Do you recycle? You know you should, and it may even be the law where you live, but how much of what you could recycle actually winds up in your trash? Recycling reduces waste in our landfills, stops harmful chemicals from leeching into soil and water supplies, and saves a tremendous amount of energy -- and money.
The social implications of recycling are huge, too. The continual mining of raw materials can displace local residents, cause air and noise pollution, and is environmentally and economically unsustainable. All recycling efforts require energy, but it is far less than what is required to manufacture products from all new materials.
So what exactly can you recycle? It often depends on where you live and what sort of facilities your city offers, but here is a general guide:
Did you know that recycling aluminum only uses 5 percent of the energy it takes to create a product from virgin sources? Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely. Today's tuna can is tomorrow's hub cap is next year's soda can! According to Earth911, 54 billion cans were recycled in 2003, saving 15 million barrels of crude oil.
Aluminum recycling drives also earn millions of dollars for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, schools, and Boy and Girl Scouts. Soda cans are the most often recycled product, but don't forget other aluminum items like home siding and lawn furniture, along with aluminum kitchen wrap.
All paper can be recycled one way or another, but your city might not accept all types. Check your municipal website. Whatever they don't accept, you can compost -- just be careful of dyes and glues. Be aware that as paper rots it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so try to recycle as much paper as you can before choosing to biodegrade.
Paper can generally be recycled four or five times before the fibers become too weak to reuse. Most post-consumer paper is mixed with virgin pulp to provide strength. When shopping for computer paper, stationary, journals and even checks, choose those with the highest amount of post-consumer content possible. According to the Energy Information Administration, a paper mill uses 40 percent less energy to produce recycled paper than paper from new pulp. Many mills even use waste product from the recycling process as an energy source!
Phone books, newspapers, office paper, old books, magazine, cardboard, and construction paper are most commonly recycled. Paper products with a waxy finish, like cardboard milk containers or butcher paper, are difficult to recycle, and many facilities do not accept them -- check before tossing them into your bin to avoid contaminating the lot.
Most plastics can be recycled by local facilities. How do you know what to throw in your blue bin? Look at the number. Every plastic item has a special resin code on it that signifies its chemical makeup (noted in a small triangular recycling sign, usually on the bottom). Some cities only accept plastics with specific numbers for recycling, usually 1 and 2, because some types are less cost-effective to recycle than others. Check your city website to make sure. You can also find this information in your local phone book, or even on the lid of your city recyclables collection bin!
TIP: Take the lids off your plastic bottles before recycling. Lids are usually made of a different plastic than the bottles and must be sorted separately. (This goes for glass bottles and jars with metal lids, too.)
Some grocery stores have a collection area for plastic bags. If yours does, use it! If it doesn't, request one. Some stores even offer a discount on your bill if you reuse or return used bags. Your best course of action? Skip both the paper and the plastic bag options and bring your own canvas bag. While this might not be feasible for a big weekly grocery shop, it is perfect for the times you need to pop into the store and just pick up a few things. Reuse your produce bags or skip them all together and place delicate fruits and veggies at the top of your cart.
What about plastics your city won't accept? Donate as much as possible wherever possible. School art classrooms and local art programs might be able to use your cleaned items (such as egg cartons and certain other containers) but make sure you ask before leaving a pile of trash on their doorsteps!
Better yet, don't purchase goods with excess plastic packaging that cannot be recycled. You really don't need your avocadoes pre-sliced and plastic-wrapped. You can take the extra minute to slice it yourself, and benefit from the extra freshness.
TIP: Know what numbers your city accepts and check packaging prior to purchase.
Like aluminum, glass can be recycled indefinitely as long as the mix is not contaminated and weakened. Recycled glass is remade into bottles and jars or road paving material. As mentioned above, make sure you remove lids (usually made of metal or a metal/plastic combination) from glass containers before placing them in your bin.
TIP: Pyrex, laminated and sheet glass can't be recycled. Pyrex kitchenware pretty much lasts forever anyway, so just pass it along to your favorite cook or donate to a soup kitchen. Mirrors usually may not be sent to recycling facilities because of their foil backing, but your local artist's guild might like them (even if they're broken).
Food scraps are biodegradable, but they still take up lots of room in our landfills. Reduce this waste and improve your garden by composting. You can also compost paper soiled with food products, like napkins and paper towels -- just make sure they are dye-and-fragrance-free and were not used with any toxic household cleaners.
Do not toss that old TV, cell phone or computer in the trash. Not only is it a wasteful practice, but it is also illegal in most places. Why? Electronics often contain heavy metals like lead, dioxins, PCBs, cadmium, chromium, radioactive isotopes and mercury -- stuff we definitely don't want hanging around our environment.
Some cities have special collection services for such items, and organizations like PC Disposal can take care of proper disposal and recycling of your equipment while ensuring your personal information is secure.
Better yet, find a way to reuse these items. Donate your old computer to a local school or non-profit job training facilities. Battered women's shelters gladly accept old cell phones so their residents always have a line to safety. Check out Collective Good for some great programs.
