Recycling Explained: The Truth Behind "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"

Recycling Explained: The Truth Behind

For most of us born after the 1970’s, the mantra “Reduce Reuse Recycle” has been repeated to us since we were small. The idea behind this phrase was to remind us to be conscious of the waste we produce in order to minimize it. Of all the R’s, recycling is a very important step in our waste management system but should only be resorted to after we “reduce” and “reuse.” In order to take steps towards a greener and healthier planet, altogether reducing our consumption and reusing what we already own is paramount. When it comes to recycling, while good intentioned, it does not always yield the intended result. Much of the recycling in the United States ends up in landfills. This is happening for several reasons, some of them are directly within our control.

One of the biggest issues with recycling in the US is contamination. A few contaminated items in a recycling bin can cause the whole thing to end up in a landfill. Contamination comes in the form of dirty or wet recycling, unrecyclable objects, or just the wrong type of recycling. While it seems almost impossible to keep our recycling contamination-free, keeping contamination down to an acceptable amount can be accomplished through some simple education and a little extra effort and attentiveness on our part.

The first step in preventing contamination is simple, recycling needs to be clean and dry. Dump any access liquids down the drain and rinse out your peanut butter jars. If they’re extra sticky, give them a soak with a little squirt of soap and allow them to dry before tossing them into the recycling bin. If you, for example, have paper in your bin, and then you throw a soiled food container on top, that paper will be wet and stained with food waste and is no longer recyclable. Since all your recycling should be kept loose in the bin, not in a plastic bag, this should also encourage you to keep recycling clean and dry.

Most importantly, we need to understand what is actually recyclable and what is not in order to keep contamination at a minimum. This varies from state to state and even from county to county. It’s important to find out the specifics of what is allowed in your area. Generally, the following items are accepted in most US recycling facilities:

  1. Aluminum cans and tins
  2. Plastic #1
  3. Plastic #2
  4. Paper
  5. Cardboard (but not your pizza boxes!)
  6. Glass bottles (although this is becoming more difficult to recycle)

Simply being aware of the different types of plastics will help you cut out a good chunk of recycling contamination. There are 7 types of plastics to look out for. You can tell what kind of plastic is what based on the number inside the chasing arrows. The chasing arrows make up the classic recycling symbol we see on the bottom of plastic containers, but does not always mean that the plastic is recyclable. You have to check out the number before you throw it in the bin. Here are some general guidelines to follow when assessing these types of numbered plastics:

  1. This is the plastic you don’t want to leave in a hot car. Most single-use bottles are made with this plastic.
  2. This is the hard plastic that your laundry detergent comes in.
  3. Shower curtains, vinyl, and vegan leather are most commonly made with this plastic.
  4. Grocery bags and “film” plastics
  5. Most Tupperware containers
  6. Styrofoam
  7. Bioplastics (which are sometimes compostable)

The final culprit in contamination is simply the wrong type of recycling going to the wrong place. Some recyclable materials simply belong in a separate facility and should not be included in your general recycling. For example, plastic film, the kind shopping bags are made from, do not belong in your general recycling but are recyclable. Keep them in a separate bin in your house and then deliver them to the proper facility. Some stores like Target sometimes have a plastic film recycling receptacles outside of their buildings. Just bring your shopping bags back and deposit them there when you’re already taking another trip to the grocery store anyway.

With the education and the attentiveness required to recycle properly, we can reduce our country’s recycling contamination and take steps towards a greener future. Don’t forget to support companies and products made with recycled goods to continue and encourage the cycle.

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