Earth Day Recycling Guide

Woman holds a bag of recycling.

Photo by Greta Hoffman from Pexels

Breaking It Down… So Your Trash Can Be Broken Down

Recycling has been a large-scale narrative in the United States since the seventies, and as the years continue, the scope only continues to widen. There is no shortage of advertisements, public service announcements, awareness initiatives, eco-movements, private companies, and non-profit organizations pushing people all over the world to recycle. However, it seems the most prevalent perspective where I live— Dallas, Texas—is that there is no point. In fact, this is what I hear the most often…

“Why bother recycling? It’ll all go to the landfill anyway.” *

*And its variations.

This exact sentiment that I’m going to challenge today, and I will challenge it with this rebuttal…

“It will all go to the landfill if you’re recycling wrong.”

The fact of the matter is that, even though over forty years have passed since the first recycling initiatives began, many Americans still don’t know how to recycle the right way. There are rules— hard, fast, non-negotiable rules. And what happens when they aren’t followed? Tons of perfectly viable recycling materials are contaminated and redirected to rot or burn in garbage heaps.

So, what can ‘contaminate’ a batch of recycling? The contaminants that consumers can help control are things like food waste, chemical residue, oil/grease, paints, pesticides, or simply putting things that aren’t recyclable in the recycling bin (yes, people actually try to recycle used diapers…).

What Can Be Recycled?

Here are the basics…

  • Paper = newspaper, magazines, notebook paper, cardboard boxes (flattened), paper board, junk mail, sticky notes, and other such paper products can be recycled.
    • NOT ALL PAPER CAN BE RECYCLED. For example, store receipts are printed on special paper that makes it difficult to reprocess, so trash them or go paperless instead. Coated paper products such as food takeout containers also cannot be recycled. Mail or food boxes with plastic windows need to have the plastic removed before being recycled, and anything with grease stains is a no-go.
  • Metal = food and drink cans and aluminum foil can be recycled from home; razor blades, pots, pans, wire, certain appliances, car parts, and recreational equipment like bikes can be recycled at a local scrapyard or under certain guidelines.
    • NOT ALL METALS CAN BE RECYCLED, BUT THE METALS THAT ARE ARE INFINITELY RECYCLABLE. That shiny, shape-retaining metal-plastic hybrid material that makes up things like chip bags, juice pouches, snack cake bags, certain mailers, etc. can’t be recycled. On the other hand, things like aerosol, oil, and paint cans can be recycled, but only if they are spotless, empty, and dry. However, taking the time to clean and dry your metal cans before putting them in the bin is a worthwhile effort. Metals are infinitely recyclable, meaning that they can be fired up, remolded, and reused endlessly without losing quality. Metal’s ability to be reprocessed makes it very valuable to manufacturers even after breaking down and remolding, so the next time you think about tossing your soda can, think again! Rinsing it and recycling it can do a lot of good by keeping raw materials in the ground and out of the supply chain.
    • If you’re interested on learning more, check out more info on metal recycling here and here.
  • Glass = wine bottles, mason jars, old vases, glass panels on appliances and inside electronics.
      • Like metal, GLASS IS INFINITELY RECYCLABLE. It doesn’t lose its quality as it’s reprocessed, so it can be used again and again and again. Sadly, you can’t always recycle glass at home, so you may need to go out of your way to drop off your clean jars and bottles at a special location.
  • Plastic = milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, soda bottles, Tupperware, shampoo and conditioner bottles, sports drink bottles, cosmetic containers, etc.
    • NOT ALL PLASTIC CAN BE RECYCLED. Before throwing your plastic container in the blue bin, take a good ole gander at the numbered triangular symbol printed on the bottom. The number indicates the type of resin that the plastic is made of. If it’s a 1 or a 2, it means that the plastic is safe to be rinsed and recycled. Any other number requires special handling at material recovery facilities and/or cannot be reprocessed safely. 3-7, trash it!

How Should I Recycle?

First and foremost, when you recycle, you should keep in mind that your recycling will be handled by hardworking people in a matter of days. Most recycling plants will have automated parts of the sorting process to help with processing speed, but at some point, human eyes and hands will be forced to come face-to-face with whatever you throw in your recycling bin.

Would you like to handle someone’s milk container after all the residue has curdled? No, you wouldn’t (I have done this and let me tell you… that leftover milk film can be smelled from across the room). There are no bleach baths or high-power rinses or scrubbers at recycling plants. Your recycling will never be cleaner than right after you put it in the bin. So RINSE. YOUR. RECYCLABLES. It’s more considerate to recycling plant employees and prevents batch contamination. Food waste and chemical residues are hazardous, and if a contaminant is detected, it’s faster and cheaper to send the entire conveyor of recycling to the landfill than to stop production, find and eradicate the contaminant, and sanitize everything it’s come in contact with.

Also, if you wanna be really good, dry your clean recyclables before slotting them in the recycle bin. This also helps prevent contamination. Drippage, and all that.

End point: Be considerate. Keep it clean.

Happy Earth Day! 🙂

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About Cristin Dickey

Born in Maryland, raised in Texas, and educated in Utah, Cristin is a purveyor of stories from all widths and walks of life.  With a background in filmmaking and a staunch passion for literature, she aspires to give digital spaces a uniquely human touch.

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