lint — are recyclable with other mixed papers, like cereal boxes. The exception: Goldenrod-colored envelopes must be tossed.

Padded envelopes with bubble wrap. These can’t be recycled. The best thing you can do is reuse them.

Tyvek. DuPont, the maker of Tyvek, takes these envelopes back and recycles them into plastic lumber. Turn one envelope inside out and stuff others inside it. Mail them to Tyvek Recycle, Attention: Shirley B. Wright, 2400 Elliham Avenue #A, Richmond VA 23237. If you have large quantities (200 to 500), call 866-338-9835 to order a free pouch.

PACKING MATERIALS. Styrofoam peanuts cannot be recycled in most areas, but many packaging stores (like UPS and Mail Boxes Etc.) accept them. To find a peanut reuser near you, go to Some towns recycle Styrofoam packing blocks; if yours doesn’t, visit to find a drop-off location, or mail them in according to the instructions on the site.

Packing pillows marked “Fill-Air” can be deflated (poke a hole in them), then mailed to Ameri-Pak, Sealed Air Recycle Center, 477 South Woods Drive, Fountain Inn SC 29644. They will be recycled into things like trash bags and automotive parts.

PAINT. Some cities have paint-recycling programs, in which your old paint is taken to a company that turns it into new paint. Go to to see if a program exists in your area.

PENDAFLEX FOLDERS. Place these filing-cabinet workhorses in the paper bin. But first cut off the metal rods and recycle them as scrap metal.

PHONE BOOKS. Many cities offer collection services. Also check, or call AT&T’s phone book-recycling line at 800-953-4400.

PIZZA BOXES. If cheese and grease are stuck to the box, rip out the affected areas and recycle the rest as corrugated cardboard. Food residue can ruin a whole batch of paper if it is left to sit in the recycling facility and begins to decompose.

PLASTIC BOTTLE CAPS. Toss them. “They’re made from a plastic that melts at a different rate than the bottles, and they degrade the quality of the plastic if they get mixed in,” says Sarah Kite, recycling manager of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, in Johnston, R.I.

PLASTIC WRAP (USED). Most communities don’t accept this for recycling because the cost of decontaminating it isn’t worth the effort.

POST-ITS. The sticky stuff gets filtered out, so these office standbys can usually be recycled with paper.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS. The Starfish Project collects some unused medications (TB medicines, antifungals, antivirals) and gives them to clinics in Nigeria. They’ll send you a prepaid FedEx label, too.

PRINTER-INK CARTRIDGES. Seventy percent are thrown into landfills, where it will take 450 years for them to decompose. “Cartridges are like gas tanks,” says Jim Cannan, cartridge-collection manager at “They don’t break. They just run out of ink. Making new ones is like changing motors every time you run out of gas.” Take them to Staples and get $3 off your next cartridge purchase, or mail HP-brand cartridges back to HP.

QUICHE PANS AND OTHER COOKWARE. These can be put with scrap metal, and “a plastic handle isn’t a problem,” says Tom Outerbridge, manager of municipal recycling at Sims Metal Management, in New York City.

RECREATIONAL EQUIPMENT. Don’t send tennis rackets to your local recycling center. “People may think we’re going to give them to Goodwill,” says Sadonna Cody, director of government affairs for the Northbay Corporation and Redwood Empire Disposal, in Santa Rosa, Calif., “but they’ll just be trashed.”

Trade sports gear in at Play It Again Sports or donate it to, which gives gently used equipment to needy kids around the world. Mail to Sports Gift, 32545 B Golden Lantern #478, Dana Point CA 92629. As for skis, send them to, 4 Abbott Place, Millbury MA 01527, where they’ll be turned into Adirondack-style beach chairs.

RUGS (COTTON OR WOOL). If your town’s recycling center accepts rugs, great. If not, you’re out of luck, because you can’t ship rugs directly to a fabric recycler; they need to be sent in bulk. Your best bet is to donate them to the thrift store of a charity, like the Salvation Army.

SHOPPING BAGS (PAPER). Even those with metal grommets and ribbon handles can usually be recycled with other paper.

SHOPPING BAGS (PLASTIC). “Americans recycled 812 million pounds of bags in 2006, up 24 percent from 2005,” says Keith Christman, senior director of packaging at the American Chemistry Council Plastics Division, which represents plastic manufacturers. If your town doesn’t recycle plastic, you may be able to drop them off at your local grocery store. Safeway, for example, accepts grocery and dry-cleaning bags and turns them into plastic lumber.

To find other stores, go to What’s more, a range of retailers, like City Hardware, have begun to use biodegradable bags made of corn. BioBags break down in compost heaps in 10 to 45 days.

SHOWER CURTAINS AND LINERS. Most facilities do not recycle these because they’re made of PVC. (If PVC gets in with other plastics, it can compromise the chemical makeup of the recycled material.)

SIX-PACK RINGS. See if your local school participates in the Ring Leader Recycling Program; kids collect six-pack rings to be recycled into other plastic items, including plastic lumber and plastic shipping pallets.