Batteries can't be tossed in your regular recycling bin because they contain highly toxic chemicals -- but they shouldn't be tossed into the trash for the very same reason. Many batteries contain heavy metals like lead and mercury that can easily contaminate our drinking water if left to deteriorate in a landfill. What to do?
Each city handles batteries differently, and you should check out your municipal website for specific instructions. But even if your city does not have a battery collection plan, you still have options. Household batteries can be recycled through battery retailers like Batteries Plus.
Using rechargeable batteries reduces waste and energy needed for the manufacture and transport of new product, but these contain even more toxic materials. However, it is extra important that these be recycled and not wind up in landfills.
Car batteries can be recycled at auto shops, and this is normally taken care of for you when you have your battery changed. Computer, PDA and cell phone batteries can be returned to the manufacturer for proper disposal, or to your service provider's store.
Forget about those "refill-at-home" kits. Not only are they incredibly messy, but they use up nearly as much plastic for packaging as would a new cartridge! Cartridges can be recycled so the manufacturer can refill and reuse -- same with toner cartridges. Ecycle Group is one example of a great way to get this done, and make a little cash along the way!
The easiest way to recycle/reuse textiles is to donate your old clothes, towels and bedding to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or another worthy charity. If you choose this route, itemize each piece and get a receipt so you can write off the donation on your taxes.
You could also earn a little cash for yourself. Selling your gently used items on consignment, Craigslist or an internet auction site like eBay is a great way to clear out your closets and make some dough. Keep it local, though -- the energy and emissions created by shipping the items can cancel out the benefits of reusing them. Want to do even more good? Use the money from your sale to purchase carbon credits, offsetting some of the pollutants your car releases into the atmosphere.
Are your fabrics too old or damaged to give away or sell in good conscience? Put them in your rag pile. Rather than using tons of paper towels, reach for one of your rags instead. If you wash them in a load of items you were going to launder anyway, no additional energy will be used. In fact, you'll be saving the energy it takes to manufacture and transport rolls of paper towels!
The name of the game is reuse, reuse, reuse!
- Turn old photographs into postcards or use in a great decoupage project.
- Melt down old wax candles and pour them, layer by layer, into a large glass candle holder to make a rainbow candle.
- Cut off the front of greeting cards for kids' art projects.
- Use carpet remnants (off-cuts or old carpet) as doormats or use as floor mats for your car.
- Have your leather shoes repaired, re-soled and polished instead of tossing them in the trash and buying new ones.
- Label garden plants with old popsicle sticks.
- Invest in several high-quality refillable pens that you can keep forever.
- Donate kids toys to a local daycare center.
- Crayon nubs can be melted down and combined into a giant multi-colored stick instead of tossed, or added to your sewing kit to loosen sticky zippers.
- Frame your favorite calendar pictures, or use parts of them (attached to paper), as a greeting card.
- Use leftover butter or sour cream containers as outdoor water dishes for your pets or see if your child's school would like to use them (perhaps for crayon storage, as plant pots or for an art project).
Before throwing anything in the trash, stop and use your imagination: "What else could I do with this?"
Sites like Craigslist and Freecycle offer a great way to give away or trade your items instead of tossing them. You'll be amazed what you can offload -- and what treasures you can find! Reusing items saves energy, landfill space and money for everyone.
Always check with your municipality to make sure your waste will be accepted. Including "bad" papers or plastics can cause an entire batch of otherwise good recyclables to be tossed in a landfill. Recycling and reusing saves energy, water, money, and the lives of animals. It is the single easiest thing you can do to help save our planet -- no more excuses!
Tips for sustainability:
- Buy the largest package your family can reasonably use. A large tub of butter creates less waste and uses fewer resources to make than several small tubs of butter. Choosing large sizes instead of single servings can save a family of four $2,000 a year in grocery costs. Create your own single servings in reusable, recyclable plastic containers instead.
- Bottled water is the biggest marketing ploy of our time. Not only does most bottled water actually come from municipal water sources -- basically, tap water -- but shipping that tap water from one end of the country to the other and using all those individual plastic bottles is a huge waste. Buy a recycled/recyclable plastic gym bottle and fill it with water yourself.
- Actively seek products packaged in or made of recycled materials and that are easily recycled. This includes aluminum, glass, and plastic numbers one and two.
- Hiring a cloth diaper service will save you on average $600 a year from using disposable diapers -- and save our landfills from all that waste!
- Invest in the highest quality product you can afford. It will last far longer than a cheap item that you will have to replace often, saving you money in the long run and saving the earth the energy it takes to produce multiple items.
- Skip the plastic or Styrofoam coffee mug and bring your own. Get a commuter cup for your car.
To learn more:
- Earth 911 -- Tips on all facets of recycling
- Eco-Labels -- A guide to reading, understanding and comparing labels of "environmentally-friendly" products
- Recylaholics -- Environmental business solutions
- Compost Guide -- A complete guide to composting
- TerraPass -- Learn about and purchase carbon credits
- Freecycle-- Trade the stuff you don't need for the stuff you do
Recycling is actually part three of a triad of environmentally-conscious choices: reduce (the amount of products/packaging you buy), reuse (if it can be used again before it's remanufactured, so much the better), and finally, recycle.