A refresher for the new decade.
The next time you pass a recycling bin, do yourself a favor and take a peek inside. See anything unusual? Let’s rip the Band-Aid off right now: Turns out many of the things we drop into recycling bins don’t go on to beautiful second lives as bespoke greeting cards or shiny new bikes — a large percentage of this stuff actually ends up in landfills.
If you’re just tuning in, some background to our current recycling problem: In 2018, China, which previously bought and processed 70%(!) of the US’s recycled plastics, changed its policies about what kinds of recycled waste it would accept. China banned imports of certain types of paper and plastic, and cracked down on contamination (like leftover food scraps) in the materials they still process and recycle.
As long as we were shipping our recycling overseas, Americans never really had to deal with the repercussions of being, to quote Alana Semuels at The Atlantic, “terrible at recycling.” We tend to just throw everything into the bin without much thought about whether everything is actually, you know, recyclable. Now that US towns and cities are scrambling to figure out how to deal with recyclables, Semuels explains, they have two options: “pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.”
While there’s not much you can do if your local recycling program decides to throw up its hands and throw out your cans, one key takeaway here is that if this country has any hope of building a successful recycling program, we all need to be more conscious of what we’re tossing in the bin.
Recycling is far from a perfect system (hence the need for both reducing and reusing), but understanding the dos and don’ts can decrease contamination and increase the effectiveness of the system as a whole.
DO: Recycle aluminum cans, plastic bottles, cardboard, mail, glass jars, and newspapers. Those are the most commonly recycled items, according to the EPA. Where it gets confusing is that different cities have specific rules about what can and can’t be recycled (as well as how to sort your stuff, which you definitely should be doing). While most recycling facilities across the country accept, say, envelopes with plastic windows or staples in paper, it’s a smart idea to reeducate yourself by doing an online search for your local recycling program, especially as the industry is in flux.
DON’T: Try to recycle plastic bags, juice boxes, plastic straws, reusable coffee cups, or diapers. Setting aside the inherent grossness of recycling diapers, they, along with juice boxes and coffee cups, are tricky because they’re made from “composite materials,” meaning they’re difficult to categorize, and therefore to recycle. As for our old foes plastic straws and plastic bags, they tend to gum up the machinery in recycling plants. Might we suggest a nice reusable tote instead?
DO: Check the bottoms of your containers. Ever notice the triangles with numbers inside them stamped on the bottoms of your plastics? Those numbers correspond to the type of plastic (1–7) that comprises the container. Since China’s new restrictions went into effect, many areas in the US no longer accept numbers 3–7, so you should check your local website to see if yours is one of them. The more you know!
DON’T: Dispose of old electronics with your curbside recycling. You can and should recycle old electronic devices — but you can’t mix them in with your everyday recyclables. The EPA has tips for donating and recycling your old electronics to make sure your old laptop doesn’t end up at the top of a landfill.
DO: Thoroughly clean any food containers before recycling them. We know, it’s tempting to toss that smelly milk jug into the bin and forget about it, but food contamination can get your recycling sent straight to the landfill.
Things get a little trickier when the food container is made of paper, like a pizza or donut box. Oil and food remnants that have soaked into the paper are considered contaminates, since they can stain other paper during the processing. If the grease stains are confined to one side of the box, you can always cut it in half and only recycle the clean bits.
DON’T: Even try to put your bowling balls in that bin. According to the EPA, the following items are never recyclable:
- Garden hoses
- Needles, of both the sewing and medical varieties
- Broken glass
- Propane tanks
- Bowling balls (honestly, we’re concerned that enough people tried to recycle their bowling balls that the EPA felt the need to address it)
DO: Make an effort to cut down on single-use plastics wherever you can. Even when you do everything right, recycling won’t solve the world’s massive plastic problem. Creating new products from recycled material uses less energy than using virgin plastic, but consuming fewer single-use products is still the best way to reduce your carbon footprint.