“Can I Recycle This?” Your Guide To Recycling Like an Eco-Pro
Recycling Ins, Outs, Mistakes, and Misconceptions
When we talk about recycling, it’s important to remember that it’s the last of the 3 R’s in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for a reason. It should be used as a last resort, the final exit on the highway to landfill purgatory.
You should strive to reduce first, reuse second, and recycle only when it’s unavoidable. For a refresher on waste hierarchies check out our blog: How to Start ‘Reducing’: A Closer Look at the First of the 3 R’s.
Is It Really Time to Recycle?
Before you throw something in the recycle bin, stop and ask yourself: Is this truly at the end of its useful life?
If it could be reused, repurposed, or upcycled, give it the chance! That holds true even if you aren’t the one who's going to reuse it.
Offer it up on the secondhand market for some extra pocket cash, or just list it for free! You’d be surprised what people are interested in taking off your hands. Whether it’s a broken appliance, finicky snow blower, or a vacuum that’s lost its suction, some mechanically-minded neighbor might cherish what you think is trash. An artist may value those half used cans of paint, and a thrifty teenager will gladly take that old phone case.
Now if it truly is at the end of it’s useful life, then it’s time to consider if it can be recycled rather than trashed.
Unfortunately, recycling is never as straightforward as we’d hope. In fact, 62% of Americans are worried they’re doing it wrong — either not recycling as much as they could or adding items that can’t be recycled.1
And to be honest, we often are doing it wrong. According to the EPA, almost 75% of American waste is actually recyclable, but about 70% of it ends up in a landfill.2
This is big, because in the US alone, we produce more than 292 million tons of waste per year.3 That’s 204 million tons of trash that could have been recycled!
But we know you’re trying to do better. So today we’ll work on clearing up those recycling barriers and teach you how to find the best resources for recycling.
The Big Issue: Recycling Contamination
A major issue with recycling is — it’s different everywhere you go.
This makes the information you find online extremely murky, because a blog writer in California might tell you plastic caps are always recyclable, but in this writer’s hometown — they’re not.
It may seem like, what’s the big deal? If we put a few caps in that can’t be recycled, what difference does it make?
A great deal, actually. When something ends up in recycling systems that shouldn’t be there, it can clog up the machinery or contaminate a whole batch.
In fact, over 30% of recycling has to be thrown out because of contamination from items that don’t belong there.4
Different recycling facilities can handle different items. So the number one rule when it comes to your recycling is:
Your town, city, or county has guidelines regarding what can and cannot be recycled, and you should carefully follow those directions. Check their website or give them a call, then print out the instructions and keep them somewhere near your bin as a quick reference.
As a general guide, here are a few things to keep in mind.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Recycling
Again, these are guidelines, and you should always check your local instructions.
Food Residue is a Big No-No
Pizza boxes are the poster child of cardboard contamination. In order to recycle cardboard and paper, the items must be broken down into a fibrous state, then reworked into new paper products. But if grease makes it into that process, it cannot be separated out and will ruin a whole vat of paper fibers.
You can often recycle the lid of your pizza box if it’s grease-free, but consider using the greasy side for a fire starter, or cut it up and add it to your compost.
The same holds true for food contamination on plastic and metals. While it’s not quite as finicky as paper, if there’s too much, it can ruin the whole batch. Be sure to rinse out cans, cartons, and jars before you recycle them.
Additionally, receipt paper contains chemicals that can’t be removed, and should never be recycled.
Small Objects are Tricky
Because most recycling is now sorted and processed through machinery, small items pose a major problem. A general rule of thumb is, if it’s smaller than a credit card, don’t recycle it! But this is an area where you should definitely check your local guidelines.
Plastic Bottle Caps
Some facilities can now accept caps, others can as long as they are screwed back on the bottle — but only if the bottle is dry inside. And others still cannot accept them at all.
Steel Bottle Caps
In some areas you can collect steel bottle caps in a steel soup can and then crimp it closed before placing it in curbside recycling.
Shredded paper also cannot be recycled in curbside collections, because it is too difficult to separate from the other materials. Consider using it for your fire starter, or using it as bedding for small pets such as hamsters and gerbils.
When Possible, Keep It Separate
While single-stream (where all your recycling goes in one single bin) is super convenient, it often leads to contamination. If you can, keep your paper and cardboards dry and in a separate container.
And the most important thing to keep separate: soft plastics. Soft plastics are those thin and crinkly items that can often be crumpled, like grocery bags and wrappers, but also bubble wrap and plastic mailers.
Plastic bags and mailers take almost 1,000 years to decompose, so it’s critical to recycle them.2 And Americans currently throw away over 100 billion plastic bags every year!5 😬 Yikes!
But soft plastic can be recycled, just not in your single-stream bin. Instead, collect any recyclable wrappers and bags and take them to the grocery store on your next trip. Nearly every grocery store chain in the US (Plus Walmart and Target!) now have collection bins for soft plastics at the front of the store.
Also keep in mind that most tape is plastic, so you’ll want to remove it from cardboard boxes when possible. Labels are usually okay.
Recycling Odds and Ends
When it comes to some items, like a broken vacuum or rusted out bike, you know you probably shouldn’t put it straight in the recycle bin. But you also know it has lots of recyclable pieces.
In this case, Google is your BFF.
There are literally thousands of collection programs to recycle items that can’t be taken curbside. You can also check the store you bought it from or a large chain that sells similar items.
For instance, Best Buy takes most electronics, H&M collects textiles, and Bic accepts pens, markers, and mechanical pencils.
There are programs where you can send ink cartridges, water filters, keurig cups, baby food pouches, and everything in between.
Check out Terracycle for a plethora of recycling programs. Plus if you don’t have the time or energy to spend sending out your items for recycling — Terracycle has a “single stream” option! It costs a little up front, but you can put all your odds and ends in the same box and send them off for sorting!
The Last Resort
Don’t forget that recycling is the last resort before trashing an item! Always try to reduce and reuse first. Even if an item seems broken, it may have useful parts that someone else wants.
Though we've covered Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, we're not finished yet! You know that Reuse part? We've got one more installment in this series coming your way — and it's a fancy way to Reuse. Next up, we’ll zoom in on Upcycling — what it means, where to find ideas, and how to get started. Sign up for our newsletter to stay tuned!
Wondering if you can recycle Cloud Paper?