How to Recycle Like a Responsible Human

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There’s a tremendous amount of confusion when it comes to how to recycle paper, plastics, metals and other mixed items that are less clear.

Obviously limiting single use waste is ideal, but not always possible the way our grocery stores function these days. The next best thing is making sure you dispose of that waste responsibly…ideally saving it from becoming waste in the first place.

When you live in a building in NYC you get to know the recycling habits of your neighbors because you share a bin. So I can see first-hand the random toys, greasy pizza boxes, and plastic bags that get dumped there when they should really be in the trash. Most people are good neighbors, but terrible recyclers.

Unfortunately, your own guilt is not reason enough to put something in the recycling bin. Doing so, can actually contaminate the whole batch. So be a good human and do your homework. RULE OF THUMB #1 is: WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT.

To help me compile this comprehensive guide to recycling, I’ve got Shannon Bergstrom chiming in with her expertise. She is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor and writer for Zero Waste.

Read on for all you need to know about six of the most common types of household waste and how to recycle (or throw them out) responsibly.

With health and hedonism,


1. Paper and Cardboard

In the US alone, paper made up 25% of all municipal solid waste generated in 2017 — more than any other material. The good news is that paper also had the highest recycling rate compared to all other materials: 65.9%.

Recycled paper can be used to create new paper products. It also helps save trees and valuable natural resources. What’s more, every ton of recycled paper frees up 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space.

What to Recycle?

  • Office and printing paper
  • Mail and envelopes
  • Newspapers, magazines, catalogs, and advertising inserts
  • Dry food packaging such as cereal boxes
  • Frozen food packaging
  • Non-greasy pizza boxes
  • Shoe boxes
  • Tissue boxes
  • Paper bags
  • Paper towel and toilet paper rolls
  • Soapboxes and cosmetic packaging
  • Corrugated cardboard

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Break down cardboard boxes and flatten cartons. That makes them easier to handle and saves space.
  • Make sure your paper waste is not contaminated by liquids, food, or other waste. A single contaminated item can compromise the whole batch. That means no greasy pizza boxes! Cut off the top or sides of the box – where there is no grease – if you want to recycle.
  • Remove plastic windows and bubble wrap from envelopes and other packaging. Mixed materials cannot be recycled.
  • Unfortunately, shiny or laminated gift wrap is not recyclable. Therefore, it’s best to opt for decorative gift boxes that do not require wrapping and can be reused multiple times or wrapping with alternatives like kraft paper. For more tips on how to find eco-wrap or low waste gifting, click here.

2. Glass

Glass be recycled practically infinitely and without any loss in quality and purity. What’s more, using recycled glass can help manufacturers cut back on energy costs, which drop by 2–3% for every 10% of glass cullet used in the production process.

Every ton of recycled glass saves more than one ton of natural resources such as sand, limestone, soda ash, and feldspar. In addition, every six tons of recycled glass used in the manufacturing process help reduce greenhouse carbon dioxide emissions by one ton.

That said, not every municipality recycles glass, so make sure to know the rules of your local curbside program.

What to Recycle?

  • Bottles
  • Jars
  • Food containers
  • Cosmetic packaging

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Always empty out, rinse, and dry glass bottles and containers before disposing of them. Never leave more than a teaspoon of liquid in a recyclable, or you risk contaminating the whole truckload.

3. Aluminum

Aluminum is yet another material that is infinitely recyclable. But there’s more: recycling a single can requires a mere 5% of the energy it takes to make a new one and emits 95% less greenhouse gases.

What to Recycle?

  • Drink cans
  • Aluminum foil
  • Aerosol cans
  • Beverage cans
  • Pet food cans
  • Cookware

Do’s and Don’ts

  • In addition to standard community recycling programs, some states have aluminum buy-back centers or stores where you can return your empty cans and get a deposit refund.
  • Some cans have an insulated coating, which is not always recyclable. Be sure to check your local regulations.
  • Remove paper or plastic labels, clean out any food residue, and dry cans before recycling them.

4. Plastics

US households and businesses generated more than 35 million tons of plastics in 2018, which amounted to some 12% of the waste stream. However, only 8.5% of those plastics were recycled.

One reason for the relatively low recycling rate is the fact that not all plastics are made equal, and some are more recyclable than others. To find out what kind of plastic you are dealing with, check the little triangle symbol on the bottom of the container. The number inside the triangle indicates the type of plastic. That will help you find out if the item can be accepted by your local curbside program.

We recommend you first check with your municipal recycling requirements to find out what you can and cannot include in your recycling bin.

