Recycle, reduce, reuse is a phrase you’ve probably heard since you were a kid. Everyone knows they should recycle and that it’s good for the environment, but obstacles exist to disposing of waste correctly and what happens after disposal is complicated. Although recycling rates have increased over the years, it’s estimated that each American still generates ~5 pounds of trash per day, recycling or composting 1.5 pounds or ~30% of that. Here are 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Recycling:
1. The numbers on plastics don’t tell you if it’s recyclable. The small number within a triangle of arrows is the resin identification code, identifying what type of plastic it is. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t exactly tell us if it’s a plastic that is recyclable or not because different facilities are equipped to accept and process different numbers and there is variation in what is recyclable even within the same code.
2. The How2Recycle label helps. The How2Recycle initiative from the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has developed standardized product labels that communicate helpful information on how to dispose of items properly. Member companies adopt the standardized labels for their products and include large companies such as Wal-Mart, Nestle, and Target. The label is being adopted on all sorts of products so keep an eye out!
3. Where you live really determines what’s “recyclable”. We often get questions about whether a specific item is recyclable or not. What it boils down to is who picks up your waste (i.e., your hauler, your city) and what technologies their related processing facilities are equipped with to process or recycle in a cost-effective manner. Where you live also determines your options for drop off recycling, including for items such as electronics, batteries, and plastic bags.
4. There are some general recycling rules. Shiny metallic wrappers (e.g., chip bags,
candy and protein bars) are not usually accepted for recycling. Rigid plastic is more likely to be recycled than thin plastic film, and items that are a mix of different materials are less likely to be recycled because they are tricky to separate. For example, soy milk and juice containers are a mix of paper, plastic, and aluminum so are recycled in some cities and not others. Bioplastics, which are made from at least some plant-based material, aren’t recyclable and are only compostable when they say “compostable”.
5. Packaging is particularly problematic. Packaging and containers make up 30% of the waste Americans send to the landfill, but only 15% of that is recycled. Much of this packaging is thin plastic film, which may or may not be accepted for recycling by your hauler or city but can usually be dropped off at your local grocery store along with plastic bags. Companies have been committing to more recyclable packaging, which sounds great but doesn’t solve the issue. What can you do? Try to buy products with less or no packaging.
6. Cities struggle with contaminated recycling bins. Waste is confusing so it’s not surprising that items are placed in the wrong bins. However, there are cost and safety concerns associated with contamination so cities are employing various strategies to address it. Some commonly misplaced or particularly problematic items include plastic bags, clothing/textiles, and computer cords.
7. Most cities have recycling goals. Most cities have goals to increase their “diversion” rates, which means the percentage of incoming waste diverted from the landfill to compost or recycling. Some of these goals are quite ambitious too: San Francisco aims to send no waste to landfills by 2020 and NYC by 2030. Meeting these goals will require a dedicated effort by many individuals and organizations.
8. We need better recycling capabilities. The U.S. is among the countries that have been sending items for recycling to China for years. Starting in 2018, China significantly reduced the amount of material they’ll accept as well as tightened standards for quality (i.e., less contamination). This shift, although difficult in the short run, provides extra support for haulers, cities, and others to invest in new recycling technology and better processes. Organizations such as The Closed Loop Fund and The Recycling Partnership are helping to unite strategies and funds.
9. Recycling is the least preferred of the 3Rs. In terms of what’s more sustainable, recycling actually comes in last out of the 3Rs. It’s better to avoid creating waste, which is tied to what we purchase and consume (reduce). Even if items can be recycled, it’s still better to use them for as long as possible (reuse) before disposal. If the recyclable item can’t be reused or is at the end of its useful life, then recycle. Recycling uses much less energy and other resources compared to using virgin material (i.e., 95% less energy to create a can from recycled material), but it does still require energy and other resources.
10. You can step it up! Buying products made from recycled material helps support the market for recycling (aka supply and demand). To figure out what items are recycled in your area, check out the websites for your waste hauler, city, or other organization taking on waste in your area. If you live in San Francisco or Berkeley, check out the Resourceful app, which we are collaborating on to help sort waste and learn about sustainable alternatives. More cities to come!