Sustainable America Blog

3 Golden Rules of Recycling

recycling bins

Photo Credit: timtak via Compfight cc

Recycling programs have been in place for decades, so you’d think we’d all be pros by now. But many of us still hesitate at the recycling bin as we try to figure out what can and cannot be recycled. Which numbers can I recycle? Cap or no cap? What about plastic bags? With so many materials, labels, and rules, it’s no wonder we’re confused. And as more communities begin to add organics collection programs to their recycling services, there’s bound to be an extra layer of confusion around the compost bin.

Luckily, good recycling practices and good composting practices go hand in hand. Here are three simple rules—plus some insight into what happens to your recyclables once they’re dumped in the truck—to set you on the path to being a zero-waste champion!

1. No Plastic Bags!
Ask recycling haulers what they struggle with most, and many will tell you plastic bags. While they can be recycled, plastic bags go through a different process than hard plastics, and they wreak havoc on the zero-sort/single-stream, systems that have become common in many communities. (Zero-sort or single-stream recycling is a system in which all recyclable products (paper, plastics, metals, and glass) are mixed together in one bin by the depositor — instead of being sorted into separate bins — and are then mechanically sorted at the recycling facility.) Thin plastics like bags and film, can tear and get caught in sorting system gears and shut down entire operations causing delays and financial losses. Those that do make it through and get bundled with other recyclable plastics could lead the full load to be discarded. (This short video by Connecticut’s All American Waste provides a quick breakdown of the challenges.)

Plastic bags are equally troublesome to organics haulers. Plastics do not break down in most composting facilities, and where they do break down they negatively alter the chemical composition of the end product, reducing its value for resale. Some composters do accept compostable bags certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), but make sure you check with your compost hauler before use.

So what can you do with those plastic bags? Several national grocery store chains and retailers provide collection bins for plastic bags, as well as other types of plastic films. Visit plasticfilrecycling.org to find a location near you.

2. Know Before You Throw
Educating yourself about what you can and cannot recycle and compost saves hassle, gas and cash for your haulers, and most importantly, reduces environmental waste. More and more recycling haulers are turning to zero-sort/single-stream systems, which has increased the number of items accepted, but variations still exist from community to community. This is driven in part by the resale markets available for collectors to sell their end products, but also by the sorting equipment and storage facilities available to the recycling processer. Here’s a handy guide from Eco Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, but check with your local hauler for locally relevant dos and don’ts.

In the case of composting, differences in what can and cannot be accepted (fruit and vegetables scraps only, or meat, dairy and compostable products, for example) is driven by the type of composting facilities available—aerobic vs. anaerobic, industrial vs. agricultural–and the market available for the processor’s end products—organic versus non-organic compost, for example. When in doubt, ask your provider. It is important to remember that recyclers and composters are more than just “waste haulers.” They are actually product manufacturers that turn your “waste” into valuable products.

3. If You Don’t Know, It’s a No-Throw
While this may seem counterintuitive, putting non-recyclable items into your recycling bin results in significantly more environmental harm than good.

Here’s the scenario…while preparing dinner, you open a package of frozen ravioli. It’s packaged in a plastic container without a recyclable logo, but the plastic seems fairly sturdy. You’re really not sure if it is recyclable or not, but you figure that it must be better to throw it in the recycling bin, assuming that they can sort it out at the facility.

Even though your heart is in the right place, guessing isn’t a good recycling practice. Here’s how that item gets handled on the other end:

Your recyclables get hauled several miles to a processing facility where they will get sorted, bundled, stored, and eventually sold. In zero-sort recycling systems, all recyclable items (paper, 1-7 plastics, glass, and metals) get processed together through large (and very snazzy) automated systems with light sensors, suckers and shakers. Several “pickers” will watch for non-recyclable items as they enter the automated sorting system, grabbing any visible “contaminants.” These non-recyclable items, like your ravioli package, will ideally get picked out of the system and be thrown into a trash bin, which will eventually need to be hauled several more miles to a landfill or incinerator. But if it doesn’t get picked out, it will make its way into the system, causing mechanical issues or leading to rejection of the final bundled load.

These same rules apply to organics collection and composting. Plastic bags, cups and utensils, sanitary waste and other common contaminants force composters to reject and trash otherwise good loads of compostable materials. Alternatively, plastics and other non-compostables that make it into the compost heap contaminate the compost created, reducing its end value.

So as you move toward zero-waste in your home or business remember these three simple rules to ensure the greatest positive return on your efforts!

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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