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Published on September 25th, 2017 | by TerraCycle


5 Simple Questions You Need To Ask Of All Your Trash

Americans often have a one-track mind when it comes to our trash: we want it out of sight, out of mind, and as soon as possible.

As “stuff” has evolved to address our demands for convenience, particularly in the food and beverage industry, materials have become more complex and changed our perception of what is “disposable” to include nearly everything we buy on a regular basis. But when the average person generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day, 55% of it ending up in landfills, a bit of holistic thinking is in order.

Before you toss your waste in the bin, here are some simple questions to ask your trash:

image from RitaE on PixaBay

Why is it trash?

They say that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure—but why? At what point does a product, its packaging, and all of life’s artifacts become waste? The answer is a matter of perspective. Trash is a modern concept, a luxury of abundance. If you don’t have the resources to buy new objects, you will fulfill your needs by looking at what is available.

Let’s say you ripped a small hole in your t-shirt—would you try to mend it, upcycle it, resell it, donate it or throw it in the trash? It becomes easy to look at objects as disposable when they can be easily replaced with new, mass produced, relatively inexpensive items. Wrapping your head around striving for zero waste starts with taking a tip from nature and looking at “waste” as potentially valuable material.

What material is it made of?

Identifying the material components of discarded items is the first step to figuring out what to do with them. One common household waste stream is organics: leftover food scraps, trimmings, eggshells, expired foods…the list goes on. According to the EPA, about 28 percent of the solid waste stream in the United States consists of food waste and yard trimmings; these can be composted to divert material from landfills, prevent the generation of methane and other greenhouse gases in a landfill, and create the richest plant food available for your window garden.

Categorizing single- or multi-compositional metals, plastics, paper and glass in your potentially discarded products and packaging is key to sorting your waste and tracking it effectively. Plastics have resin numbers on them, paper and cardboard is either uncoated or contains foreign materials like foil, wax, or plastic, and glass and metals can be single-composition or treated (i.e. Pyrex is tempered glass, some metals are treated).

Compost image from Ben Kerckx on PixaBay

Can it be recycled?

Everything is technically recyclable, but an item is considered highly recyclable when public recycling systems broadly accept it. Getting acquainted with your town or city’s recycling system, what exactly is recyclable in your area, and the availability of state mandated recycling initiatives, like those some states have for plastic bags, will eventually reflexively direct you to the blue bin or a take back program before the garbage pail. For example, the shelf-stable and refrigerated cartons that now package everything from soups, milk and juice are now recyclable in some communities.

There are solutions for items that are not accepted curbside or through a public system. TerraCycle’s free, brand-sponsored recycling programs can solve for unexpectedly recyclable items like used Brita water filters, toothbrushes and old toys; we also have turnkey recycling boxes for you eco-warriors who want to recycle everything from coffee capsules to the contents of your bathroom.

Does it have waste on it?

Recycling effectively entails preventing contamination of recycling streams on their way to becoming new, valuable materials in new products. As it is important to ascertain what your trash is made out of so that batches not ruined by a rogue item, it is important to make sure that food or other types waste don’t interfere with the recycling process.

For example, pizza boxes, made of cardboard and often soiled with grease and food remnants, used to not be accepted by most municipalities. They still are not recyclable… unless you remove the tainted portions. When paper products, like cardboard, are recycled, they are mixed with water and turned into a slurry. Since water and oil don’t mix, the issue is clear.

Small amounts of food left don’t interfere with the glass, steel and aluminum recycling processes, as those materials are recycled using heat. Scrape all the solid food scraps out of jars and cans and then put them in the recycling bin. If you’re concerned about having left over food in the bin, lightly rinse out your jars and cans.

Can you hold onto it until a solution is available?

Have you ever noticed now many public common areas like parks, train platforms and street corners don’t have recycling bins? It’s easy to toss your waste into the nearest trash bin when the alternative is littering. Holding on to your recyclables until you are able to place them in your blue bin at home or the nearest public recycling drop-off is a significant way to divert these items from landfills.

The traditionally unrecyclable items you encounter on a daily basis, like coffee cups, yogurt tubs, energy bar wrappers, snack bags and squeezable food pouches, may not belong in your curbside pickup, but they do have solutions. It takes a bit of mindfulness and patience to collect these materials to send in to TerraCycle or bring to the local take back hub for recycling. But thinking of all trash as having a place within recycling system helps us align our human consumption with nature’s activities towards a more sustainable world.

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About the Author

Founded in 2001, TerraCycle, Inc., is the world’s leader in the collection and repurposing of hard-to-recycle post-consumer waste, ranging from used chip bags to coffee capsules to cigarette butts. Each year, across 20 countries, TerraCycle collects and repurposes billions of pieces of waste, donating millions of dollars to schools and charities in the process. To learn more about TerraCycle or get involved in our recycling programs, please visit

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