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Recycling 101

By Nicole DeSantis, Account Manager, Think Zero LLC

While recycling is certainly not the answer to our environmental problems and the serious issues of overproduction and overconsumption, learning to recycle right is important. According to the World Economic Forum, of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the US in 2021, only 5-6% (roughly two million tons), was recycled.

So how did we get here?

Before we had solid waste disposal in the US, items would be known to accumulate in homes, leading people to the practice of reuse as the obvious solution. When something got torn, it was mended, jars and other items were reused repeatedly. My parents and grandparents would often speak of the milkman who brought the glass milk bottles to their homes in Queens, NY and picked up the used ones. Not so long-ago reuse was quite common.

As decades passed, however, things changed, and what we are left with is a society obsessed with single use and disposable items. From coffee cups and snack wrappers to water bottles and plastic bags, convenience has become the name of the game. The problem is that creating all these items takes lots of natural resources, and unfortunately much of what we consume is not being recycled.

While recycling rates have increased with the creation of infrastructure and a commodities market to profit from recycled materials, so has the amount of garbage we create (approximately 4.9 lbs. per person per day). Gone are the days of creating items built to last and things that stand the test of time. Today’s culture is focused on cheap items and large profits, convenience, and overproduction.

Confusion and recycling right

Despite recycling being around for decades, it is still a source of great confusion for many. One issue fueling this confusion is that recycling rules differ from one state to another, and within states, cities and municipalities often have different rules and access to recycling. Then there is the issue of what can be recycled. The famous chasing arrows symbol, something many mistakenly believe demonstrates the recyclability of an item, in fact only tells us the type of plastic being used. This symbol does not mean an item can be recycled. So, to say the least there is a lot of confusion.

So how can we do a better job, and what is the solution?

First, whenever possible choose to reuse!

Easy Swaps:

Coffee cups- Approximately 146 billion coffee cups are used by Americans every year. Coffee cups which are lined with plastic are not recyclable. Get a reusable cup and find locations that accept it, check out to find ecofriendly coffee shops. In parts of NYC, you can also use the Cup Zero app, a reusable, to go coffee cup program.

Plastic bags- Bring your own reusable bag. The average plastic bag is used for 12 minutes before being sent to landfill

Water bottles- Every hour approximately 2.5 million plastic bottles are thrown away in the US. This is such an easy swap and a huge savings! Water filtration systems in homes and offices are a great option to consider.

Doing take out for meals? Consider using the Deliver Zero app to avoid single use packaging

Be sure to donate or regift usable goods you no longer want

Recycling Tips and Tricks:

Recycling is a commodities market, if there is value in reusing items, they have a chance to be recycled. Certain items have a much greater market value. For example, aluminum is a highly recyclable material and has tremendous value in the recycling market, so aluminum is recycled at a high rate in the US. Ensuring that aluminum gets recycled is especially important. Cardboard is another item that is overused but also highly recyclable.

Some plastics are easily recycled in some markets, for example plastic #’s 1,2 and 5 (check your local recycling guidelines to find out what your city recycles). However, plastic degrades quickly and can only be recycled a couple of times. Plastic, which is made from oil is highly toxic environmentally so whenever possible avoid plastics. *Remember to place all rigid plastics in the recycling bin.

E-waste is becoming the fastest growing source of waste globally. It is often improperly disposed of. Find a drop off location here: E-Waste Drop Off

Batteries- Take batteries back to the place of purchase or a designated drop off site, never put batteries in your home recycling bin. Alkaline batteries that are not recycled must be placed in the trash. More on specialty waste here

Ink cartridges are accepted by many companies for recycling, places like Staples accept these, so do not throw them in the trash

Pizza boxes- If the box is greasy on the bottom and not the top rip the top off and recycle with your cardboard. The greasy part can be composted or thrown in the trash

Wrapping paper is often not recyclable -try keeping old gift wrap you get and reusing it, use paper bags and newspaper instead

Paper Towels cannot be recycled, but depending on where you live or work, they might be compostable. Consider getting reusable paper towels instead (reduce waste and save money)

Plastic bags- some grocery stores will take these back, otherwise make sure to reuse or throw in the trash, plastic bags cannot be recycled

Water bottles and other plastic bottles can be recycled: Make sure to empty the bottle of liquid and put the top back on before placing in the bin so that both parts get recycled (plastic tops should otherwise be thrown in the trash)

Food waste- 1/3 of trash is food waste, buy less, eat leftovers, compost. Having an office party? Consider donating uneaten and unopened food. It is important to make sure that you clean food containers and remove food waste before placing them in the recycling bin

Soft plastics & PPE- Chip bags, cling wrap, rubber gloves, mailers etc. are not recyclable and must be placed in the trash or specialty recycled with Terracycle

Cartons- Milk, juice and other cartons can be recycled with your metal, glass, and plastic

Compostable cups plates and flatware are not recyclable and can usually only be composted in an industrial compost facility. If you have no access to composting these items must go in the trash

Whenever possible buy local from farmers markets or package free at stores like Precycle (The package free grocery store)

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