We all know that recycling can be really confusing: what can be recycled and how should it be recycled? These common questions cause two unwanted things to happen: people improperly recycle and people stop recycling. Both are equally bad. When people incorrectly recycle it contaminates the entire batch of recyclables, causing everything to be tossed into the landfill.
I've compiled a list to help clarify the correct items to recycle and right ways to do it. You can skip down to that list here.
The current recycling rate in the U.S. is 34%. This has barely changed in the past 17 years. (source) In 2013, Americans generated about 245 million tons of trash and only recycled and composted about 87 million tons of it. All the while there are more garbage ending up in our oceans and our landfills are filling up quickly. But recycling is a great solution to those problems, along with several other environmental issues. (source) Recycle Across America provides the following facts that really support why we should recycle:
- Recycling is the top action society can do to simultaneously improve: the environment, the economy, sustainable manufacturing, and to prevent waste from going to oceans.
- When U.S. recycling levels reach 75% it will be the environmental and CO2 equivalent of removing 55 million cars from U.S. roads each year.
- When U.S. recycling levels reach 75% it will generate 1.5 million new jobs in the U.S. (net)
- Manufacturers truly want these material back to reuse in their manufacturing, but they aren’t able to reuse the materials if people don’t recycle right
But it all comes back to that recycling is a pain, so much of a pain that writing this post was extremely hard. My initial plan was to write a comprehensive post about what can be recycled and how it should be recycled. I realized that this goal was almost impossible after looking through tons of recycling websites. Why? Because each town, city, and county has different recycling rules. This makes it especially hard for travelers or full-timers like ourselves when we are constantly in different places. Some recycling centers are good and put up signs listing what is accepted. Sometimes it’s just a large bin with only a recycle symbol on it. The same goes for city websites – some do a wonderful job providing extensive information about recycling locations and what can be recycled, while others don’t include any information.
So as a full-timer, how can you do good by recycling, when you’re not sure what the heck can be recycled?
The #1 rule is if you’re not sure if it can be recycled, then throw it in the trash. As much as it hurts me to say this, the reality is that if you recycle incorrectly you can do more harm than good.
The #2 rule is to make sure all your recyclables are clean and free of food. Plastic, glass, steel containers don't have to be absolutely spotless, but get the majority of the food out of it. Small specks of food still left in the containers is OK, but anything more isn't OK. Also, Paper goods need to be free of food and oil stains.
In an effort to make recycling a bit easier for those who live on the road, I’ve put together lists of items that can always be recycled, can’t ever be recycled, and are hard to recycle depending on your location.
ITEMS THAT CAN BE ALWAYS BE RECYCLED
I haven’t checked with every single recycling company in the country, but from my travels and the research I’ve done online, the following items are almost always accepted. Make it a priority and a point to recycle the items below. There isn't any excuse for them to ever be tossed in the trash.
Aluminum cans are the most widely accepted recyclable material. There's no reason to throw them in the trash. The best thing about aluminum is that it can be recycled and reused infinitely. (source)
How: Don't break off the tabs on aluminum cans because on its own the tab is too small to be sorted by machines at the recycling centers. And don’t crush your cans because it makes them harder to process.
Think soup cans and veggie cans. The way you tell the difference between aluminum and steel/tin cans is that steel/tin cans are magnetic. Similar to aluminum cans, steel/tin/metal cans can be recycled indefinitely. (source)
How: Play it safe and either leave the lid attached to the tin can or place the lid inside the can (squeeze the can shut a bit to prevent the lid from falling out). Loose metal can lids are too small to be properly sorted at recycling centers.
Plastic drink bottles like bottled water and sodas can all be recycled. Plastic products can only be recycled once into the same product. After that a lot of recycled plastic fiber ends up in places like clothing, carpet, furniture, flooring and playgrounds. (source)
How: Whether or not caps are recyclable varies from area to area and is best to visit their recycling website for specific instructions. If you’re not sure if the cap can be recycled at your location, just recycle the plastic bottle and trash the cap.
Paper can be recycled 5 to 7 times before the fibers become too short to be turned into paper again. (source) Office paper, newspaper, envelopes and mail can be recycled. Magazine and glossy papers are accepted by most recycling centers, but not all. So double check with the local recycling center.
How: All paper material must be clean, dry, and free of food and oil stains. Paper envelopes with plastic windows can be recycled with other paper items and the windows don’t need to be removed.
CEREAL BOXES (AKA PAPERBOARD)
Cereal, granola, pasta, and other similar boxes can all be recycled.
How: If the recycling center you go to only has a bin for paper or corrugated boxes, toss cereal boxes in with corrugated boxes.
PAPER TOWEL & TOILET PAPER ROLLS
So often people throw these away! Just like cereal boxes, paper towel and toilet paper rolls can be recycled.
