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How important is recycling?

4 min read

A lot of people have a lot of questions about recycling. And although we can’t answer all of them in one blog post, here are a handful of the most common questions with simple, clear answers. We all want to do our part to help, but sometimes it's not easy to know the best way to do that. We hope this helps.

How much does recycling really help?

The truth is that recycling comes with costs (not just dollars and cents, but environmental costs too) so it is worth weighing those out with the benefits. The only real argument against recycling is whether or not the trucks and other equipment required to gather, sort, and process the materials might be creating more harmful emissions than they’re eliminating. It’s a fair question.

Speaking to that question, Bob Gedert, the president of the National Recycling Coalition, put it this way: “There are many studies out there that have done a life cycle analysis of recycling that have shown that recycling outpaces landfilling as an environmental practice. Even though you are putting a truck out there to collect it, even though you are putting mechanics out there to process it, you are entirely offsetting that extra activity because you are saving energy by replacing raw materials over and over again.”1

So the good news is that, yes, generally speaking, the benefits of recycling do appear to be outweighing the costs. But how much those benefits outweigh the costs can vary dramatically, depending on how educated the general public is about basic recycling do’s and don’ts.

What happens if I put the wrong stuff in a recycling bin?

This is where we as individuals can really influence how beneficial recycling ends up being. Because if we put the wrong stuff in recycling bins we could potentially be doing more harm than good.

So tip #1 is: when in doubt, throw it out.

If you want to be a little more confident when debating whether to recycle something or not, here are three simple tips (courtesy of Reader's Digest),

  1. Empty, clean, dry—recyclables that have been soiled with food waste could come into contact with paper or cardboard and contaminate an entire recycling truckload. So make sure recyclables are clean before tossing them in the bin.
  2. Don’t bag it—keep recycling loose in the bin, rather than putting it all in a plastic bag. In fact, plastic bags are one of the most problematic items in recycling because thin plastics often get caught in machinery and cause huge delays and potentially dangerous situations at recycling facilities.
  3. Know what to throw—aluminum cans and paper and cardboard products are usually safe bets. But there are some caveats so check out this list of recycling no-no’s:

Recycling

  • Plastic bags—as mentioned above, most recycling centers are only equipped to deal with rigid plastics and plastic bags can ruin machinery.
  • Aerosol cans—if the can has anything left in it then it’s considered hazardous waste. A lot of centers won’t even handle empty aerosol cans.
  • Mirrors—most mirrors have a protective coating that makes them hard to recycle.
  • Foam products—most centers don’t take any foam products, so avoid things like packing peanuts or styrofoam cups and cartons.
  • Hangers—it’s tough for centers to determine what type of plastic is used in plastic hangers (and wire hangers should be sent to scrap metal centers).
  • Ceramics—can’t be melted down to be recycled.
  • Glass bakeware, drinking glasses, and bottles (depending on your area)—bakeware and drinking glasses are usually treated to withstand heat so they won’t break down properly like glass bottles do. And some local facilities don’t process glass bottles so don’t toss them in the bin unless you’re sure that’s an option for you.
  • Lightbulbs—these contain mercury so they can’t be recycled (and possibly not even legally thrown in the trash, depending on where you live).

According to Waste Management, “roughly 1 in 4 items placed in a recycling container are actually not recyclable through curbside programs.” If we all do a better job at getting the right items into recycling bins then we can make recycling much more efficient and make the benefits of recycling outweigh the costs in a much bigger way.

Should I go paper or plastic at the grocery store?

The answer, unfortunately, is neither—if at all possible. Reusable bags are by far the best choice for the environment. We’ve already discussed the issues with plastic bags so, if you don’t have a reusable bag, then paper would be the next best choice.

Glass, plastic, or aluminum for bottles and cans?

This one is a close call but aluminum has a slight advantage—only because aluminum cans are small, easy to transport, and can be recycled repeatedly with no limit.

Glass is a close-second to aluminum because it’s heavier and glass recycling facilities are few and far between so the cost and emissions required to transport glass can be higher. If you know there is a facility nearby that takes glass bottles then it’s probably a better choice. But, again, when in doubt about whether glass can be recycled locally, throw it in the trash can.

Plastic is a clear third place. So, if you have the choice, don’t pick plastic.

Endnotes:
1 https://www.thekitchn.com/does-recycling-actually-make-a-difference-249514

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