While recycling might seem like one of the simplest things we can do to help 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.
This means that, unfortunately, a surprisingly high number of us aren’t following the guidelines as well as we’d like to think.
But you know as well as we do: 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.
Jump to a section to find out what does (and doesn’t) go into the blue bin:
Why is recycling important?
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.
Does recycling make a difference?
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.
So, what can be recycled?
Recycling availability varies by municipality and region, so it’s always worth double-checking the rules where you live.
That said, this guide will help get you started.
Can I recycle aluminum?
Yes! You can recycle beverage cans, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging.
How to recycle aluminum
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.
Can I recycle a frying pan?
No. 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.
What are the benefits of recycling aluminum?
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.
Can I recycle steel?
Yes, steel is readily recyclable. Find it in everything from soup cans to appliances like fridges and washing machines.
How to recycle steel
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.
Can I recycle glass?
Yes! You recycle glass bottles and jars.
How to recycle glass
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—like Steam Whistle’s Operation Bottle Drive that picks up empty beer bottles in the Greater Toronto Area.
Can I recycle broken glass?
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.
What are the benefits of recycling glass?
Glass is easy to reprocess and 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.
Can I recycle paper?
Yes! Your blue bin will welcome office paper, cardboard boxes, packaging, newspapers.
How to recycle paper
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).
Can I recycle a coffee cup?
No, the coating of a coffee cup makes it non-recyclable. Consider purchasing a reusable coffee cup to cut down on landfill waste.
Can I recycle a pizza box?
No, because it’s been contaminated with food it can’t be recycling. Check to see if your area will compost food waste—your greasy pizza box might be able to go there.
Can I recycle receipts?
Maybe. If a receipt is printed with standard ink, you can recycle it. If it’s made from thermal paper—like the type of slippery paper used for cash register receipts, lottery tickets, and airline tickets—it might be made with BPA, a plastic component. You can check by rubbing the paper with a coin. If it discolours, it's thermal paper and cannot be recycled.
What are the benefits of recycling paper?
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.
Can I recycle plastic?
Yes, you can usually recycle plastic packaging, soda bottles, and containers.
Between 1950 and 2015, only 9 percent of all plastic waste got recycled.
How to recycle plastic
Check what’s accepted where you live, and clean the items. For items you can’t leave curbside, look into TerraCycle, which specializes in hard-to-recycle materials.
What types of plastic can’t be recycled?
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).
Can I recycle black plastic?
If you’re in Canada, probably not. Black plastic doesn’t reflect light so it can’t be seen by the optical scanners that are used in recycling facilities across Canada.
What are the benefits of recycling plastic?
Part of the problem is that recycled plastic costs more than making new plastic from petroleum. Even so, recycling what we can is worthwhile. 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.)
Can I recycle textiles?
Maybe! It’s possible to recycle textiles like clothes, towels, sheets, and carpets.
How to recycle textiles
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 neighbourhood.
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.
What are the benefits of recycling textiles?
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.
The two golden rules of recycling
1. Clean your recyclable items
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.
Rinse or wash food containers, and follow any other directions given by your local recycling program.
2. Avoid “wishcycling”
Inadvertently mixing non-recyclable things, like the wrong types of plastic, into the system because it looks like it might be recyclable—aka “wishcycling”—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.
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.
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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