Mother Earth Living

Recycling Guide: How and What to Recycle

Create less waste with this comprehensive guide to recycling. From plastics to electronics to furniture, you can recycle most household objects.
By Tara Rae Miner
December 2010 Web
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"Your Green Abode" is a sustainable home primer filled with advice on green living, DIY green remodeling and green gardening.
Photo Courtesy Mountaineer Books


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The following is an excerpt from Your Green Abode: A Practical Guide to a Sustainable Home by Tara Rae Miner (Mountaineers Books, 2010). The excerpt is part of Chapter 9: The Pitfalls of Landfills: Stepping Out of the Waste Stream. 

Once you’ve taken a vow to create less waste in the first place, your next assignment is to recycle whatever and whenever you can. Recycling has many cheerleaders. The Natural Resources Defense Council sums it up this way on its website: “Recycling is one of the most feel-good and useful environmental practices around. The benefits go way beyond reducing piles of garbage—recycling protects habitat and biodiversity, and saves energy, water, and resources such as trees and metal ores. Recycling also cuts global warming pollution from manufacturing, landfilling and incinerating.”

And one commenter to Grist magazine gently reminds us, “Recycling isn’t a hassle, it’s a privilege.”

Odds are your city or town has a local curbside recycling program (if not, visit Earth911 online to find one near you). These things have sprouted up like mushrooms recycling nutrients on the forest floor. Before 1973, no curbside recycling programs existed in the United States. By 2006, about 8,660 programs were collecting cans and bottles across the nation. The programs have played a part in upping our numbers: from 5 percent of waste recycled in 1970 to 32.5 percent in 2010.

You can turn that number even higher in your home, apartment, and apartment building. Make recycling convenient. Put bins in multiple places around the house or in common spaces—kitchen, laundry room, home office, garage—and use different bins that follow your city’s recycling policies so you don’t have to sort it out later. Good news, though. Advances in sorting technology have allowed many communities to shift to commingled or single-stream recycling. In this system built for the laissez-faire crowd, you don’t have to sort recyclables at all—just throw them all in a single bin. In some areas where commingled recycling programs have been initiated, recycling rates have increased by 30 percent.

Recycling has expanded beyond the world of bottles, cans, plastic, and paper, although it’s still critically important to give these items an opportunity for rebirth.

Here are a few creative ways to expand the recycling paradigm in your home.

Media: Keep your unwanted media products from piling up in your closet or getting mixed in the trash. If you’ve seen it, read it, or heard it too many times, Swap- Tree and BarterBee are just two sites that allow you to swap books, CDs, DVDs, and other media with people around the country. BookMooch and PaperBackSwap focus exclusively on trading books for books. And don’t forget that you can help keep used-book stores (the best kind) thriving by selling or trading back books. Charities are another fine way to share the love of reading with others.

Electronics: About 70 percent of the toxic waste in landfills is attributable to e-waste—all those unwanted computers, cords, motherboards, MP3 players, and cell phones. Since these electronics contain heavy metals like lead and mercury, it’s important to recycle them and keep them out of the environment, water supplies in particular. The EPA estimates that as much as 40 percent of the lead in landfills comes from electronics.

Some manufacturers have trade-in or buy-back programs for their electronics that provide cash, store credit, or tax incentives. Other companies will accept electronics for recycling. Still other manufacturers will refurbish old machines for use in schools or nonprofits. Recyclers recoup more than 100 million pounds of materials from e-waste every year, and some of those metals and plastics can be made into new machines. Even old CDs can be recycled.

Sign up with one of the many places that will help you start your e-cycling quest: Gazelle offers cash for recyclable e-waste and has partnered with Costco to put drop boxes at retail stores. Earth911 has a searchable database of drop-off spots for recyclables. CollectiveGood accepts donations of cell phones and will either fix them for someone else’s use or recycle them. GreenDisk will also recycle old electronics, even the small stuff like cables. Some 1,500 post offices accept electronics for recycling; call and find out if yours is one of them. Newer computer products can find a home at TechSoup, a nonprofit that helps provide technology to schools and nonprofits. The National Cristina Foundation looks for new homes for old computers and software. Finally, the EPA lists its “Plug-In to eCycling Partners”— companies with their own trade-in programs, such as Dell and HP.

A word of caution: Some recyclers melt electronic components, a practice that has health risks if not done properly, and some send collected electronics overseas to countries with lax environmental laws. Your goal is to have your recycled technology used as technology or handled in a responsible way. Scrapping it for raw materials should be a recycler’s last resort. Ask any company or recycler you’re working with what they do with the electronic device and where it ultimately goes. To keep tabs on the proper recycling of e-waste, check out the Basel Action Network, a nonprofit fighting to make sure the lead, cadmium, and mercury in technology waste is handled responsibly.

