You've most likely heard the phrase "Reduce, reuse, recycle." The slogan has merit — so long as you're following it in order. That's right: Focusing on reducing and reusing first would take a lot of pressure off of our recycling system, which will help it run more smoothly.
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Big corporations emphasize the wonders of recycling while we're left in the dark about the basic dos and don'ts and what happens after our recyclables are collected. But recycling alone won't put an end to the world's pollution crisis. While recycling is important, our health depends on finding other solutions to combatting waste.
Here's why: Plastic production relies on fossil fuels — like coal, crude oil and natural gas — which strains the environment. The use of fossil fuels harms natural habitats, contaminates drinking water and gives off carbon emissions that contribute to the Earth's rising temperature, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Fossil fuels might also hurt human health: They contribute to air and water pollution and have been linked to higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health consequences, per the NRDC.
How plastic material is cared for when we're done with it is just as important as how it's made. Plastic breaks down over time, but it never fully disappears. Instead, tiny particles, called microplastics, make their way into our oceans, our food and even our drinking water.
We take in an estimated 5 grams of plastic every week, according to conservation organization WWF. That's about the size of a standard credit card. And we're only beginning to uncover the potential risks of having that much plastic in our systems.
While it can feel overwhelming to imagine how you, individually, can help combat the plastics problem, knowing how to properly recycle is an important part. Below, find seven common recycling mistakes — and what you can do to fix them.
1. You Assume All Plastic Materials Can Be Recycled
If only. Less than 9 percent of all plastic gets recycled, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meaning that more than 91 percent of plastic is either burned, buried in landfills or left to pollute the planet.
That's an issue because when plastic isn't recycled, more plastic is produced.
To start, devise a plan to use less plastic in your everyday life, especially when it comes to single-use plastic, which is the kind we use once and then quickly throw away (think: plastic drinking cups and cutlery, water and soda bottles and disposable dental picks).
Then, learn about what can and cannot be recycled to help you keep the (complicated) process as smooth and efficient as possible (more on this below).
2. When In Doubt, You Recycle It
Have you ever tossed an umbrella, a broken electronic or an old plastic toy into the recycling bin thinking "fingers crossed"? This is called "wishcycling," and it's detrimental to recycling facilities.
When something that isn't recyclable ends up in a recycling bin, the whole batch of discarded items is often deemed garbage, so what could have been recycled ends up in landfills, according to Waste Management Inc., a North American waste management company.
For example, while a waste management company may come and collect a broken lampshade, they won't be able to recycle it properly. Instead, the lampshade will "contaminate" what could have been recycled.
"The average contamination rate for materials that we collect in curbside recycling programs has grown to about 25 percent," according to Waste Management. "That means that 500 pounds of every 2,000 pounds that we collect at the curb is ultimately discarded as non-recyclable. This increases the cost of recycling by increasing the cost of sorting materials, transporting and disposing of trash, and also includes the lost value of good recyclables that are ruined due to contamination."
Plain and simple: Stop wishcycling. There are many more responsible ways to get rid of something you no longer want. If the product still works, consider donating it or posting about it in a "Buy Nothing" group online.
You can also do a quick internet search to see if any organizations are working toward reducing waste related to the specific item you're tossing.
Zappos, for example, has a program called Zappos For Good. You can send in old, worn shoes to either be redistributed to those in need or properly recycled. Zappos will even send you a free shipping label. Lego has a similar program: The company accepts all pre-loved Legos, which they will either donate or grind down to make new pieces.
3. You Don't Clean Your Cans and Jars Before Recycling
This one's a big no-no. Dirty recyclables can contaminate a whole batch of recyclables, just like that wishcycled lampshade.
Be sure to wash your jars of marinara sauce and rinse out your cans of beans.
In general, any recyclable material that becomes soiled with food needs to either be washed (and dried) before hitting the recycling bin or thrown out in the regular garbage. While cardboard pizza boxes are recyclable, when they become damp with grease, they're no longer right for the recycling bin.
It can feel weird tossing something you consider recyclable into the trash, but when it's too damaged, soiled or crusty, doing so actually stops you from contaminating other recyclables.
4. You Collect Your Recycling in a Plastic Bag
Plastic shopping bags can rarely be tossed in the same bin as bottles and cans, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. Plastic bags cause big trouble at the recycling facility: They can actually break the equipment by jamming up the gears of the conveyor belt, slowing down the whole process.
It's OK to collect your recyclables in a plastic bag — sometimes it's the most convenient way — just dump the contents into the recycling bin without throwing the bag in, too.
