Author: Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor, September 23, 2021
At this point, it’s safe to say that most people know enough about recycling to hold a conversation about the subject. Still, the quality of that conversation may come into question once the participants start throwing around unsubstantiated claims. So every once in a while, the message behind the practice of recycling bears repeating. With that in mind, we wanted to go over some of the basic principles of recycling.
Hopefully, brushing up on this subject will help you hold your own with others who confidently claim that recycling is pointless. Even if you only managed to make one person think more critically about where their waste goes, you’d be a winner in our book!
Recycling Made Easy! How to Get Started
One of the main reasons people don’t recycle is because they believe that it will be difficult. Fortunately, we can confidently state that that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most places nowadays have local recycling programs you can opt into. But before you start looking for those, learning some recycling facts and statistics might help you keep your eyes on the prize.
Remember Why You’re Recycling
Due to the tireless work of eco-activists in the 90s and early 2000s, we are all familiar with the phrase “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.” Yet most people have forgotten the meaning of the motto. So why should we even bother extending the life of the goods we already own before buying new products? More importantly, why should we recycle when individuals don’t even produce most of the world’s waste?
Simply put, recycling is the a way to stop the overflow of landfills. The practice can help us stop taking raw materials from nature, letting it regenerate. Stopping the extraction of raw materials also saves energy and therefore prevents pollution. In addition, recycling and other sustainable practices create jobs — and will only continue to do so.
In any case, even though individuals don’t produce as much waste as industries, it all adds up. According to the EPA, Americans produce about 4.5 pounds of waste per person every single day! And while 75% of our waste is recyclable, only 30% is recycled — and that number is even lower on a global scale.
Still, spouting recycling facts may not be the best way to win people over. Instead, the best thing we can do to prompt someone to recycle is make the process easy for them. To begin with, we should focus on finding recycling drop-off locations or pick-up programs.
Find Local Recycling Programs
While we couldn’t possibly produce a comprehensive list of all recycling locations and businesses in the country, let alone the world, we can still give you some pointers for finding them yourself.
Depending on the accessibility of recycling in your area, you’ll have several options to choose from. For one, you could arrange for a curbside pickup of your recycling. Or you could find recycling bins in your area to take your waste when it accumulates. Similarly, you could always head to your local recycling center to drop off large quantities of materials (just check to make sure they accept in-person drop-offs).
Remember that different services have different rules for what you can recycle. Putting random items into your recycling may create problems down the line.
Many recycling programs in the U.S. are single-stream services. That means all of your recycling is going to a Materials Recovery Facility where workers go through it by hand. So if you toss broken glass into your recycling, the whole load could be scrapped to protect the workers who are sifting through it — even if the glass itself can be melted down and recycled.
Other inappropriate items, like electronic devices, for example, would simply be removed from the pile and transported to the nearest landfill. So rather than putting things like that in your main recycling, take the time to research drop-off places at local electronics stores.
Keeping a Green Home
Convincing everyone who lives in your house may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. All you have to do is make recycling a habit. To do so, you’ll have to tie it to other habits. For example, you could put recycling bins next to every trash bin in your home. You could even get stackable recycling bins for different materials if you opt into a multi-stream program.To help everyone adjust to recycling, you could tape a list of acceptable items right on the bin! So “glass bottles, tin cans, and paper and cardboard products are okay — but make sure they’re clean” would be a good starting point. After all, it’s important to keep food and liquid out of the recycling.
If someone in your home frequently uses a paper shredder, make sure they put the cuttings into a paper bag before they put it in the recycling. Otherwise, the workers at the MRF won’t be able to separate the paper cuttings. But that brings us to our next point!
Learn to Tell Recyclable Items From Non-Recyclable Ones
Obviously, you won’t be able to point your friends and family in the right direction if you yourself don’t know which items are not recyclable. As we have established, the rules of the program you opt into will get you most of the way there. Generally, they’ll tell you to avoid recycling:
●Foods and liquids (even items like greasy pizza boxes)
●Plastic bags (though some services provide bags to put your recycling into)
●Plastic wrap, film, or bubble wrap mailers (those may clog the recycling machines)
●Single-use cups with wax or plastic coating
●Plastic items that aren’t made of plastic number one or two (the lower the number, the easier the item will be to recycle — but check the service you’re using for the exact guidelines)
●Items that are made of a mix of materials (like cardboard boxes with plastic windows, shoes, or electronics)
●Medical and sanitary waste (including diapers and menstrual products)
●Garage waste (you can probably take oil and other chemicals to the local hazardous waste collection facility)
These rules exist because the rate of recycling contamination has more than doubled in the past decade. In 2010, only 12% of all recycling hauls were contaminated by non-recyclable items. In the time since, that number has risen to 25%.
Still, just because you can’t chuck the items we have listed above in with your regular recycling doesn’t mean that you can’t recycle them elsewhere. Hold onto them, just in case. When you’re ready, find a business that can take care of it all for you and drop it off in one go.
Author Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability brand manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.