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How does Recycling Work? 10 Examples for Getting it Right

How does Recycling Work? 10 Examples for Getting it Right

When we recycle, we can accidentally do more harm than good. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)estimates 75 percent of the waste in the American waste stream can be either recycled or composted; and yet, this majority ends up in landfills. In fact, we are only recycling or composting a mere 34 percent of what could be taken care of in more sustainable ways.

The truth is, most Americans know that recycling is important, but do not even understand how recycling works. People try to do something good, but ultimately recycle incorrectly.

Although the intent is there, uneducated recycling does nothing to cut back on waste. A whopping 79 percent ofmetric tons of plastic waste ends up in either landfills or natural areas like oceans.

If this keeps up, our landfills will collect12 billion metric tons of plastic by 2050. In just 30 years, many of us will still be here to see this ugly pile up unfold. Or, we can learn how to fix itnow.

Have you been recycling incorrectly all your life? Well, don't worry because it is never too late to learn the correct way.

Learn how to recycle right with 10 examples. Along the way, you'll learn how recycling actually works.

Greasy pizza boxes

News flash: You have probably been recycling pizza boxes wrong your entire life. Even if a greasy pizza box is recycled, it will be redirected to the landfill. The grease on the box actually contaminates the cardboard, rendering it useless, even if it were to go through with the recycling process.

The oil that seeps into the cardboard cannot be separated from the cardboard fiber itself. In layman’s terms, it ruins the material, so even if it is recycled, buyers likely will not want it.

That being said, there is a correct way to recycle pizza boxes. If one side of the box is not wrecked with grease, congrats! That side can be recycled properly. If the other side is too oily, tear it off and separate it. Unfortunately, the oily side goes to the landfill. The non-oily side gets to be reincarnated.

There is one alternative, though. Oily cardboard pizza boxes do not necessarily have to be sent to the landfill. If you have an at-home composting system or are enrolled in a community composting program, you could opt to compost your oily pizza box.

Generally, composting is a better alternative to recycling, as it makes organic matter fully break down into soil.

Take-out containers with food residue

The same way pizza boxes contaminated with grease cannot be recycled, take-out containers contaminated with oil and other food residue face the same problem.

In most cases, containers and other recyclable materials need to be cleaned before they can be sent off into the recycling stream. Plastic containers are one such material.

Before throwing take-out containers into the right recycling bin, make sure to remove any remnants of food or liquid. If you do not clean a container before recycling it, recycling it is mute. It will end up at the landfill anyway.

Coffee cups made of mixed materials

Sadly, there might be no ideal way to recycle a single-use coffee cup. These cups often contain a thin layer of plastic coating inside, even if they are technically “paper cups.” This makes the cups unable to be recycled as plastic or paper. Most often, they just end up in the trash and if you attempt to recycle them, they will still make their way to the landfill. Same goes for coffee cup lids made from super low-quality plastic.

If you are attempting to recycle your single-use coffee cup at all, you are doing it wrong. The best way to forgo sending coffee cups to the landfill is to invest in a reusable one.Shop our Cruiser Tumblers for a burst of color and style.  

Contamination in the bin

Avoiding contamination in a recycling stream is difficult, but you have the most control over avoiding contamination when all your recycling is still in the bin.

Before the trucks come to pick up your recycling, make sure only the correct items that can be recycled are in the bin.

A receipt that is coated in plastic, a dirty can, broken glass, or even a #5 plastic bottle can spoil an entire bin of recycling. Take extra care to make sure these items do not cross-contaminate. Once they are cross-contaminated, they are unable to be recycled and end up either at the landfill or at the mercy of incinerators.

Plastic bags full of recyclables

Big no-no. As much as we may like to think that single-use plastic bags can be recycled along with other recyclable plastics, this is not the case.

