Recycling is an important part of a sustainable future. It helps to reduce waste and lowers our environmental footprint. But despite our best efforts, most home recycling ends up in landfills or gets incinerated. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimates that about 75% of waste produced in the US is capable of being recycled, but only 10%-20% is actually recycled.
Does that mean we should give up altogether? No way! Even our imperfect efforts today are making an impact. Americans return about 68 million tons of raw materials to the manufacturing industry every year, and that means less carbon emissions, less energy, and less water waste because we are not spending resources generating new materials, which is a net positive impact to the environment. Recycling works, we just need to do more of it, more effectively.
Read below for a few surprising truths about recycling and what you can do to ensure you make a greater impact.
- There is no standard form of recycling. Different municipalities have different guidelines for what they can accept based on how their facilities are set up. This can make it really hard to know what to do because there is not a general rule to follow when collecting and sorting your home recycling.
Most home recycling is not actually recyclable. This is because the recycling centers are often not be capable of processing a wide range of materials, so they focus on a limited assortment. There also may not be demand for the material that is being recycled. For example, there needs to be demand for recycled glass in order for your glass bottles to be processed and recycled by the facility. Here are 5 most commonly mis-recycled items:
- Plastic grocery bags - these are often not recyclable because they can clog machines and slow down recycling operations. Your best bet is to carry reusable totes to the grocery instead. Most grocery stores also have drop off bins where you can bring your plastic bags back and they will industrially recycle them for you.
- Takeout containers - the important thing here is to understand the material your container is made from and ensure it is clean. Some takeout containers may look like cardboard and therefore seem recyclable, but they could contain a plastic coating that prevents them from being accepted. Food residue can also contaminate recycling.
- Receipts - these are commonly thrown in the recycling bin because they are made from paper, but they also often contain BPA (Bisphenol A) and when recycled can contaminate new recycled paper with BPA. When possible, it is best to ask for no receipt or an e-receipt.
- Coffee cups - coffee cups are commonly thrown in the bin because they are made of paper, but that paper is usually lined with plastic to keep the paper from leaking, and that makes them not widely recyclable. To avoid disposable cups, make the switch to reusable cups and mugs.
- Plastic packaging - many food products and beauty products come plastic packaging because it is so durable and versatile. Plastic can be recyclable but how easy it is to recycle depends on what grade of plastic the packaging is made from. Most plastic packaging contains a number 1-7 that appears inside the recycling emblem on the package. This number can inform you on what grade of plastic is used and how widely recycled it may be. Plastics 1 and 2 are the most commonly recycled in local centers, while other numbers may be less locally accepted.
- Many municipalities do not manually sort recycling. This means that aspirational recycling or throwing something in the bin because we hope it's recyclable can actually lead to the opposite outcome - sending all of your recycling to landfill. Even the legitimate stuff. This is because when you mix things that are not locally recyclable with your home recycling (also known as recycling contamination), it's more efficient for the recycling facility to divert the entire bin to landfill than to separate the items.
So what can you do to ensure your recycling efforts are having a positive impact? Check out 3 tips below:
- Know the guidelines for your city. The single most important step you can take to be a better recycler is to know and follow the local rules. These may be available online (you can easily search for your city + recycling to see if your local guidelines are online) or you can call your municipality and ask.
- Sort your recycling properly. Once you know the rules, it's important to sort your recycling properly so that you don't end up contaminating your bin or an even larger collection of recycling.
- Take advantage of industry recycling programs. Many brands or stores have their own recycling programs where you can return your packaging to them and they will industrially recycle them for you, ensuring that they are recycled appropriately. Many grocery stores offer special recycling bins that are separated by package type, allowing you to recycle products that may not be recyclable by your home pickup program. Some brands also have programs that allow you to return packaging for industrial recycling, and many of them will send you free product as a thank you for being earth friendly. Each & Every has a recycling program where you can send back your empty deodorant containers once you reach 5 empties in exchange for a free travel size deodorant. You can find out more about the deodorant recycling program here.
Recycling alone will not save our planet, but if we all do a little more, it can have a huge net-positive environmental impact.