5 Secrets You Didn’t Know About Recycling

The do’s and don’t’s that are costing everyone

Several years ago I visited a municipal recycling facility in Vermont. Now, given this field trip took place in a state known for being green, it likely looked a lot different than many other plants of its kind. However, the processes behind retrieving, sorting, and transporting materials to be recycled do not vary from place to place. And even in a pristine place like Vermont, the same problems with recycling arise across the board.

The plant is a massive waste factory. Although the concept of recycling is in itself environmentally friendly, paper doesn’t just turn into new paper once you toss it in the blue bin. Before it is reprocessed, that paper – or plastic, or glass, or aluminum – has to be broken down into its original fibers.  The idea behind recycling is that the raw, non-renewable materials used to make the original product need not be extracted again to make the same, or similar – or sometimes completely different – product. However, that doesn’t mean the product is intended to look second hand, nor is it okay if it does. If the products looked this way manufacturers would never opt to use recycled materials because the product would never sell – it just wouldn’t.

Recycling does have its flaws; it is expensive to collect and transport, it uses up energy to sort, clean, and dismantle materials, and there is no universal list for what can and cannot be recycled. But, again, it does prevent the extraction of scarce resources and promotes conscious living. If everyone recycled, and properly, opposition to the system would be silenced. However, haphazard recycling practices actually cost facilities more in tax dollars and in costs to the environment. Think of all the energy that goes into just sorting the paper and plastic when tossed in the same bag, never mind if the bag is contaminated with a non-recyclable waste item. And I can tell you, even Vermont facilities don’t do this task by hand – it’s all conveyor belts and switches.

By choosing to recycle, and doing so properly, you can ensure that less energy goes into preparing recycled materials for their next purpose, making the process worthwhile rather than a hypocrisy, as some naysayers claim it is.

  1. Collect recycling in a clear plastic bag, especially if you live in a city where bins aren’t labeled or bags are left along the side of the street.
  2. Recycle anything with the symbol stamped on it, numbered 1-7 *BONUS – lower numbers take less processing to recycle, so opt for items made from these materials when possible.
  3. Do  not include any caps or pieces of plastic smaller than 2″ in diameter – these items cannot be recycled due to their size. Including these small items is grounds for contamination; depending on your location, waste management may deem the whole bag unfit and trash it.
  4. Check your local program; many products do not have the numbered recycling label but can still be recycled in certain locations. Perfect example: the cartons used for milk and ice cream. It may have a waxy look but it is indeed recyclable in facilities that can handle it. However, it is not accepted everywhere and therefor cannot receive a label. Just assuming it’s okay could ruin the whole bag, or you could be tossing perfectly recyclable items into a landfill.
  5. Rinse. Even if you’ve consumed everything in the container, a quick rinse saves the factory a lot of trouble later on.

Share these tips with friends and family in an enthusiastic and caring manner; they will be impressed with your insight. However, if patronized, they likely will not change their habits!

Allison Beauregard

Allison is a New York City based writer with a focus on sustainability. Her work demonstrates how it is possible to have the “things” that make us happy without compromising the resources that provide these goods. With this vision, Allison sees a future where environmental degradation is reversed and the quality of human life is equally distributed. She is the Category Editor of The Franklin Report and was among the top 5 contributors for Elephant Journal in October 2014.

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