Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Recycling comes last!

Recycle License Plate

When someone mentions ‘going green’ the first thing that comes to my mind is recycling. Back in the day, this was one of the first measures I took in my home as a conscious effort to reduce landfills and protect resources. In the process of greening my home, I ran into a bunch of issues I needed answers for. So upon further investigation, here I share with you some helpful tips regarding recycling protocol.

First things first: Get familiar with the recycling policy in your area. Your town/city has a website (they all do), and here you look for the Department of Public Works section which will likely list what they accept – which plastic numbers they accept, and how things can be mixed. For instance, in our town we can mix glass, plastics and aluminum cans. Paper needs to be separated.

What is recycling?: Recycling is the reconversion of waste into a material of equal value to the original. Contrast with ‘downcycling’, the conversion to a material of lesser value. The term ‘upcycling’ is not a technical term, but used to describe the conversion of something into one of higher value. Upcycling is a term used in fashion to describe an item of clothing that is made from utilitarian items.

What is recyclable?: we may not think of it that way, but almost all organic matter is fully recyclable -- it decomposes back into compost, from which new matter grows. And the only energy that used is the light from the sun. Even organic fashion. You can actually compost those old organic cotton shirts!

Here are some helpful recycling tidbits I learned along the way:

  • What paper can you recycle? – Generally, all ‘clean’ paper can be sent for recycling. Magazines, newspapers, junkmail, cardboard, egg cartons. Coated cardboard can be processed by modern paper recycling equipment, within certain limits.  Again, follow the directions of your town – if they tell you not to mix it with paper, that may be because they still use older equipment which cannot handle it well. Also, it only makes sense when the paper-to-plastic ratio is fairly high, i.e. a thin coat of plastic on a lot of cardboard, not vice versa.  Those milk containers, for example, are not recyclable.
  • Rinse your plastics. The washing is really just a courtesy to the people who sort the stuff by hand.  There may be substantial time between putting it in the trashcan and it being handled at the sorting facility, so there is good potential for mold and odors to form. Since only plastic is sorted by hand, no need to wash metal or glass.
  • All glass can be recycled. Clear, Green and Brown. Wine and beer.
  • While paper is biodegradable, it needs air to decompose. If you throw paper into the regular trash it goes into a sealed landfill – and takes much longer to decompose, and releases gases into the environment in the process. Paper should be recycled.
  • Remove plastic tops off of water bottles, as they are usually a different type of plastic from the body of the bottle and should be separated.
  • There are many things that cannot be recycled. These fall into the “Hazardous Waste” category, like batteries, drugs, electronics, aerosol cans, etc. Your City/town will have lists of what is considered Hazardous Waste, and list special pick up days for these items, and list drop off locations where you can dispose of these without them leaching into the earth and contaminating our water supply.

Remember, the term is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Recycle comes last in the list. Recycling materials like glass, steel and paper can be reprocessed fairly efficiently, however a substantial amount of energy is needed to do so. While this is still worth doing, don't kid yourself that there is no impact on the environment just because you recycle. Recycling of synthetic products, like plastics, is possible, but it is typically a complicated chemical process to break down and recompose these materials, and it is often uneconomical. Often made out of hydrocarbons (oil), this stuff burns well, and burning it to replace oil is often more economical than full recycling.

Even though most plastics nowadays carry a recycling label, truly recycling mixed plastics just isn't happening yet. The biggest culprit in producing plastic waste is packaging, in particular food packaging. In the supermarket, everything comes pre-packaged in plastic. If you can, buy in bulk, or at the local farmers' market where you carry your own shopping bags. Also keep in mind that what you can never recover is the impact from shipping a product around the whole world. What can you do:

  1. Compost your organic matter. Not mixing that into the municipal waste stream makes a huge impact.
  2. Be diligent about separating paper, glass, metal from Municipal Solid Waste. The recycling of these materials makes ecologic as well as economic sense and is technologically pretty straightforward, so it's widely done.
  3. Avoid plastic packaging for everyday items as much as possible.
  4. Buy local.
But most important, reduce and reuse before you recycle!