The Essential Recycling Guide You Didn’t Know You Needed
For many of us, recycling is practically a reflex—we’ve been tossing everything from shampoo bottles to pizza boxes into the right for as long as we can remember.
(For the record, grease-slicked takeout containers don’t actually belong there.) But while recycling seems like a simple thing to do in the name of the environment, it can also be confusing—consider the recent revelation that a lot of plastic isn’t nearly as recyclable as we’ve been led to believe.
Plus, a surprisingly high number of us aren’t following the guidelines as well as we’d like to think.
Despite all the challenges, the positive environmental impact of recycling is real, so doing our best is still extremely important in our efforts to reduce waste and greenhouse gases.
Read on for the back-to-basics recycling explainer you didn’t know you needed, including why this everyday action makes a difference and how to do it the right way.
What is recycling, and how does it help reduce climate change?
Every product we buy has its own carbon footprint, and every step involved in making it adds emissions—from obtaining the natural resources to the manufacturing process to the packaging to the transportation.
That’s where recycling comes in. By collecting and processing materials otherwise destined for the landfill and giving them a second life, we lessen the need to create brand-new materials via things like mining and turning trees into paper, thereby lowering GHG emissions.
According to the latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics, 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in the US in 2018. Out of that, only about 69 million tons—or 23 percent—was recycled.
By processing materials destined for the landfill we lessen the need to create brand-new material.
Of course, recycling is just one of the classic three Rs.
A quick refresher on the so-called waste hierarchy: Reducing and reusing (in that order) always come first. But recycling whatever we can ranks much higher than the bottom rung: sending more trash to the landfill.
How does recycling reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
When you do the math, it’s clear that recycling really matters in our fight against climate change.
Take aluminum, for example. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, about half of all the aluminum produced in the US comes from the recycled kind. That’s a boon for the beverage industry, and for the planet.
The EPA says the environmental impact of recycling aluminum is equivalent to reducing 6.12 metric tonnes of CO2e (MMTCO2e) from the atmosphere—that’s like taking 1.32 million cars off the road for a year.
The environmental impact of recycling aluminum is equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road for a year.
It’s easy to see how when you look upstream in the production process. Producing a ton of aluminum is estimated to create between 12 and 17 tCO2e, according to a recent research paper.
Producing steel from iron ore also has a large carbon footprint, as it requires lots of energy, coal and coke (a processed form of coal). Industry experts estimate that producing one ton of steel from ore in a traditional blast furnace releases 2.05 tons of CO2.
Recycling steel, on the other hand, skips the early steps of production, and it’s done in electric arc furnaces instead. The process emits only about 0.26 tons of CO2 per ton of metal produced. All in all, household steel recycling in the US averts 15.5 million tCO2e—equivalent to taking 3.35 million cars off the road for a year.
Most impactful of all? Paper products make up two-thirds of all that’s recycled in the US, and that’s where we see some of recycling’s largest environmental benefits. Repurposing paper saves us a staggering 155 million tCO2e, to be exact. We’d need to park 33.52 million cars for a whole year to have the same effect.
What should we be recycling?
Recycling availability varies by municipality and region, so it’s always worth double-checking the rules where you live.
That said, this rough guide will help get you started.
Why recycle it: The metal is among one of the most easily recyclable materials—and it can be recycled over and over and over again. Despite this, the EPA says only 0.67 million tons of aluminum ends up being recycled a year. There’s a lot of room to do better: Another 2.7 million tons go to the landfill.
Where you’ll find it: Beverage cans, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging.
How to recycle it: Usually all you need to do is rinse your cans or containers, and toss them in the appropriate bin. If there are any plastic caps, pop them off and discard. Your local recycling facility may also take emptied aerosol shaving cream cans, but since these are pressurized, they’re not always accepted—double check before you try. Metal cookware such as aluminum pots and pans usually can’t be recycled curbside; donate them if they’re in usable condition, or see if a scrap metal processor near you will take them.
Why recycle it: Steel is also readily recyclable, if it doesn’t wind up in the landfill. In the US, less than half of discarded household steel (6.36 million tons) makes it into the recycling system. Another 10.53 million tons are trashed.
In the US, less than half of discarded household steel (6.36 million tons) makes it into the recycling system.
Where you’ll find it: In everything from soup cans to appliances like fridges and washing machines.
How to recycle it: Cans can simply be rinsed and binned; old appliances may need to be carted to the scrap yard. Contact your city or county to find out how best to dispose of large items.
