The Ultimate Guide to Recycling for a Sustainable Future

Published on March 12th, 2023 by Brett Knighton

Recycling symbol made from recycled materials representing a closed-loop system

Recycling is more important now than ever before. The world is facing a crisis of pollution, climate change, and environmental degradation, and recycling is one of the most effective ways to mitigate these problems. By reducing waste and conserving resources, we can all have a hand in helping build a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations. The act of recycling is a simple step that we can take to reduce our carbon footprint on the planet and contribute to a cleaner, healthier future. The main purpose of this article is to provide you with the knowledge and resources you need to get started recycling. By the end of this article, you will have a clear understanding of what recycling is, why it's important, and how to recycle effectively.

What is Recycling?

Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new products. It involves collecting, sorting, and processing used materials to be repurposed. The reason for recycling is to reduce waste and conserve our natural resources. Roughly 80% of what Americans throw away is recyclable, yet our total recycling rate is only 28%. When materials aren't recycled, they are sent to the same landfills or incinerators facilities as regular waste and cannot be reused. By recycling, we can reduce the amount of total waste that ends up in these facilities and minimize their negative impact on the environment.

There are also different ways that you can recycle. These include:

  • Curbside Recycling - This is the most common way that individuals recycle as it is very simple to begin. Many cities and towns offer curbside recycling programs where residents can place recyclable materials like paper, plastic, glass, and metal into designated recycling bins or containers. These materials are then collected by a local recycling company to be processed into new products.
  • Drop-Off Recycling - Most communities have drop-off recycling centers where residents can bring their recyclable materials for proper disposal and recycling. These centers will have separate containers for different types of materials to ensure proper sorting. They will usually have workers at these centers that can assist you if you are unaware of how to properly sort out your materials. These are also located in rural areas where city recycling pick-ups programs are unavailable.
  • Biological Recycling or Composting - This involves composting organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, to create nutrient-rich soil amendment. This can be done in a pre-made backyard compost bin or you can make your own composting area in your yard. Some municipalities also have composting programs where you can drop-off these specific waste items or you advocate to bring a program like Compost Now to your community.
  • Upcycling - Upcycling is the process of transforming old or discarded materials into new products or materials of higher quality or value. This can involve repurposing items like glass jars, old t-shirts, plastic bottles, wine bottles and plastic bags into something new and unique for your home. Examples of ways to upcycle these items can include turning old clothing into reusable rags, creating elegant lamps from your empty wine bottles, turning glass jars into sustainable food storage or candle holders, cutting plastic bottles to create bird feeders or a holder to help organize small items and braiding together plastic bags to create a colorful mat or a basket for household use. We have also included other fun upcycling project ideas further down in this article!

No matter how you decide to recycle, the process is designed to keep valuable materials out of landfills and reduce the impact of waste on the environment.

Reusing Glass Jars

Upcycling glass jars for indoor plants is a great way to repurpose old jars and add a touch of greenery to your home

How To Recycle

Recycling is an essential part of living sustainably, but it's important to do it properly. Here are some simple steps to help you recycle effectively:

  • Sort your recyclables - Before recycling, it's important to sort your materials. You will want to separate plastics, metals, glass, and cartons from paper, and cardboard into different bins or bags.
  • Rinse containers - Food and drink containers should be rinsed out before recycling to prevent contamination and reduce odors.
  • Recycle electronics properly - Electronics such as phones, computers, and batteries can be recycled at specific electronics recycling centers. Make sure to wipe all data from devices before recycling.
  • Check local guidelines - Recycling guidelines can vary by location, so it's essential to check with your local waste management company or recycling center to ensure you're recycling correctly. You can also check their website to see if they have a list of acceptable materials.
  • Consider using a dual garbage can - A dual garbage can has two compartments, one for recyclables and one for non-recyclables. This can help make sorting your waste easier and encourage you to recycle more.

Remember, no one is perfect and we all have our own busy lives. It's more important that you are conscious about trying to recycle more and continue to create a daily habit of recycling.

The Benefits of Recycling

Recycling your used materials has numerous benefits for individuals, communities, and the economy. Here are some of the main benefits of recycling:

Helps to Conserve Natural Resources and Energy

Recycling helps to conserve natural resources like trees, water, and minerals. By recycling paper and wood products, fewer trees are cut down, which helps to conserve forests and the wildlife that inhabit them. On top of that, by recycling, we can reduce the amount of energy required to extract and process raw materials to make new products. For example, recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy needed to make new aluminum cans from raw materials. Recycling plastic bottles saves 70% of the energy needed to make new plastic bottles.

Reduces Pollution

When waste decomposes in landfills, it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change if not captured. Luckily, the RNG (Renewable Natural Gas) Coalition has taken note of the amount of methane being released and has since created over 250 operational RNG facilities across North America. Even with these facilities being built, we can still do our part to help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and slow the amount of methane that is released into the atmosphere. In fact, recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 2.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per ton of waste recycled.

Creates Jobs

Recycling also contributes to job creation in the recycling and manufacturing industries. When materials are recycled, they are collected, sorted, and processed by waste management companies. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, recycling creates 10 times more jobs than landfilling.

Saves Space in Landfills: Recycling reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, which helps to conserve valuable land and reduce the need for new landfills.

Overrun Landfill Producing Methane

Saves Money

Recycling helps municipalities and businesses save money on landfill fees and waste disposal costs. It is cheaper to recycle waste than it is to dispose of it in landfills. It also reduces the need for new landfills, which can be very expensive to build.

