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How to Recycle Better

Disclaimer: I am basing this information off of what I learned while touring our local recycling facility. Your facility may be different with different recycling rules and procedures. The best way to find out is by contacting your local facility, going on a tour, or reaching out to your city’s green/recycling/zero waste initiative divisions.

Visiting our local recycling facility was one of the most educational opportunities I’ve had in a long time. It was fascinating how high tech the facility was but also how much we don’t know as a community on best recycling practices. So. I’m hoping to share out a few small things I’ve learned. First off, make the time to check out this video. This is the facility that I got to visit and it was absolutely fascinating to see how materials are sorted in a single stream recycling system.

And here’s what I learned — broken down by different types of materials.

  • Plastics
    • #1, #2, #5 — These recycled plastics have a good market in our area so I don’t feel too terrible about using them (i.e. if I do choose to use plastic for something, I try and make sure it’s one of these numbers). Check with your city to see which plastics are in the most demand in your area.
    • #3, #4 — Not as good of a market as the plastics above so I tend to avoid as much as possible. However, yes, these are still recycled.
    • #6 aka styrofoam — These are not taken by my city. We were told that even IF they are taken for recycling, the market is very low for #6 plastics. I avoid these as much as possible.
    • #7 aka mixed use plastics — Not a lot of curbside recycling programs take this number but ours does. However, this is done mainly to make the recycling process easier for the community — but, these products are not truly recycled. I find that a lot of skin and body care products use #7 packaging. I have been saving these to take to Origins but have also considered getting a TerraCycle Beauty Product Box just so I know the packaging is getting recycled in some way.
    • Other Plastic Recycling Tips
      • Black plastics (like the ones found with frozen meals) can be difficult to recycle because the conveyor belt that handles all the recycling materials is also black, making it difficult for the sensors to pick them out.
      • Certain facilities take plastic shopping bags/bread bags/dry cleaning bags/ziplock bags/air cushions (all bagged in to another plastic bag). If not, these can be dropped off at store plastic bag drop offs.
      • Plastics should be clean, empty, and dry when put in the recycling bin!
    • Glass
      • Broken glass cannot be recycled in my city. Some cities may take broken glass if contained in a paper bag or box.
      • Metal or plastic (all-non glass) lids attached to a glass container must be removed for separate recycling since the recycling machine is unable to separate out a non-glass lid from a glass container (see more on this below).
    • Metal/Aluminum
      • The best item to recycle! There’s a strong market and products are not “downcycled” in to less desirable items. The process is also incredibly fast.
      • Small pieces of metal (anything smaller than a size of a sticky note such as bottle caps or even can lids) are too small to go through the recycling system on its own as the pieces will fall through the machine (and ultimately get thrown away). I get around this by collecting all my small pieces of metal and storing them in an old can. Once full, I hammer the can shut (so the little pieces don’t fall out) and recycle as usual.
      • Aluminum foil can not be recycled.
      • Again — items should be clean, empty, and dry!
    • Paper
      • Small pieces of paper and shredded paper need to be corralled together so that the small pieces don’t fall through the cracks (literally). I collect all my small pieces of paper in a large brown paper bag and recycle when full.
      • Our recycling facility does take milk and juice cartons — even though they have that plastic coating inside + a plastic spout. They have a very cool system that separates out all the plastic from the paper carton.
      • Metallic paper (such as some gift wraps) can not be recycled.
    • Items That Cannot Be Recycled
      • Here are the items that the facility frequently finds in the system (even though they can NOT be recycled): diapers, dog poop, grass clippings, hoses, and hangers (this can really mess up the machinery, by the way! take your old hangers to the dry cleaners or donate them!).
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  • marianpinheiro

    It’s not possible that broken glass isn’t recycled. Every time I throw any glass into the glass dumpster I can hear it breaking on the bottom, and yet neither the practice nor the system have been discontinued or changed. Any glass recycling system that can not handle broken glass is a system that cannot exist.

    • Meera

      Unfortunately that is the case in my city and across many others. Here is some more information on it: https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/because-you-asked-should-i-cushion-the-glass-in-my-recycling-bin

      However, when visiting our recycling facility, the manager said that surprisingly a lot of the glass didnt break in transit since it ends up being cushioned by all the other items in our single stream recycling system.

      Our neighboring city takes some broken glass if its kept in a paper bag (so it doesn?t injure anyone).

      Definitely check with your city to see how they handle broken glass! Let me know what you find out as I love learning what other cities do.

  • Holly W.

    Meera, thank you so much for writing this. It was very helpful. There are some other concerns with recycling that I would like to add.

    First, recycling uses energy and water. Generally, it is cheaper to recycle than to extract and make new materials, however, not all recycling is equal. Glass recycling saves the most over making new glass. Plastics save the least, and cannot be recycled endlessly. So, a glass jar might become another glass jar, but your plastic milk jug might become polar fleece or some product that may only get one more use. It is best to reduce the amount of plastics we use in the first place!

    Second, many of the plastics we recycle are toxic to the environment and to us. Some are safer than others and it is good to get to know your numbers and avoid bringing home the more toxic ones. Here is a link to details: http://www.nontoxicrevolution.org/blog/7-types-of-plastic

    Third, not all glass is the same, either. Most recycling centers I know stress that they recycle jars, but not other sources of glass such as windows, which are made with a different composition and will cheapen their product. Mixing also creates problems in the plant.

    Metal – our local plant only takes metal soda and food cans, but we have found a scrap metal dealer close by who will take anything metal (ask at car yards). If we sort it, we can get more for copper than for other metals or for mixed metals. We now keep a trash container in our basement, where we collect all metal that our recycling plant won’t take, and we take it to the scrap merchant about twice a year, along with any broken appliances we have. We don’t get much money for it, but it more than pays for the gas to get there, keeps it out of the land fill, and prevents a small amount of destructive mining, so we are happy to do it.

    I hope this helps, and thanks again for writing your post!

    • Meera

      Thank you — such great information! I’ve been considering doing the same with some of our metals but I need to find a scrap metal dealer near by. We’re able to take our broken appliances (aka anything that plugs in or takes a battery) to our city’s electronics recycling but there’s always random stuff that comes up… right now I have pieces of a broken door handle that’s sitting in our garage. I’m going to double down on finding a scrap metal dealer!

  • Holly W.

    I am so encouraged when I hear of people wanting to do more and trying to figure out new ways of doing things to make less waste. It’s a journey for all of us.

    My husband is from the U.K. They are so much bigger at recycling there than we are here, so I have no problem getting him to recycle and compost even the “awkward” items if I ask. But at the moment i’m challenged in getting my family to not bring home plastic bags! We are down to a tiny trash can that sits on our counter top that gets emptied every few days (i’m surprised we got here, but we did), yet this week i found we have a “secret” bag stash in a closet, in addition to the overflowing one in the kitchen, and one under our bathroom sink…. this after Santa gave everyone a pocket shopping bag on a carabiner. Its kind of funny.

    I think i understand now why some people might start doing weird things with their trash. I wonder how “Happy Father’s Day” might look like spelled out in shopping bags? 😀

    But seriously, I’m inspired when I hear of anyone’s effort, whether they are down to a jar of trash a year, or whether they are just starting out. It makes me feel like we are all in it together to make our world beautiful and healthy again, and that we are going to the trouble of it for each other.

    • Meera

      Same! I’ll see a ton of trash somewhere and just feel like what I’m doing isn’t enough or pointless. But then, finding all these people online who are doing their part makes me feel like there’s some hope!

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