Guide to Recycling

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The other day I attended a book club where they served water in plastic cups. (I forget to bring my own waterbottle sometimes, too.) I asked the host if she had a recycling bin for the cup I used and she looked at me in surprise. “Can plastic be recycled?” she asked. I awkwardly checked the number on the cup and said yes, this can be recycled. Since I’ve been recycling from the time we had to sort plastics, paper, and glass ourselves and drive to a park where they kept the giant separated recycling dumpsters, I didn’t fully realize before that moment that everyone has not had the same experiences. It showed me that while we all know we should be recycling, we don’t all know how to recycle properly.

But it’s okay, because in this guide I’m going to break down recycling by material and make things super easy for you. I’ve also got a free printable included that you can hang by your recycling bin and refer back to. Although not all recycling services are the same, I’ve lived and recycled in four different U.S. states in the last 5 years and have a good idea of what is generally accepted and what is not. So let’s go [recycling-] dumpster diving!

Disclaimer: This is a general guide for typically accepted items. Not all municipal recycling centers accept every type of material. Check with your collector to see their list of accepted items before recycling.

Curbside Recycling

Curbside recycling refers to your local recycling pickup service, whether that’s a blue bin you roll to the curb once a week or a dumpster in your apartment complex.

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Paper and Cardboard

This is the easy category. Almost all CARDBOARD can be recycled. The exception is when the material is contaminated with food; so greasy pizza boxes are a no. Also, make sure you take out the thin plastic bags that come in cereal and cracker boxes before recycling the boxes. When we were big cereal consumers, I would often catch a cereal box my husband put in the recycle bin with the bag of cereal crumbs still inside. I appreciated that he was recycling, but I’ll admit to being also a little annoyed at having to check every box for the bag of cereal crumbs because neither the bag nor the crumbs can be recycled.

Just about all PAPER is also accepted for recycling, including magazines, phone books, sticky notes, junk mail (no, you don’t have to tear out the plastic address window anymore), and newspapers. Try and remember to take out any staples and paper clips beforehand, though. And receipts, most of which are a mix of paper and plastic that cannot be separated, aren’t accepted either.

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Metal and Glass

Glass and metal have a nearly infinite capacity to be recycled. Whereas plastic can usually only be recycled once or twice, there is no limit on glass and metal.

All GLASS jars and bottles are recyclable, but you’ll need to toss the lids because they are not. Broken glass, window glass and mirrors are not accepted either.

Typical kitchen and bathroom METALS can be recycled: aluminium, steel, and tin cans + their lids, metal body product tins and tubes. Safety razor blades can be recycled as well. Collect them in a tin and seal them with a lid before recycling to avoid endangering any recycling facility workers. Many recycling centers accept aluminum foil and trays, but some do not (sadly ours does not) so check with your local collector.

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Plastics

There are so many different types of PLASTICS that it can seem overwhelming to make sense of it all. But thankfully, manufacturers are required to put the recycle symbol with a number inside indicating what type of plastic it is right on the container, which will help you know if it can be recycled or not. (If you want to know what the numbers actually mean, take a look at this article.) Numbers 1-7 are accepted at my recycling facility, but some municipalities don’t take some types of plastic (like Nos. 4, 6, or 7), so double check with yours before recycling. A general rule of thumb if you’re lacking info is: recycle bottles, jugs, and tubs. If it fits one of those descriptions, it’s probably accepted. And if it doesn’t fit those categories, or if it doesn’t have a recycle symbol + number, it’s likely that it’s not recyclable.

Pumps (like hand soap pumps) and many of the plastic lids that come on plastic bottles and jugs cannot be recycled, so you’ll have to remove those before recycling the container.

What if I put something in recycling that’s not supposed to be recycled?

I’ve thrown something in the recycle bin without checking whether it’s recyclable or not in the hopes that it is, only to find out later that my hopes were in vain. With single-stream recycling, there is a sorting process to separate plastics, glass, paper, etc., so a lot of #recyclingfails end up being caught and discarded. However, when they sneak their way through the sorting (like when a jar isn’t cleaned of its food residue before being recycled), the entire batch can become contaminated. It’s a sad truth. So the world is not going to crumble beneath you if you miss something here and there, but try to catch as much as you can. And don’t bag your recyclables, let them be free! (Cars reference, anyone? No? It’s fine… trying to keep this interesting, just keep reading…)

Commercial recycling

Many things that aren’t accepted in your municipal recycling can be recycled in a commercial facility. This usually means mailing in the items (if small enough) or dropping them off at a nearby facility.

Plastic ‘film’

PLASTIC GROCERY BAGS, certain air-filled packing puffs, and other thin plastics are called film and have to be commercially recycled. Generally, local grocery stores or recycling centers have a drop-off bin for these plastic products.

Other

Other items that are accepted at commercial recycling centers can include:

  • Hazardous waste (batteries, light bulbs)

  • Scrap metal

  • Electronics

  • Textiles

Recycling technology has come a long way since the days of trips to the park dumpsters with a truck full of recyclables. There are many organizations pushing the boundaries of what can be remade, and TerraCycle is one of those. They have programs where you can recycle nearly every type of waste, from candy wrappers to outdoor planters. If you’re wondering whether something can be recycled, check TerraCycle’s website.

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Conclusion

If you have the time or inclination, it’s worth taking a trip to your local recycling center to learn about recycling in your area (this would be a great field trip for kids). It’s really useful to connect the items you’re putting into your bin to where they go and what they become after you’re through with them.

I realize that recycling is not the answer to the waste and climate issues, but it is a part of the solution. It’s going to play a big roll in taking care of the materials that are already circulating in the economy, and it is something that most people can be doing in their homes right now. National Geographic says that only 9% of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste we’ve created since the beginning of plastic has been recycled. So there’s a lot of life left in the recycling industry.

Please comment below or message me if you have any questions about recycling and I’ll be more than happy to answer them!

Disclaimer: This is a general guide for typically accepted items. Not all municipal recycling centers accept every type of material. Check with your collector to see their list of accepted items before recycling.

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