by Suzanne Wentley
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Clearing Up Recycling Confusion
Now, I’m not one to brag, but a year after I won a prize for my killer Electric Slide moves, I won a spot in an environmental art calendar. I was in fifth grade. For the calendar entry, I depicted the steps for the “Trashcan Lambada,” inspired by the sexy dance of the late 80s.
With the kid-version of Art Deco-style dance footprints, my poster encouraged people to stomp their milk jugs and other large items to make room in the recycling bin.
Now, my little recycling slogan certainly didn’t make any billboards, but it just goes to show that I’ve been learning and preaching about recycling for more than 33 years.
I loved to celebrate Earth Day every day, and I still do!
I’ve even been known to set up eco-friendly recycling stations in more than one of my friends’ kitchens. I believe that if you have a nice indoor recycling bin next to your kitchen trashcan, you’ll be more likely to separate out what your city waste management system can sell to a secondary market and keep it out of the landfill.
Having known some troublesome conspiracy theorists, let me assure you: Yes, they really recycle, even if you “see it all go in the same truck.”
The EPA reports that nationwide, nearly 40% of glass beer, wine, and soda bottles get recycled. More than 50% of aluminum cans get recycled, and nearly 30% of plastic bottles and jars get saved from the landfill.
Of course, some states are better than others. There is no national recycling legal mandate, but many states set recycling goals that require government businesses to report their recycling percentages. The states with the worst recycling rates and lowest pounds per capita are Alaska, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, and Kentucky.
Despite the differences among municipalities, there are some general answers to common questions about recycling. Here’s what I’ve heard over the years:
What can go in the recycling bin?
In general, plastic bottles and containers, food and beverage cans, paper, and flattened cardboard go in household bins. Most plastic and glass bottles can be recycled, along with pizza boxes (presuming you’ve taken out the old crusts and that greasy piece of paper).
Look on the bottom of that plastic container: If it’s recyclable, it will have one of those triangle recycling codes with a number in the middle. You’ll need to check directly with your trash collector to see if they take all the numbers.
What usually can’t go in the recycling bin?
If the plastic doesn’t have a number — often cheap, flimsy packaging — you have to chuck it in the trashcan or dispose of it in another way. Plastic bags, plastic wrap, takeaway cups with waxy lining, and Styrofoam takeaway packaging (unless it has an acceptable code stamped on the bottom) also aren’t usually recyclable at the curb.
When you optimistically presume the worker will do your sorting for you on the backend of the process, you’re making the entire process less efficient and actually costing yourself more in taxpayer dollars for the work.
A bunch of bottles tied up in a plastic grocery bag, for example, may not even make it to the recycling station. Do you really think they’re going to tear the bag open, hoping for no dirty diapers to fall out, just to see if they can grab a couple of bottles to sell? I doubt it.
How much do I have to clean out my peanut butter jar?
Pet peeve alert! I detest the smell of wet peanut butter. I hate cleaning out that finished jar.
Still, bottles and jars need to be rinsed, but not spotless. Waste experts recommend you use old soapy dishwater to rinse the jars. Sticky messes may require an overnight soak or a scrape to get rid of the food residue.
That said, paper and cardboard should be broken down and relatively clean. If you have shredded paper to recycle, stuff cereal boxes or brown paper bags and make sure nothing will spill out.
How can I recycle electronics?
I don’t have to watch WALL-E again to know that electronic waste is a growing concern, so it’s worth hunting down a place that will recycle old cell phones, computers, small appliances, TVs, and other electronics. Search with your zip code on Earth911 to find a place near you for whatever you want to get rid of.
Best Buy takes up to three items a day for recycling, and sometimes if it’s in good working order they may even buy it back. Staples also has a recycling program - you can drop off old TVs, computers, monitors and other bulky electronics.
I’ve dropped old cell phones and an ancient MP3 player at those ecoATMs in Walmarts. I think I got $1 for each — payment for the joy of reducing my carbon footprint.
Do they take batteries anywhere?
While single-use alkaline batteries aren’t considered hazardous, other batteries in smartphones, digital cameras, and cordless tools need special care so as to not pollute the land. Search for a battery disposal center in your zip code at Call2Recycle’s website.
The plastic grocery bags under the sink multiplied like fed Gremlins. They’re everywhere. Help!
You may be lucky enough to live in one of the growing list of states that have banned disposable plastic bags (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont).
Otherwise, watch out for how quickly a mountain of plastic bags can form.
While you can’t add plastic bags, or other plastic wraps and films, to your curbside recycling bin, you may be able to take it to a retail store near you. Many grocery stores have clearly marked bins outside, and you don’t have to take the bag to the same place that gave it to you. Search How2Recycle to find a drop-off location near you.
I eat a lot of whole foods! This means a lot of food waste. Is there a way to recycle that?
Not counting the plastic packaging that so much food comes in, the leftover food itself adds up to 24% of the total waste that municipalities collect.
Rotting food is a major culprit of the methane gas that landfills emit each year, so reducing the amount of food waste you throw in the bin with the other non-recyclables will help fight climate change, too.
If you don’t, download the app ShareWaste to find a neighbor who will accept your compost. A tightly sealed outdoor bin may be a good idea for in between your trips so that your kitchen won’t get smelly or buggy.
It feels good to recycle, but I still have a lot to drag to the curb. What are easy ways to reduce my waste overall?
Ah! Now begins the real Trashcan Lambada — which I think is a great name for a band, by the way.
The concept of a zero-waste lifestyle is very sexy.
The key is to aspire toward zero waste, while also recognizing that you’ll never be one of those people who only have a few twisty ties in their trash can. Any way to cut down your waste is awesome. (One of Orianna's favorite brands is zero waste - check out this article I wrote about EO Products.)
It’s mostly a matter of habit: Bring a container (Bento boxes are a classy style) and utensils with you when you go out to eat. Bring a well-designed reusable cup (KeepCups are my favorite) if you think you might grab a cup of coffee on the go, and of course, always have reusable grocery bags and reusable produce bags when you go to the grocery store.
Search out bulk food stores near you and bring glass pasta and pickle jars you saved from the bin. Choose to buy items with less packaging, too. After all, reduce and reuse come before recycling in those three R’s I learned back in my elementary school Trashcan Lambada days.
Adopting a sustainable lifestyle and embracing a green lifestyle is essential for creating a positive impact on the environment. Recycling is a crucial aspect, and understanding the basics can help make a significant difference. By separating recyclable items such as plastic bottles, containers, food and beverage cans, paper, and cardboard from regular waste, we contribute to reducing landfill waste and conserving valuable resources.
While recycling rates vary among states, it's important to be aware of what can and can't be recycled in your local area. Items without recycling codes or those made from plastic bags, plastic wrap, takeaway cups with waxy linings, and Styrofoam packaging are typically not recyclable through curbside collection. Properly rinsing bottles and jars, breaking down cardboard, and containing shredded paper can help streamline the recycling process and ensure its efficiency.
Managing electronic waste, addressing the issue of plastic bags, reducing food waste, and striving for zero waste are other critical aspects of a sustainable lifestyle. While striving for a zero-waste lifestyle may be a lofty goal, every effort to reduce waste counts. By incorporating reusable containers, utensils, cups, and bags into daily routines, we can actively minimize our ecological footprint. Seeking out bulk food stores and choosing items with minimal packaging further contribute to waste reduction.
Embracing a sustainable lifestyle requires dedication, awareness, and the willingness to make conscious choices. By recycling responsibly, reducing waste, and embracing eco-friendly practices, we can all contribute to a greener, more sustainable future for our planet.
Conscious Living is a Lifestyle. Download our guide with 25 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint