9 Easy Tips to Make Recycling a Breeze

Recycling can be easy, here’s how!

In part 1 of this series we discussed some of our first lessons learned when starting out on the path to zero waste.

There are lots of rules when it comes to choosing what to recycle and knowing what goes in the trash. One of the best things we can do as consumers is to understand what happens to our waste and recycling once it leaves our home. I find that understanding how a recycling sorting facility works is the best way to learn what can be recycled.

The reality is that recycle sorting facilities are limited in what they can accept and process. A limited amount of sorting happens by hand but the majority of the processing happens by machinery. While the machinery is quite advanced, it cannot process every little thing that we throw at it.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing what goes in the recycle bin. At the end of the day, the better we sort our waste, the more efficient the recycle process is and ultimately the more that will get recycled. (One note about these tips: recycling guidelines vary by waste hauler and by region. Please check with your local waste hauler on what is accepted in your area.)

1. Don’t bag recyclables:

Recyclables need to be placed loosely in the recycle bin. If items are bagged, the sorting machinery cannot separate them and workers cannot see what items are inside. Bags add an extra step to the process where workers would need to manually open the bags to make sure what’s inside is recyclable. There is not always time to add this extra step. Further, the plastic bag itself cannot be recycled so this again decreases efficiency in the process. If you must use a bag to collect recyclables, empty it loose into your larger recycle container.

2. No plastic bags:

Bagged recyclables are no good as mentioned above, but loose plastic bags are a nightmare for recycle sorting facilities. Loose plastic bags are so light that they fly around the facility and jam themselves into the machinery. These jams cause the entire facility to be shut down to de-clog the machinery, causing major delays in the sorting and efficiency of the recycling process. The good news is many grocery stores take back plastic bags for recycling. Keep bags out of curbside recycling and make a separate pile to bring back to the store.

3. No Liquids:

Many waste haulers utilize mixed-stream recycling, which means all recyclable items are mixed together in the same bin and then the same truck to be sorted later at the recycle sorting facility. Liquid added to this mix ends up being a disaster. Because we mix our recyclables with paper and cardboard, a little bit of liquid will find its way to these materials and end up contaminating them and making them less recyclable. Paper and cardboard are less valuable for processing if they are contaminated by other liquids so it is important to keep our recycle bins dry.

4. No mixed materials:

At the recycle sorting facility, all materials are separated by kind (plastics with plastic, paper with paper, metals with metals and so on). If an item that is made up of two different materials is placed in the recycle bin, the machinery will not be able to separate the materials to send them to the right location. Think of a paper coffee cup. The cup itself is made up of paper and a thin liner. The liner cannot be removed from the paper cup, so this item is not recyclable. But, keep in mind that the cardboard sleeve can be removed from the cup and placed in the recycle bin separately. Learn more about coffee cup recycling here.

5. No Styrofoam (plastic #6):

Styrofoam is a type of plastic and we all know plastic containers are recyclable. But plastic #6, or what we typically call Styrofoam, is made differently than other plastics. It is poofed up with air to give it its insulating properties, and therefore does not break down like other plastics do. While plastic #6 is technically recyclable, it takes a very specialized process – one that most large community recycle sorting plants are not able to accommodate. For this reason, plastic #6 is not accepted in most curbside recycle programs.

6. Nothing too small (including shredded paper):

Recycling is only as effective as the sorting machines at the recycle plant. If items that are too small end up in the recycle bin, these items will get lost among the equipment and cannot make it to the correct end location.

Generally, if it is smaller than a credit card, it should not go in the recycle bin. This includes shredded paper. This one is a huge bummer but it is true! Shredding paper produces tiny little strips of paper. If we put these loose in the recycle bin, now each of these tiny shreds of paper need to make their way through heavy duty sorting equipment along with all other recyclables to get to the paper bin at the end. These small pieces of paper will only get lost throughout the process, never making it to the correct end location for processing.

Many municipalities host community shredding days where you can bring your secure documents to be shredded on site, and taken in bulk to be recycled, bypassing the sorting process altogether.

8. Overcome wishcycling:

Wishcycling is when we don’t know if something is recyclable but we want it to be, so we toss it in the recycle bin anyway. As mentioned throughout the tips above, recycle facilities are only equipped to process certain types of materials. Any items that don’t belong end up clogging machinery and slowing down the process.

The better we are at sorting recyclables, the more efficient recycling facilities will be, and this will ultimately result in more items being recycled and kept out of the landfill. If you find yourself “hoping” an item is recyclable but are not completely certain, please throw it in the trash instead… and then look for a zero waste alternative for next time!

9. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle:

Keep in mind what is accepted varies by region and waste hauler, and is ultimately determined by the capabilities of the sorting plant’s machinery and potential end markets for recycled goods. Always check with your local waste hauler to understand what exactly is accepted in curbside recycling in your area. It is also important to remember that although recycling is an important link in reducing waste, reduce and reuse should be the primary focus of our efforts. If we don’t produce trash in the first place, we don’t need to worry about how to get rid of it!

Check out our new post on sustainable habits!