Furniture: The EPA reported that 8.8 million tons of furniture was thrown away in 2005. There’s no reason not to recycle grandma’s old chair. The same places you might look for scoring used furniture (see chapter 8) are good places to unload items you’re no longer into. Freecycle and Craigslist will both help you offload that couch you no longer want in your living room. Throwplace.com, which bills itself as the Internet’s landfill alternative, will help you match your used furniture (and just about any other item) with a new home—charities, businesses, and individuals. Don’t forget the old standbys: Goodwill and the Salvation Army pick up used furniture in good condition and sell it to fund their charitable work.

Clothing: On average an American throws away 68 pounds of clothing or textiles per year. Cleaning out your closet? Those sweaters and slacks deserve another home. Dress for Success takes donated business wear and redistributes it to those who can’t afford the finery. The Glass Slipper Project will take unwanted dresses for promgoers who can’t afford new ones. Even if it is beyond rewearing, your local Goodwill will take your used clothing and ship it to recycling centers that will recycle the fibers. Swapstyle is a online location for fashion exchanges. Or organize your own clothing swap (a.k.a. Naked Lady Party) with your girlfriends. (Over the years, I have acquired some of my favorite shirts at these swaps.) Guys, there’s no holding you back if you want to trade t-shirts. Or if your creative juices are flowing and you’re into modifying clothing, consider finding or hosting a Swap-O-Rama- Rama event where like-minded folks bring clothes, learn how to retailor clothing, and do the work at on-site sewing stations.

Toys and kids’ stuff: You know the story. The must-have-best-thing-in-the-whole-wide-world eventually gets shoved in the back of the closet because your child has moved on. Zwaggle takes donations of kids’ stuff and finds a new home for it. Each donation you make earns you points toward zwaggling your way into a new traded toy. Or avoid this problem altogether. Become a member of Baby- Plays—essentially the Netflix for toys. You get a boxful each month and then send toys back when your kid is bored.

Building and remodeling waste: As noted earlier in the chapter, building waste is a ton of waste. In fact, each year more than 100 million tons get junked. Much of it could be repurposed: used drywall scraps, for example, can be made into new drywall. If you aren’t doing the work yourself, make sure the contractor you hire hauls the waste to a recycling facility. The most likely recyclables are concrete, drywall, wood, metal, and shingles. Habitat for Humanity has many recycled materials outlets across the country. The Construction Materials Recycling Association has a directory of recyclers as well.

The Deal with Plastics 

Seven is a lucky number in most cultures. It’s the average number of digits easily recalled in a row—hence seven-digit phone numbers. Though recycling plastics can be tricky, fortunately they come in numbered varieties from 1 through 7. These numbers correspond to the kinds of resins in the plastic and are also helpful in identifying which plastics can be recycled, which contain estrogen emulators, and which come with (mostly) no strings attached.

I say mostly because all plastic has its environmental costs. Most plastic manufacturing requires petroleum—so much that just the plastic bags we throw away account for 12 million barrels of oil per year. And for all practical purposes, the plastics you use today will be kicking around the environment forever. Too, who knows what health effects will be “discovered” in the future? Also, most plastic recycling is actually downcycling; the plastic is made into another product that can’t then be recycled. This is a long way of saying that before you recycle, reduce your use of plastics.

The first and most important consideration to make with any plastic is its safety. Numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are considered safe. They are not known to leach any chemicals that threaten human health. No. 3 (vinyl or polyvinyl chloride) contains phthalates, which are hormone-disrupting chemicals (see more on the evils of vinyl in chapter 4). Avoid it if you can. No. 6 is thought to contain toxins that leach when heated, and no. 7 is a catchall that includes many types of plastic materials, including potentially those with bisphenol A (BPA). You’ve probably heard of BPA and watched as retailers recently phased it out of many of their products. It’s a chemical thought to cause problems with every organ from the heart to the brain; it’s particularly bad for babies and young children because their bodies are still developing, and disruption or imbalances in the body’s chemistry can have lasting effects. Some plastics are advertised as “microwave safe,” but that label doesn’t necessarily have your health in mind. It means the plastic can survive microwaving, but it’s no guarantee the plastic won’t leach carcinogens.

