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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Your How-To Guide to Recycling

We’ve been told for years, "reduce, reuse, recycle!"  But does all of this recycling really make a difference?  Is the planet truly rewarded by our efforts?  Many scientists and environmental consultants say that simply recycling isn’t enough to combat all of the energy waste created on this planet—which is entirely true.

Some people get heartily discouraged by this message and statistics show that recycling efforts have decreased in recent years.  This is unfortunate, considering that if our population is increasing, the amount of resulting waste is increasing proportionally—which means that our waste-reducing efforts must also increase accordingly!

Blue Recycling BinWhat you need to know is that it is important to continually integrate new practices into our lives as our awareness increases, and that every little bit helps a lot.  Our power to make change in this way is best affected by united efforts—many people doing some things, rather than one person doing many things.  And there are many recycling resources currently available to help us do our part.

You may even be wondering—what does it really mean to say that something has been recycled?  Let’s take a quick look to see where our most basic waste products go, what they become, and how you can help them get there.  Then we’ll explore the future of recycling by examining some current waste reduction movements and methodologies.

Aluminum—Your aluminum cans are condensed, shredded, melted down, and spread into sheets that can then be cut for use.

  • Where It Goes: Cans become new cans or go into making a bicycle, auto part, or household appliance.
  • How to Recycle: Rinse out and remove any plastic add-ons like caps.

Plastic—Your plastics are carefully and extensively sorted, washed, shredded, melted, screened, and chopped into small pieces.

  • Where It Goes: The small pieces, called pellets, can be returned to bottle manufacturers for reuse, or can make their way into clothing, carpets, goggles and any number of other items.
  • How to Recycle: Rinse out, remove and toss caps, and check the number on the plastic (#1–7) to ensure that it corresponds with local recycling center rules.

Glass—Your glass is sorted by color, crushed, screened for contaminants, combined with a variety of raw materials (like sand), melted, molded, and cooled.

  • Where It Goes: Glass becomes, well, glass. Bottles are often remade into bottles, but glass can also take form as beads, marbles or part of a sidewalk.
  • How to Recycle: Rinse out, remove lids or caps, and make sure that the glass color is in compliance with local recycling center rules.  If the color is not in compliance, the center will be able to give guidance on appropriate disposal.

Participating in the recycling process helps to reduce the demand for resources harvested from monoculture environments and processed with excess of pollution and energy waste, not to mention unfair labor practices.

Paper—Your paper is sorted, sold to a paper dealer, and sorted further into high grade (office paper) or low grade (newspapers, phone books).  High grade is sent to a mill where ink is removed via chemical wash.  Both grades are then turned to pulp, screened, bleached, mixed with new pulp from freshly harvested wood product, drained, dried, flattened, and trimmed.

  • Where It Goes: Remade paper becomes magazines, egg cartons, newspapers, cardboard packaging, and your local café’s coffee cups (better to bring in your own mug though)!
  • How to Recycle: Make sure cardboard and papers are relatively clean and dry, remove and toss magazine inserts, and remove paperclips and rubber bands.  Telephone books usually carry information about how they can be recycled.  DO NOT include paper with food, oil, plastic lamination, or wax (milk cartons are the exception in some areas).

Recycling Taboos

While many of your household items can be recycled without much ado, you should definitely be aware of these few recycling no-no’s:

Batteries.  Many states now have strict regulations concerning battery disposal, as most contain heavy metals and are not even appropriate for occupying space in landfills.  Collect your accumulated batteries in one area and contact your county for a designated drop-off location or pick-up time.  Several online sites offer rechargeable battery information and services.

Unrecyclable Batteries

CFLs.  If you use compact fluorescent lighting, be aware that curbside recycling programs will not accept them because they (internally) contain the neurotoxin mercury.  CFLs must be disposed of through hazardous waste collection, or at a designated hazardous waste facility in your area.  Check for specifics with your local Hazardous Waste Management program or division.

Other Hazardous Waste.  Paint, oil, pesticides, and other toxins are all considered hazardous waste.  Contact your local recycling center to find out what the proper disposal methods for your area are.  DO NOT recycle paint cans unless they are completely clean and dry.

Beyond Recycling—The Zero Waste Movement

Up until now, our motto has been reduce, reuse, recycle—reduce what you intake, reuse what you have, and recycle what you don’t need anymore.  The newer motto for waste reduction is based on a holistic mentality aimed at mimicking the processes of nature by considering all aspects and all impacts involved in each step of the design process.  The Zero Waste movement aims to treat and prevent the underlying symptoms of the waste reduction, not just the tangible waste factor itself. 

Beyond finding the best ways to reuse or recycle something, zero waste advocates urge companies and inventors to design more efficient and low-waste products by considering a product’s entire lifecycle and complete potential impact in the pre-design phases.  This includes considering product design, packaging, advertisement, transport, usage, and end, or "ease of disassembly."  The goal is therefore to design products that don’t naturally lead us to conceptualize them as waste, but rather as a potential resource.  Many companies, especially some larger corporations, have significantly cut costs by implementing zero waste practices.

The zero waste mentality doesn’t stop with product design—the primary goal of this movement is to apply a maximum efficiency approach wherever possible, including communities, businesses, industrial settings, schools, and homes.  The movement’s impetus hinges on the fact that specific goals tend to produce direct results more quickly, so zero waste-minded communities, like Oakland, California, are setting specific targets for achieving zero solid waste, zero hazardous waste, zero emissions, and zero toxics.

Post-Consumer Recycled Goods

Recycling alone cannot mitigate the impact of production energy used on our planet.  In keeping with a zero waste mentality, setting a level of demand for post-consumer recycled goods in our products and packaging can help our planet spin on its axis towards a zero waste goal.  The best ways that you, as a consumer, can reduce waste rather than simply recycling it include:

  • Consider a product’s lifecycle before purchase
  • Purchase only what you need
  • Get creative with reusing what you have
  • Look for post-consumer recycled products

What exactly are post-consumer recycled products?  Well, hopefully they will become an integral part of the global vocabulary in upcoming years!  100% post-consumer recycled goods are products that have exhausted their lifecycle for consumers and are on their way to the landfill, where they are recovered for use in a new product.

Post-consumer recycled stuff pops up in a variety of places—keep your eye out for labels on trash bags, magazine print paper, laundry detergent boxed packaging, organizers, pencils, tissue, toilet paper, and much, much more.  Some individuals and groups are organizing online petitions boycotting large companies that maximize energy consumption by not using post-consumer recycled product in their production process.

You’ve now been introduced to just a few of the ways that recycling and a waste reduction mentality can be creatively applied to our lives, within our homes and out in our communities.  Participating in the recycling process helps to reduce the demand for resources harvested from monoculture environments and processed with excess of pollution and energy waste, not to mention unfair labor practices.  We can help to turn this around by getting informed, getting involved, and making choices that support the sustainability of our planet’s future.  We’ll see you out there! 

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