How: Toss them in with the paperboard or cardboard pile to be recycled.
Hard To Recycle
Glass items like beer bottles and pickle jars are hard to recycle because not all places recycle glass. Some towns may recycle it, but only if you bring it directly to a glass recycle center - they can’t be mixed in with curbside pickup. Glass has a very low market value so not a lot of places put the time and energy into accepting it to be recycled. Some recycling centers that do accept it frown upon broken glass (most reference little pieces of glass) because it’s hard on the equipment in sorting facilities and ends up getting mixed in with other material (like paper). So if possible, keep your glass containers whole when you are able to recycle them.
Tip: This is very good reason to buy canned beers versus bottle beers.
Plastic bags can’t be mixed in with other recyclables. They get stuck in recycling machines and cause factories to be closed down for days. But plastic bags are recyclable at the right locations. Most grocery stores, Lowes, Walmarts, and Targets have bins for plastic bags. You can also find the nearest drop off location at Plastic Film Recycling.
Tip: The following clean and dry plastic bags can be recycled wherever plastic bags are accepted:
- Retail, newspaper, dry cleaning, bread, produce, and other bags labeled #2 and #4
- Ziploc food storage bags
- Furniture and electronic wrap
- Plastic cereal box liner (only if it doesn’t tear like paper)
- Plastic shipping envelopes (Tyvek , bubble wrap and air pillows – deflate and remove labels)
- Product wrap (like used on paper towels, toilet paper, diapers, and water bottles)
- Any film packaging or bag that has the How2Recycle Label
CLAMSHELL PLASTIC CONTAINERS
Think take out food containers or the containers you put salad into at a grocery store. A lot of recycling centers don’t accept clamshell containers because they turn flat when crushed and the machines can’t correctly sort them (they end up with paper).
Tip: Bring and use your own Tupperware containers whenever possible.
A lot of recycling centers don’t accept plastic utensils.
Tip: Be like us and leave a set of reusable utensils in your car so it's always available to use instead of plastic utensils.
Most recycling centers require shredded paper to be bagged (in either plastic or paper bag, find out from the local facility).
Packages for shelf stable products like soy milk, juice boxes, soups and stock are not always accepted by recycling centers – even if they do accept milk and juice cartons. Apparently they are made of different material (which is something I just learned).
A lot of recycling centers don’t seem to accept aluminum foil, even if it’s been cleaned of food. Double check with your local recycling center.
Can’t Be Recycled
Pizza boxes are not recyclable unless free of food, grease and the liner paper. That’s the same for any to-go paper food boxes.
Straws are not recyclable. This is a big reason to say no to straws when you go out to eat.
USED PAPER TOWELS & TISSUES
Sure they’re made of paper, but recycling centers don’t accept them. They can be tossed in composting bins.
PLASTIC 6-PACK BEVERAGE RINGS
Since 1989 it is U.S. Federal regulation that all 6-pack rings are made to be 100% photodegradable. (source) This means that the 6-pack rings will break down in sunlight. Look for the diamond shape symbol on the rings that indicates it's photodegradable. According to Ringleader.com these rings will break down in 3-4 weeks time under summer sun. But process will take 3 - 4 months during cloudy weather. Also, supposedly the small broken down pieces are not toxic and act like mulch for plants. This by no means gives the OK to just toss it out in the woods or on the ground! I have more thoughts about beverage rings that I will save for another post.
Tip: It's great that the rings break down in sunlight, but I still highly recommend cutting the rings so they don’t end up entangling and harming wildlife. Do you really want wildlife to wait 3 weeks to 4 months for the rings to break down?
True there are some places that will recycle styrofoam. But those places are so few that it's better to think of styrofoam as being not recyclable. Meaning - try your best not to use anything made of styrofoam. But if you do come across a place that can recycle styrofoam, by all means please do!
Tip: We bring collapsible Tupperware containers with us whenever we go out to eat. This way we don't have to use take-out or even compostable containers.
Do not include compostable products (ex: plant-based plates, utensils and cups) in with your regular recycling because it will contaminate the recycling process. Compostable products can only be processed by a composting facility – whether it’s in your backyard or an industrial facility.
Now the questions is how do you find out what exactly can be recycled at a specific location? A lot of times as you look for a place to recycle, you'll come across the phone number for those recycling centers. Give them a call and ask!
I came across the website Earth911 and got really excited. They offer a "Recycle Search" that includes recycling centers and companies based on a zip code. Phone numbers and websites are often time included in the search results, so it makes it easy to contact the companies for recycling details. Earth911's recycle search results also includes what items are accepted in that zip code, BUT I've found several mistakes and don't recommend you to rely on their information!
I hope this post helps you out the next time you're trying to figure out what can and can't be recycled.