SMOKE DETECTORS. Some towns accept those that have beeped their last beep. If yours doesn’t, try the manufacturer. First Alert takes back detectors (you pay for shipping); call 800-323-9005 for information.

SOAP DISPENSERS (PUMP). Most plastic ones are recyclable; toss them in with the other plastics.

STEREOS AND VCRS. Visit for a list of recyclers, retail stores, and manufacturers near you that accept electronics. Small companies are popping up to handle electronic waste (or e-waste) as well: in San Francisco will pull apart your electronics and recycle them at a cost ranging from nothing to 50 cents a pound. And the 10 nationwide locations of offer a similar service.

TAKEOUT-FOOD CONTAINERS. Most are not recyclable. Paper ones (like Chinese-food containers) aren’t accepted because remnants can contaminate the paper bale at the mill. Plastic versions (like those at the salad bar) are a no-go too.

TINFOIL. It’s aluminum, not tin. So rinse it off, wad it up, and toss it in with the beer and soda cans.

TIRES. You can often leave old tires with the dealer when you buy new ones (just check that they’ll be recycled). Worn-out tires can be reused as highway paving, doormats, hoses, shoe soles, and more.

TISSUE BOXES WITH PLASTIC DISPENSERS. The plastic portion will be filtered out during the recycling process, so you can usually recycle tissue boxes with cardboard.

TOOTHBRUSHES. They’re not recyclable, but if you buy certain brands, you can save on waste. Eco-Dent’s Terradent models and Radius Source’s toothbrushes have replaceable heads; once the bristles have worn out, snap on a new one.

TOOTHPASTE TUBES. Even with all that sticky paste inside, you can recycle aluminum tubes (put them with the aluminum cans), but not plastic ones.

TVS. Best Buy will remove and recycle a set when it delivers a new one. Or bring old ones to Office Depot to be recycled. Got a Sony TV? Take it to a drop-off center listed at

UMBRELLAS. If it’s a broken metal one, drop the metal skeleton in with scrap metal (remove the fabric and the handle first). Plastic ones aren’t accepted.

USED CLOTHING. Some towns recycle clothing into seat stuffing, upholstery, or insulation. Also consider donating clothing to animal boarders and shelters, where it can be turned into pet bedding.

UTENSILS (PLASTIC). “There is no program in the country recycling plastic flatware as far as I know,” says Matsch. “The package might even say ‘recyclable,’ but that doesn’t mean much.”

VIDEOTAPES, CASSETTES, AND FLOPPY DISKS. These aren’t accepted. “Videotapes are a nightmare,” says Outerbridge. “They get tangled and caught on everything.” Instead, send tapes to ACT, a facility in Columbia, Missouri, that employs disabled people to clean, erase, and resell videotapes. You can also send videotapes, cassettes, and floppy disks to; recycling 20 pounds or less costs $6.95, plus shipping.

WHEELCHAIRS. Go to, which acts as a matchmaker, uniting wheelchairs with those who need them.

WINE CORKS. To turn them into flooring and wall tiles, send them to Wine Cork Recycling, Yemm & Hart Ltd., 610 South Chamber Drive, Fredericktown MO 63645. Or put them in a compost bin. “They’re natural,” says Matsch, “so they’re biodegradable.” Plastic corks can’t be composted or recycled.

WIPES AND SPONGES. These can’t be recycled. But sea sponges and natural sponges made from vegetable cellulose are biodegradable and can be tossed into a compost heap.

WRITING IMPLEMENTS. You can’t recycle pens, pencils and markers, but you can donate usable ones to schools that are short on these supplies. At, teachers from around the United States specify their wish lists. And there’s always the option of buying refillable pencils and biodegradable pens made of corn (like those at so that less waste winds up in the landfill.

CHRISTMAS LIGHTS. Ship your old lights to, Attention: Recycling Program, 120 W. Michigan Avenue, Suite 1403, Jackson MI 49201. The company will send you a coupon for 10 percent off its LED lights, which use 80 percent less energy and last 10 years or more. And they’re safer, too. LEDs don’t generate much heat, whereas incandescents give off heat, which can cause a dry Christmas tree to catch fire. Ace Hardware stores accept lights as well; search by ZIP code at

YOGURT CUPS. Many towns don’t recycle these because they’re made of a plastic that can’t be processed with other plastics. But Stonyfield Farm has launched a program that turns its cups into toothbrushes, razors, and other products. Mail to Stonyfield Farm, 10 Burton Drive, Londonderry NH 03053.

Or you can join TerraCycle’s Yogurt Brigade (currently available only in the Northeast) to recycle Stonyfield containers and raise money for your favorite charity. For every cup collected, Stonyfield will donate 2 cents or 5 cents, depending on the cup size. Go to

ZIPPERED PLASTIC BAGS. Venues that recycle plastic bags will also accept these items, as long as they are clean, dry, and the zip part has been snipped off (it’s a different kind of plastic).