Why recycle it: Glass is not only easy to reprocess but also to reuse. Breweries, for example, can simply sanitize their own beer bottles and refill. Despite this, Americans recycled only around 3 million tons of glass in 2018; another 7.5 million tons ended up in the landfill.
Where you’ll find it: Primarily in bottles and jars.
How to recycle it: Clean glass can usually just go in the blue box. But depending on where you live, there may be a special diversion program for beer bottles. For broken glass, check your local recycling rules; oftentimes it’s considered hazardous to workers and must be treated as garbage, but in some places it can be recycled if safely boxed up and labeled. Larger glass items, like windows, typically require special disposal.
Why recycle it: Recycled paper makes its way back into the world in many forms. Cardboard boxes, paper towels and napkins are often made, in part or in full, with recycled paper. That means fewer trees—nature’s powerful carbon sequesters—need to be cut down for such products.
Where you’ll find it: Office paper, cardboard boxes, packaging, newspapers.
How to recycle it: Paper and cardboard can go right in the bin with little extra effort. But avoid shiny, laminated gift wrap (the coating makes a lot of this paper unrecyclable) and plastic-lined paper such as takeaway coffee cups, and omit anything contaminated with food, such as greasy pizza boxes. (You can, however, rip your pizza box in half and recycle only the clean portion.) If your area accepts composting of food waste, your messy paper takeout containers might be able to go there.
Between 1950 and 2015, only 9 percent of all plastic waste got recycled.
Why recycle it: Between 1950 and 2015, only 9 percent of all plastic waste got recycled, according to a recent stud. Part of the problem is that recycled plastic costs more than making new plastic from petroleum. Even so, recycling what we can is worthwhile. Remember the three Rs and the hierarchy of waste, with garbage at the very bottom? Plastic doesn’t generally biodegrade, so recycling it whenever possible keeps it from accumulating in landfills or, worse, in nature. (Of course, reducing single-use plastics in the first place remains goal number one.)
Where you’ll find it: Packaging, soda bottles, containers.
How to recycle it: Check what’s accepted where you live, and clean the items. Types of plastic that often aren’t accepted include thin plastic wrap, pieces too small for machine sorting (usually under three inches, which means caps are garbage), and any packaging that mixes together different types of plastic (tricky to process). For items you can’t leave curbside, look into TerraCycle, which specializes in hard-to-recycle materials.
Why recycle it: As much as 95 percent of textiles can be recycled. If the items can’t be directly reused, they can be turned into rags, insulation and other products.
A growing number of retailers now take old textiles for recycling.
Where you’ll find it: Clothes, towels, sheets, carpets.
How to recycle it: Depending on the quality and condition of the clothes, you can sell pieces to thrift shops or websites like ThredUP, or donate them to charity. Almost everything else can be recycled (unless it’s wet and mildewed, or stained with something like gasoline), but not in your curbside blue bin. Instead, find out if there’s a textile-specific donation bin in your neighborhood. Alternatively, a growing number of retailers now take old textiles for recycling: The North Face, for example, runs a program called Clothes the Loop and accepts used apparel in any condition, from any brand.
Why is contamination such a big problem for recycling?
Recycling contamination comes in two forms.
The first is residual crud—such as leftover food in jars, or product goop that hasn’t been rinsed away. This can make recycling too difficult to be worth the effort. The second is inadvertently mixing unrecyclable things, often the wrong types of plastic, into the system. “Wishcycling”—popping something in the bin because it looks like it might be recyclable—is more problematic than you might realize.
The problem came to the fore recently when China and other countries stopped accepting plastic from the US and elsewhere. The shipments were contaminated with such a high amount of non-recyclables, entire loads would be sent straight to the landfill.
The problem’s a significant one since there isn’t a great deal of domestic capacity for plastic recycling; much of it is sent abroad.
So, how can you avoid contamination?
First, be diligent about confirming what is and isn’t accepted; it varies depending on where you live. And while it seems counterintuitive, “when in doubt, throw it out” is the best rule of thumb if you’re unsure. Second, make sure what you’re putting in the recycling is clean. Rinse or wash food containers, and follow any other directions given by your local recycling program.
Recycling isn’t a magic bullet, but it remains a useful tool in our efforts to keep materials from going to (literal) waste when they could be recovered and reinvented.
Some diligence about doing it right—a little more thinking inside the box, if you will—will help us make a bigger difference.
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