The most commonly recycled plastics are #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastics. They are the most widely accepted plastics across the country’s curbside recycling programs. #1 plastics are typically your water bottles and household cleaner plastic bottles. #2 plastics are your detergent bottles, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, etc. Occasionally you will find soft plastics – flimsy film or plastic bags – with the #2 symbol. These need to be disposed of separately. More on this below.

#5 Plastic is accepted in some not all curbside programs. A common #5 plastic would be your yogurt containers.

#3, #4, #6 and #7 plastics are generally not accepted in curbside recycling programs across the US.

#4 plastic are most commonly your film plastics. Think plastic food wrapping, shrink wrap, soft plastic wrapping on products, etc. Soft plastics are not recyclable in curbside recycling programs. Sometimes these will also be labeled #2 depending on the item, so use your judgement. Anything that is clear film or flexible plastic – like a shopping bag, or something that can be scrunched into a ball – is considered soft plastic.

Luckily, there are still ways to recycle soft plastic. In New York State (and many others), large retailers are required by law to recycle soft plastic bags and film plastic. You can save your plastic grocery bags, mailer sleeves, non-food soiled plastic wrapping, and sleeves and bring them into a location here. This also includes newspaper bags, dry cleaning plastic, and thin plastic film from notecards, tea boxes, pre-packaged cheese, household items, and juice packs. No doubt many other states also have similar options. It’s worth checking out.

Since soft plastics are pliable, they take up very little room. You can keep a separate bag or container to collect soft plastic and take them once every few months to a retailer or drop-off location.

There are very few recyclers of #6 plastic in the US. Generally the recyclers of #6 plastic will require that the #6 plastic is collected completely separate from all other recyclable materials.

#7 Plastic is everything else. #7 plastic includes nylon, fiberglass and PLA materials which is the common material used to make your biodegradable cups.

What to Recycle?

  • Hard plastic containers: milk jugs, water bottles, milk jugs, detergent and cosmetic containers
  • Flexible/soft plastics: grocery bags, cling film, bubble wrap, dry cleaning bags, bread bags, sealable plastic food bags, flexible plastic wraps on cotton balls, paper towels, bathroom tissue, cases of soda, and more. NB: These cannot be recycled with other plastics as part of your community recycling program. Look for special containers for flexible plastics in grocery stores or recycling collection centers.
  • Polystyrene foam: drink cups, food packaging, take-out containers, coolers, building insulation. This will also not be part of your curbside program, but you can find a drop-off below.

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Lids and bottle caps are too small to be recycled on their own, so be sure to leave them on the containers.
  • Most community recycling programs do not accept flexible plastic such as retail bags and cling film. However, you may be able to return plastic bags to dedicated receptacles at grocery and retail stores. Just make sure not to return biodegradable bags – these are usually green and missing a # on the bottom.
  • Polystyrene foam (Plastic #6) is now widely recycled. There are currently more than 200 drop-off locations across the country. Click here to check if there is one in your area.
  • While PP or Plastic #5 traditionally hasn’t been included in curbside recycling programs, it is now becoming more widely recyclable. In addition, a number of manufacturers offer mail-in or drop-off programs for PP. For more information, check out this recycling database.

5. Electronics

Recycling or reusing electronic equipment prevents valuable and potentially materials from entering the waste stream.

Check if you can return your recyclables to the retailer or manufacturer or look up e-scrap collection points in your area.

What to Recycle?

  • Monitors
  • Printers and copiers
  • Hard drives
  • Cell phones and tablets
  • Digital cameras
  • Hard drives
  • Keyboards
  • Ink and toner cartridges

Do’s and Don’ts

6. Hazardous Household Waste

Products that contain toxic, ignitable, corrosive, or reactive ingredients require special care when disposing of them. Hazardous household waste can be dangerous and even fatal to both people and animals and are bad for the environment. Do not throw them out with regular trash, pour them down the drain, or dumped on the ground.

Instead, check what regulations apply in your community and look for special collection events or collection centers. Sometimes retailers and manufacturers may also accept them for recycling.

What to Recycle?

  • Oils
  • Paints
  • Cleaning products
  • Batteries
  • Pesticides

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Try to minimize the use of hazardous products by replacing them with more environmentally friendly alternatives.

The Bottom Line

Recycling is essential. However, we often forget that it is only the third and last element in “reduce, reuse, recycle.” To minimize your environmental impact and reduce your carbon footprint, consider incorporating some best practices from the zero waste movement into your lifestyle.

If this all sounds very confusing, there are alternatives for limiting your carbon footprint. Terracycle offers Zero Waste boxes where you can put all your difficult to recycle items – soft plastic, electronics, foam, etc. – and they will dispose of them responsibly. They also offer specialty boxes, like an all plastic packaging box, at a more affordable price. This is a small way to do your part.

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.



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