While plastic bags are recyclable, they require a more sensitive system. Different areas have different recycling rules, so you'll want to first look up what your collections service accepts. You can find local recycling information by zip code at BeRecycled.org.
Most often, you'll be able to recycle clean plastic bags at drop-off stations, which are common in the front of grocery stores. Even better would be to cut your reliance on plastic bags.
5. You Recycle Single-Use Coffee Cups
Worldwide, we use an estimated 16 billion disposable coffee cups every year, according to the sustainability organization FoodPrint. Even when they're a natural brown color on the outside, most disposable coffee cups cannot be recycled. This is because they are often lined with a thin layer of plastic to prevent leakage, according to Republic Services, a U.S. recycling service. The mix of plastic and paper in this case is what renders the item garbage.
There are some parts of your single-use coffee run, however, that can be recycled, including the protective cardboard sleeve and the wooden stirrer.
Get yourself a beautiful reusable coffee cup that keeps your coffee piping hot. Even if you like picking up your coffee instead of making it at home, you can save money by choosing to reuse. Many coffee companies offer discounts for bringing your own cup. (You may need to check with your local branch to see if these policies have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic).
Coffee cups are just one of the many items that are commonly mistaken as recyclable. Other items include:
- Plastic straws
- Plastic utensils
- Plastic pumps (like the ones that come with bottles of soap)
- Bubble wrap and packing peanuts
- Anything styrofoam
- Broken glass
- Clothing hangers (bring these to your local dry cleaners to be reused)
- Plastic pill bottles
- Clothing and/or textiles
6. You Don't Check for Certain Recycling Symbols
Most plastic items are stamped with a number inside the triangular recycling symbol. This is known as a recycling code. Each number represents a different plastic material as follows, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation:
Type of Plastic
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Sewage Pipes, Window Frames
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Cling Wrap, Dry Cleaner Bags
Furniture, Bottle Lids
Disposable Cups, Meat Trays, Electronics Packaging
Polycarbonate, BPA and Other Plastics
These numbers don't guarantee an item is recyclable because different recycling facilities have different recycling capabilities. In other words, plastic labeled with the recycling code 3 might be recyclable in one part of the country and considered a contaminant in another.
Before you look for recycling codes, first investigate what your local facility can process by going to BeRecycled.org and searching with your zip code. Then you can check the number on a piece of plastic and make an informed recycling decision.
Plastics labeled 1 and 2 are the most commonly recycled types of plastics, while everything else is more complicated. The best solution is to try to buy fewer plastic products, especially those that are stamped with numbers 3 through 7.
7. You're Not Thinking Outside the Bin
There are plenty of materials we use in our everyday lives that can be tossed in the recycling bin without a second thought, including paper, cardboard, glass and aluminum. But the recycling bin isn't the only tool available to ensure materials get reused rather than tossed for good.
The first step to combatting the pollution problem is to buy less. As much as you can, rely on materials that are both durable and reusable.
When those options aren't available to you, look to organizations and systems that will take back materials for free or properly recycle single-use items for you.
TerraCycle is one popular social enterprise organization that has developed recycling solutions for some of the least likely candidates (like plastic razors). Several producers have teamed up with the group in an attempt to make less waste. This isn't a perfect system, but it's a start.
You can do things like check to see if your favorite skin-care or beauty lines will take back their bottles and compact cases. If they don't, ask them to consider a new policy. The onus has been on consumers for too long to take care of the end of a product's life, but without the proper tools and resources, it's simply not possible.
When companies take responsibility for the waste they produce, big change can happen, and at a much faster rate. Bills like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act demand that polluters pay for the safe and proper disposal of their materials, which could help improve the health of the planet and the populations that inhabit it.
Insist that big corporations finally stand up to the task by voting with your dollars — supporting companies that are working to make a difference — and writing to your representatives about policies you'd like to see.
- Environmental Protection Agency: "Plastics: Material-Specific Data"
- Natural Resources Defense CounciL: "Fossil Fuels: The Dirty Facts"
- Waste Management: "The Dangers of “Wishcycling”"
- Republic Services: "Single-Use Coffee Cups: What's Recyclable?"
- Food Print: "The Massive Impact of Your Takeout Coffee Cup"
- Plastic Soup Foundation: "Recycling Codes"
- CIEL: "Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet"
- WWF: "Could you be eating a credit card a week?"
- Conservation Law Foundation: "We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of the Plastic Pollution Problem"
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