Can I recycle my mail with the stapled paper and plastic envelope windows? Do I need to break down cardboard boxes before putting them in the recycling bin? Or should I just give up on recycling because it’s way too complicated?
According to a study by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, three of every five U.S. households have curbside recycling pickup. Another 14% have curbside service available, but do not subscribe.
Reasons to recycle are both environmental and financial. Recycling 10 plastic bottles, for example, saves enough energy to power a laptop computer for more than 25 hours, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Recycling can also help your tax bill. Local governments pay for home and office waste disposal, traditionally by burying it in a landfill. If some of that waste could be sold for reuse, the income could reduce the waste management program’s cost.
The list of recycling rules is long and complicated, but a way to help master them is to try three different types of thinking.
Think Like a Sorter
When your curbside bin gets emptied, it’s taken to a materials recovery facility, where it is dumped onto a conveyor belt. Workers remove items that will gum up the next step in the process—a large screen that sorts items into different bins. Think about items that might cause problems with sorting.
There are about 300 materials recovery facilities around the country. Many of them have different equipment, meaning every community has its own set of rules for what can be recycled.
Find out who handles recycling in your community and request a list of what can be recycled.
Of course, there’s also an app for that. Two popular apps are Recycle Coach and ReCollect. Type in your zip code to learn how your local recycling program treats individual items.
Think Like an Accountant
You might be thinking it sounds like you are doing the work for the recycling program. You are.
You could just dump anything and everything in your recycling bin and let the workers sort it out. They might do that—for a price. You help keep recycling costs low by following the rules.
Common Recycling Guidelines
Here are some of the most-wondered-about recycling rules, although they are not necessarily universal.
- Mail. With one exception, all mail can go in the bin. Staples and plastic windows are sorted out by the machinery. The exception is magazines wrapped in plastic. That kind of shrink wrap is better handled by supermarkets, which specialize in recycling bags and other plastic “stretch wrap” around food, paper towels and other products.
- Food containers. When you’re done with the peanut butter jar, there is no need to rinse it out. It can go right in the bin.
- Cardboard boxes. The only reason to break them down is to save space in your bin. They are crushed in the truck that picks them up.
- Pizza cartons. Don’t leave crusts or garlic butter containers in them, but recycling equipment can handle a greasy pizza box just fine.
- Plastic bottle caps. Screw the lid back on, and recycle both the bottle and cap.
- Labels. You don’t need to remove them.
- Plastic straws. Although they can be recycled, smaller items tend to fall off the conveyor or through the screen sorters and onto the floor, where they are swept up and hauled off to a landfill.
If you want to take the next step in recycling, think about the big picture. The point is to reduce the waste from your home into the world.
First, reduce. If you don’t really need to buy something, don’t buy it. Second, reuse. Bags and wrapping paper, for example, can have more than one life.
Recycling helps our environment and can also reduce the cost of local waste management programs. Check with your local waste management program to learn more about recycling rules in your community.