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Recycling 101

Recycling can be a good thing for non-plastic materials, such as cardboard, aluminum, paper, and glass. However, for plastic materials recycling is iffy. Upon chucking a plastic bottle in the bin, most plastics are not recycled. The primary culprit is a lack of knowledge of the recycling process. Another issue is the lack of versatility of disposable plastics. Disposable plastics can be recycled once, perhaps twice, then they are downcycled. Regardless of their life cycle, they will ultimately end up in the landfill to sit for hundreds/thousands of years or end up in the oceans.

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New plastic is cheap. Until that changes, the value of recycled plastic will continue to be low. The biggest purchaser of disposable plastics, China, stopped taking low grade disposable plastics from around the world. This has sent the recycling world into a tailspin. Municipalities in industrialized nations are scrambling to find somewhere to dump ALL THAT PLASTIC. So far they’ve found a few buyers in other developing countries like Indonesia and India. Disposable plastic is so cheap that it is being used a fuel in Indonesia, instead of wood. Burning wood creates greenhouse emissions. Can you imagine what burning plastic does?

RELATED CONTENT: Learn about the biggest disposable plastic producers in the world

If you have a recycling service, it is likely through your local municipality. Local municipalities recycle certain materials. Some municipalities stopped recycling glass because it is no longer cost efficient to do so. The recycling market for glass has bottomed out. The primary ingredients for glass– sand, limestone, and soda ash. The products are accessible, but not necessarily renewable.

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So how do you make sure you’re recycling properly?

Zero Waste Mantra

The first step is to follow the zero waste mantra: Refuse, reduce, reuse, rehome, repair, rot, and then recycle. Is there something in disposable plastic packaging that you can go without? If not, can you reduce your consumption of it? Is the container reusable? Check out these zero waste resources to find a better option. If it’s plastic, it cannot rot, so then you move on to recycling.

Check with your Municipality

Check to see what they do and do NOT accept. Some municipalities do not accept glass, plastic lids, plastic caps, or cartons.

What Type of Plastic are you Recycling?

The third step is to determine what type of plastic you are recycling. Each piece of plastic has it’s own PET or HDPE resin identification code. The codes go from 1 through 7. #6 include items such as Styrofoam, clamshells, lids to Starbucks coffee, or Solo cups. These items are not typically recyclable through municipal recycling. If there is a type not accepted by your municipality throw it in the trash to be landfilled. If you place a non-recyclable item in your recycables you can contaminate the recycling stream.

Rinse the Recycling

Rinse thoroughly and let it soak if it’s caked on. There have been occasions when a sticky food product could not be removed, so I had to landfill an item.

Carton Recycling

Do not flatten your cartons before recycling. If your municipality recycles milk or orange juice cartons, leave the cartons in their current shape. If you flatten or misshape them, the machines may not be able to distinguish them from trash.

Aluminum Foil Recycling

Aluminum foil is typically recyclable. Rinse the foil as best as you can, then ball it up. The magnetic sensors in the recycling facility will likely pick up the foil. Check with you municipality to confirm they recycle aluminum.

RELATED CONTENT: 83 Items to Toss or Recycle Today. The Magic of Decluttering.


DO NOT PUT PLASTIC BAGS INTO THE RECYCLING BIN unless you know for certain that your municipality recycles them. The vast majority of municipalities do not recycle plastic bags because the bags clog the machines. If you put plastic bags in the recycling they will hopefully be caught by the sorters and thrown into the trash.

Speaking of Plastic bags, you can recycle plastic bags with a plastic film recycler. If you’re wondering what plastic film is, it’s just plastic bags, but not ALL plastic bags. Plastic film like grocery bags, cereal bags, bread bags, produce bags, dry-cleaning bags, newspaper, bags, wrapping around toilet paper/paper towels/water bottles, bubble wrap, plastic mailing envelopes, ziplock bags, air pillows are typically accepted at your local grocery store. It does NOT include freezer bags, snack bags, pretzel bags, chip bags, candy bar wrappers, or cling wrap. Check here to find a plastic film recycler near you. Many grocery stores will take plastic film recycling, along with plastic grocery bags.

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Image credit: How2Recycle.Info

Small Items in Recycling

Most small items fall through the recycling sorters. If you have aluminum beer caps bundle them in a piece of aluminum foil so they will not fall through the cracks.

Paper and Cardboard Recycling

Do not ball up paper. Paper typically goes through flat. If the paper is balled up, the sorters may assume it’s trash. Make sure paper and cardboard are free from grease stains. Unless your municipality lists it, pizza boxes are not typically recyclable (but are compostable). Paper towels are not recyclable, but they are compostable.

Electronic Recycling

Do not put electronics in municipal recycling. If you have electronics recycling you typically have to take that to an electronics recycler or directly to the municipal waste station. Municipalities do not typically accept electronics in their recycling bins. Best Buy and Staples are great resources for electronics recycling. They typically take anything with a cord, cables, or items that are battery operated.

When to Landfill

When in doubt, throw it out. If you have any doubts as to whether or not your municipality takes something, throw in trash. It sounds bad, but in reality if the item is not caught by the sorters it can contaminate the recycling stream, which will cause more recycling to be thrown out.

Best Recycling App

Check the iRecycle app to see where to take certain items, like batteries, construction materials, Styrofoam, large appliances, and paint.

Trash Audit

Lastly, conduct a trash audit. Go through your trash to see what you throw away on a regular basis. Can you replace it with a more sustainable material? If it’s paper towels, can you switch to cloth? If it’s Styrofoam to-go containers, can you bring your own container to a restaurant? See Kathryn’s site to learn about trash auditing.

#zerowasteliving, #recycling, #101, #ecofriendly