Dear Recyclebank: I’ve been a supporter of recycling for years, but the more I learn about what is and is not accepted by recycling firms, the more I feel it’s a waste of time. Is it really worth it? –Keith H.
Dear Keith: Yes! It is completely worth it, but you already knew that. Recycling is a moral responsibility. It not only cuts back on the amount of trash that ends up at the landfill, it also saves energy and natural resources, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the waste we trash is sent to landfills, which can contaminate groundwater and release the equivalent of nearly a quarter of the world’s methane gas. Some of our trash is sent to incinerators, which produce nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide — the two main ingredients of smog. When we consider the beneficial environmental impacts of recycling, it’s clearly worth the effort.
But it’s true that as you learn more and more about recycling contamination, it can seem like it’s too difficult to make it worthwhile. If you’re overwhelmed with the rules of recycling, just start simple. First, identify the materials that are accepted by the recycling center you use most. If your town has a curbside recycling program, visit their website to see what they will take. These sites often have convenient recycling guides that you can print out and tape to your recycling bin for reference. If your town doesn’t offer curbside recycling, call your local drop-off center to speak with a representative to see what they accept.
Generally, local recycling programs take the most common materials, like tin and aluminum cans, paper, cardboard, and glass and plastic containers. According to National Geographic, it takes 95% less energy to make a can from recycled aluminum than from virgin ore, so each can you recycle counts!
Once you know which basic materials are accepted, step up your game by trying to avoid food, grease, and liquid contamination. Waste haulers usually accept corrugated cardboard, but pizza boxes are one example of a commonly accepted material becoming unacceptable for recycling due to grease contamination: Paper products, like pizza boxes, that have become soiled by oil or grease are considered contaminated, and are no longer recyclable. The general consensus is that food containers should be clean and dry. For glass and plastic bottles, rinse them to remove food residue. Once your recyclables are clean, be sure you organize them as directed by the hauler. Single-stream recycling programs tend to be the easiest — all of your recyclable materials can be put out in one bin.
Once you’ve got that down, it’s worth investing some time to become an expert: Find out what recyclables are more or less valuable, and recycle (or not) accordingly. For example, you could avoid putting brightly colored paper in your paper recycling. The dye from those papers tints the recycled stock, making it less valuable to — and therefore less likely to be used by — manufacturers. (Instead, you could use those scraps to make your own paper!) Receipts are another (surprising) example of something to avoid putting in the bin. While receipts used to be printed on regular paper, most companies now use thermal paper that contains BPA, which is hard to separate from the paper and lowers its value and reusability.
The best thing to keep in mind as you navigate the rules of recycling is that you’re not alone. Americans are embracing recycling now more than ever before. In 1980 less than 10% of municipal solid waste (MSW) was recycled. In 2013, that amount increased to 34%. According to the EPA, Americans recycled and composted 1.51 of the 4.40 pounds of individual waste generated per day in 2013. This reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 186 million tons — the equivalent of removing over 39 million passenger cars from our roadways for an entire year!
To cut through the confusion and to ensure your recycling is worth the time you’ve spent preparing it, just contact your recycling hauler and ask them for their recycling guidelines. They should be able to tell you exactly what you can recycle and how to do it. On a day-to-day basis, keep in mind the adage, “When in doubt, throw it out.” That will help prevent recycling contamination, and make sure that your recycling efforts make a big, positive impact. (And P.S.: Don’t let your neighbors’ recycling habits get you down, either.) So stay strong, Keith, and keep on recycling!