Which plastics are recyclable? The better question is which plastics are more easily recyclable. And this may depend on your local curbside recycling program or municipality. Some recyclers will take a specific plastic—even, for example, the difficult-to-pin-down no. 7. Some will accept that no. 7 with different plastics all mixed together, because they sort them at the end. Other programs will only accept plastic that is sorted by you. And some might not accept no. 7 plastic at all. You’ll need to educate yourself on how it works in your community. Here are some general guidelines:

Plastic no. 1, or polyethylene terephthalate (PETE), is the most commonly recycled and recyclable plastic. PETE can be recycled into other food and beverage bottles. It can also be downcycled into things like deli trays, carpets, clothing, and car parts. Most curbside recyclers and municipalities accept PETE.

Plastic no. 2, or high-density polyethylene (HDPE), is a heavier plastic found in detergent bottles and milk jugs. It can be recycled back into detergent bottles, construction-grade imitation lumber, and, ironically enough, recycling bins, among other things.

Plastic no. 3, vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is not readily recyclable—and it’s hazardous to boot. If you have vinyl or PVC, some specialty companies will accept it, though it’s most likely downcycled into some other product like playground equipment or flooring tiles. Avoid bringing this plastic into your home.

Plastic no. 4 is low-density polyethylene. It’s used in sandwich bags, grocery bags, and wrapping films, among other things. It’s not recycled in most municipal programs. Many large grocery store chains are developing programs to take back the plastic no. 4 bags, however.

Plastic no. 5 is polypropylene. It can be recycled into car parts and packaging. Municipal programs are not likely to accept no. 5, but Whole Foods has recently partnered with Preserve Inc. on a campaign called Gimme 5. Preserve collects no. 5 plastics for recycling into new products like toothbrushes and tableware.

Plastic no. 6 is more widely accepted for recycling. It’s polystyrene, often found in cups and packing peanuts, and can be reprocessed and downcycled into packagingand other products.

Plastic no. 7 is a mixed bag, made up of rare blends or combinations of resins. No. 7 is the least recyclable plastic and, coupled with the fact that many no. 7s contain BPA, this means you should reduce your use.

Recycling caps and lids isn’t easy. Lids tend to be a different plastic than their bottles, and since mixed plastics can’t be recycled by many programs, think twice before throwing them in the same bin. Lids and caps don’t bear the numerical symbol that helps you determine how and whether you can recycle them. Some companies, like Aveda, will take back their own lids (they know they’re no. 5). And some recycling centers do take lids. They sell them to companies that crush them, sort them, and run them through a pool (different density plastics will float at different levels). Recyclers can then separate out each kind of plastic. Otherwise, find a creative, artistic reuse for caps and lids.

All Together Now: How Everyone Can Embrace the Bins 

Not owning the home you live in may make some green renovations more difficult, but recycling shouldn’t be one of them. A 2001 survey by the EPA found renters no less likely to recycle than homeowners. Homeowners barely held the lead, with 16 percent wanting to recycle and renters closing the gap at 14.6 percent. So even though homeowners may recycle more, renters still want to recycle, and with about the same fervor. There are 35 million renters in the United States; 5 million are primed to recycle. Thirty million more could be convinced. It could be the makings of a movement.

Start out green if you can. Look for rentals where recycling is obviously going on.Ask your prospective landlord if his or her building is a part of a program. And pick an apartment where you’ve got space for your own bins—a porch or patio makes for a good spot. Lacking that, there are great interior recycling bins that are both attractive and designed for small spaces. If the apartment is just perfect in all other respects, but the landlord isn’t, it’s time to sharpen up your tools of persuasion. If he argues that space is a problem, take a walk through the building together and point out easyto- use locations such as the mail room, laundry room, utility room, garage, space next to the dumpster, or stairwell. If that fails, try the economic angle: by reducing the amount of trash, he might reduce the rate he pays for garbage.

If he counters that recycling rates are too expensive, point out that some tenants would be more likely to stay in a building with sustainable practices, thus saving him the cost of high turnover rates. In fact, with the large number of vacant rental properties in this buyer’s market, you could work solo, or even better together with other tenants, to negotiate green requirements like recycling into your lease.

Still no go? Know the law before you give up. Many states and cities require that recycling be available. Wisconsin does, and county offices are outfitted to help landlords comply, with everything from site visits by an expert to labels for sorting containers. Portland, Chicago, New York, and Seattle, among other far-sighted cities, all require landlords to provide tenants with opportunities to recycle.

Make recycling easy too. Put bins next to common garbage cans so that residents have a choice about where to put that junk mail. Make signs listing what’s accepted and what’s not, and post educational material touting the saintly virtues of recycling. Or hold who-has-the-smallest-garbage-bag-this-week contests—the winner gets his or her beverage of choice, in a recyclable bottle of course.


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