Closing The Loop: What You Can (and Cannot) Recycle

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt confused, overwhelmed, anxious or all of the above when it comes to recycling correctly.

*Raises both hands emphatically*

I’ve lived in city apartments for most of my adult life, and my recycling habits have pretty much been collecting used food containers and boxes and dumping them in the giant bin of my building’s garage marked “RECYCLE” - I knew this probably wasn’t the A+ way of doing things, but I always felt too busy to sit down and get it straight, until now.

Today is World Environment Day and I couldn’t think of a better day to dig into this topic and help my curious eco-comrades out there in the process. After all, our species has discarded more than 8 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s, and if we’re going to bring that number down to zero this century we all need to work just a little bit harder to get our recycling right. After spending a lot of time researching what, how and where to recycle -here is the 4-1-1:

PLASTIC

  • What you can recycle curbside - Most recycling plants accept plastic bottles, tubs, jars and jugs. If the plastic bottle has a plastic lid, keep it attached! If they are separated the lids will get thrown out. NOTE: This does NOT apply to mixed-materials lids (i.e. a plastic jar and metal lid).

  • What needs to be recycled separately - Plastic bags should NOT go into the recycling bin, as they are constantly catching on and clogging machines at recycling facilities, but CAN be collected and returned to most grocery stores for re-use.

  • What you CAN’T - Flexible plastic like chip bags, sandwich bags (re-use em!), candy wrappers or cling wrap, styrofoam (the WORST), bubble wrap, tooth brushes, hair combs, plastic table cloth, plastic pens, flip flops, foam noodles, soiled takeout containers, any paper products lined with plastic (be sure to separate the plastic out when possible)…really just most plastic that isn’t a carrying vessel of some kind. If that leaves you with an upsetting amount of plastic leftover to dump in the landfill - use your voice! Tell the businesses you frequent that you’d prefer if they used more recyclable materials in their packaging.

PAPER

  • What you can recycle - Clean, dry cardboard boxes, newspapers, junk mail, paper grocery bags, wax-lined cardboard like OJ and milk containers (once rinsed out), pizza boxes ONLY if the grease-stained and cheesy bits have been cut away.

  • What needs to be recycled separately - You also cannot recycle shredded paper curbside - try and compost it instead!

  • What you CAN’T - Gift wrap, tissue paper, gift bows and ribbons, paper contaminated with metal, plastic or other materials, wet cardboard (always keep it in the recycle bin to keep it dry), paper contaminated with food and grease stains. As of 2018, China banned the import of 24 materials from US waste facilities, including post-consumer plastic and mixed paper. While it accepts cardboard, it must be only 0.5 percent impure, meaning even the smallest bit of food or rubbish will send it back to landfills.

GLASS

  • What you can recycle - Food and beverage containers including glass bottles and jars are safe to recycle. Remember to de-tach mixed-material lids from glass containers.

  • What needs to be recycled separately - Light bulbs can often be dropped off at your local hardware store to be processed and recycled. They should not be included curbside as they are made with hazardous materials that can contaminate other glass recyclables.

  • What you CAN’T - Glass cookware like pyrex or other heat-resistant glass (i.e. water, wine and other drinking glasses) cannot be recycled with other glass. This is because if a new jar is produced that mixes heat-resistant glass with other glass, the jar will shatter upon cooling. Ceramics are also not recyclable. If you are ready to discard your glass or ceramic cookware, consider using it as a planter or donating it to the local thrift store instead. Window panes are also treated to be temperature and weather-resistant, so these need to go in the trash as well.

METAL

  • What you can recycle - All aluminum is recyclable and can be processed at recycling facilities., just make sure to rinse it free of food contaminants first. When collected it is melted down into material identical to virgin aluminum and can be re-used and re-processed indefinitely! Recycled aluminum saves 80 percent of the energy that was used to make it originally, so it’s important to recycle this metal. Don’t crush aluminum cans and containers as it makes it harder to sort them at recycling facilities. Aluminum foil is recyclable when crushed up into large balls first. Do NOT put other scrap metals like iron, steel or copper in with the rest of your recycling. This can be collected separately and taken to a local collection facility. Many places will even give you a bit of cash for used metals like used electronics, car parts, tools, piping, cables and more.

  • What you CAN’T - Wire clothing hangers, used paint cans with traces of paint, teflon-coated pots and pans, propane gas tanks, batteries and smoke detectors.

I hope this clears things up for some of you, there were certainly some surprising nuggets in there for me. I also came out with three major takeaways:

  1. Rinse your recyclables. You don’t have to get every last bit of peanut butter out of the jar, but a quick rinse will help your friendly neighborhood recycle-man immensely. And remember to de-contaminate any paper before putting it in the recycling by cutting away any grease stains or food bits.

  2. NEVER collect and discard recyclables in a plastic bag. It will immediately be diverted to the landfill. Remember, bring those plastic baggies back to the grocery store whenever possible.

  3. Remember there is no “out” in “throw out.” All that waste has to go somewhere, and will become someone or something else’s problem First we need to reduce what we produce by limiting our consumer habits, then we need to reuse what we already have (i.e. clothes or with things like reusable bags, cups, etc). Only after we’ve done both of these do we turn our attention to properly recycling what is left over.