Some people fill single-use plastic bags with recyclable items like plastic bottles or containers. This may seem like a good way to keep your recyclables organized, but the plastic bags themselves cause lots of problems during the recycling process. They are super light-weight, so they can simply blow away, ending up in our waterways anyway, but they also jam up recycling equipment and contaminate paper bales.

If you want to get rid of your single-use plastic bags, check out your local recycling program. Some grocery stores will take them back, no matter the brand. Other recycling programs may offer drop-off options exclusively for plastic bags.

Recycling broken glass

Broken glassshould not be put into the recycling bin. Even if it is put into the correct bin. It poses a hazard to the workers who sort the recyclables and can be very dangerous.

The correct way to discard broken glass is to tightly wrap it in layers of newspaper, then gently place it in the trash bin.

Avoiding plastic bottle caps

It is 2019—we can recycle plastic bottle caps now. While it used to be an issue in the past, we no longer have to de-cap our plastic bottles before throwing them in the recycling bin. As time has progressed, recycling technology has evolved and caps can now be a part of the process.

According to theAssociation of Plastic Recyclers, the official policy is “caps on.” To correctly recycle a bottle cap, do not remove it from its bottle. Separating bottles from their caps can cause an issue on the mechanical sorting line or might be difficult for recycling-sorters to spot and sort. In that case, they may just end up in the landfill (or our waterways) anyway.

Throwing styrofoam into the mix

Maybe you heard that styrofoam is the next un-sustainable single-use material to go. Cities like New York have announcedstyrofoam bans in the wake of the success of similar bans—like the plastic bag ban of 2018.

Styrofoam is the next target because it does not biodegrade and it cannot be recycled. If you are attempting to recycle styrofoam cups, containers, packing peanuts, bowls, or plates, you are doing it wrong. Styrofoam cannot be recycled.

If you cannot avoid styrofoam, then the proper way to discard it is to throw it in the trash. Moving forward, avoiding styrofoam is a more eco-friendly, sustainable choice.

Shredding paper

Somewhere along the way in recycling history, a myth developed that paper should be shredded in order to be recycled. It is not technically untrue, but there is a caveat.

Paper has grades. Certain papers like letterhead and printer paper are a higher grade, but when they are shredded, the grade lowers to mixed. There are several factors that go into determining a paper’s grade, but one of them is the length of the paper fiber. Since recycling facilities have to further sort paper by grade, shredding the paper causes difficulty for sorters.

While mixed grade paper is acceptable to some recycling centers, others will not take shredded paper or will only take it if it reaches a certain length. As a general rule, curbside programs that do not accept plastic bags likely do not accept shredded paper either.

If you have already shredded your paper, trycomposting it.

Recycling toothpaste tubes

Sure, they are made of plastic, but toothpaste tubes and other oral care tools like toothbrushes cannot be recycled.

In order to properly recycle either your tubes or toothbrushes, you will need to enroll in a recycling program specifically made for oral care tools. Colgate recently partnered with recycling programTerraCycle, so you can send TerraCycle used toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and even floss containers. TerraCycle will then make sure each of these items sees the proper recycling treatment.

If your toothpaste tube is made from a material that is not plastic — like glass, metal or tin, these are generally recyclable in the traditional way. Also note that if you have a toothbrush made of bamboo, it is compostable as long as it is plastic-free. Alternatively, it can also be upcycled. Most bamboo toothbrushes, though, require the additional step of removing the bristles before composting.

What do you do with the bristles? You can pull them off with pliers or snap the entire toothbrush head off. Because the bristles are likely plastic, you can sort them into your plastic recycling by putting them inside another plastic item like a single-use plastic baggie or bottle.

If the bristles are made fromplant-based matter like tapioca, castor bean oil, or corn, then they may be added to your at-home compost. Make sure to confirm the bristles’ material, so that you can recycle or dispose of them properly.


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Less is more when it comes to plastic. But recycling can help. Share this blog post with your friends on Facebook or Twitter for an even greater impact.

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