Promotes Sustainability

Recycling promotes sustainability by creating new recycled products from the previously used materials. This not only supports the recycling industry but it also means less raw materials are being used to put products on the shelves. Local recycling programs are another way that recycling can help promote sustainability.

By participating in your local community recycling events, you can help spread awareness and educate others about the importance of recycling. This helps to ensure that future generations will have access to the resources they need to live and thrive.

Recycling specific materials also has its own unique benefits. For example, recycling electronics helps to prevent hazardous materials like lead and mercury from ending up in landfills, while recycling scrap metal reduces the need for new mining and extraction. Plastic recycling helps to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean, and glass recycling conserves natural resources like sand and soda ash.

How Recycling Practices Can Lead to Environmental Sustainability

Recycling is more than just a good habit; it's a way to help create a better future for our planet. Let's break down how recycling helps to achieve envrionmental sustainability

Circular Economy Model

Recycling is a cornerstone of the circular economy, a model that minimizes waste and makes the most of resources. In a circular economy, products and materials are recycled, repaired, and reused, reducing the need for new raw materials. This model is in stark contrast to the traditional linear economy, where products are made, used, and then discarded. By adopting a circular approach, we can significantly reduce our environmental footprint.

Mitigating Climate Change

As mentioned earlier, recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions. By diverting waste from landfills, we not only reduce methane emissions but also lower the energy consumption associated with manufacturing new products. This is crucial for mitigating the impacts of climate change and moving towards a more sustainable future.

Resource Conservation

Recycling conserves essential natural resources like water, minerals, and forests. For instance, recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water. This is particularly important as natural resources are finite, and over-extraction can lead to environmental degradation.

Waste Hierarchy and the Importance of Recycling

The waste hierarchy—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—places recycling as a preferable option to landfilling or incineration. By adhering to this hierarchy, we can make more sustainable choices in our daily lives. Even though recycling is not the ultimate solution to waste management, it is a critical step we can take to move in the right direction.

Community Engagement and Education

Recycling programs often serve as educational platforms that raise awareness about environmental issues. By participating in or even organizing community recycling events, individuals can become environmental stewards, influencing others to make more sustainable choices.

Global Impact

Recycling is a global effort. When communities around the world engage in recycling practices, the cumulative effect can be monumental. It can lead to international collaborations and policies that prioritize sustainability, thereby making a global impact.

By understanding the intricate relationship between recycling and sustainability, we can better appreciate the value of our individual and collective actions.

Facts About Recycling

Did You Know?

  • The first aluminum can was recycled in 1965. Today, aluminum cans are the most recycled item in the United States.
  • Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours.
  • Scrap metal can be recycled to make new cars.
  • Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water and 2 barrels of oil (enough to run the average car for 1,260 miles).
  • Lithium from recycled batteries can be used to make new batteries and even airplane parts.
  • Contact lenses cannot be recycled. The box that they come in can be recycled as well as your solution bottle but make sure you throw your lenses away in the trash and never flush them down a toilet or sink.
  • Electronic waste (e-waste) is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world. In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste.
  • Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled indefinitely without losing quality or purity.

Now that you have a better understanding on the many benefits recycling provides, let's look at what can and can't be recycled.

How to Know What Can and Can't be Recycled

Knowing what can and cannot be recycled is important to learn in order to avoid contamination and ensure that our recycling efforts are effective. Here are some tips on how to determine what items can be recycled:

What Materials Can Be Recycled?

  • Plastic Bottles: Most plastic bottles, such as water and soda bottles, can be recycled. Check the bottom of the bottle for the recycling symbol and a number. Most recycling centers accept bottles with numbers 1 and 2, but it's important to check your local recycling guidelines.
  • Paper and Cardboard: Paper and cardboard products, such as newspapers and cardboard boxes, can be recycled. Make sure to remove any tape, labels, or plastic inserts before placing it in your recycling bin.
  • Aluminum and Tin Cans: Cans that previously contained vegetables, soups, and other foods are recyclable. Rinse and, if possible, remove labels.
  • Glass Bottles and Jars: Clear, brown, green, and blue glass containers used for beverages and food are recyclable. Ensure they are rinsed out before recycling.
  • Ink Cartridges: Many office supply stores offer recycling programs for used ink and toner cartridges.
  • Scrap Metal: Items made of metals like aluminum, copper, brass, and steel can often be recycled. This includes old tools, metal shelving, and car parts. You can even recycle brass shell casings from your spent ammo. It's best to take these to a local scrap metal recycling facility.
  • Glass Bottles and Jars: Clear, brown, green, and blue glass containers used for beverages and food are recyclable. Ensure they are rinsed out before recycling.

Hazardous Materials Recycling

Recycling isn't just about reprocessing common daily materials. You can also recycle hazardous materials, but they must be handled responsibly and sent to the correct facilities to ensure environmental sustainability and human safety.

Let's take a closer look at how you can recycle these hazardous materials:

  • Asbestos: Asbestos contains dangerous mineral fibers once widely used for insulation. If you suspect asbestos in your home or find it in the walls during a renovation project on an older house, hire the right professionals to come in and get rid of it. Improper handling can lead to severe health issues like mesothelioma. Asbestos recycling is a complex process where EPA-approved specialists heat and transform the fibers into harmless silicate glass. Once processed, companies can then use this glass in new products.
  • Electronics: E-waste contains hazardous elements like mercury, lead, and cadmium. Various facilities specialize in safely recycling electronic waste, separating hazardous components, and recovering valuable metals. Many communities have e-waste collection events or facilities that recycle electronics like computers, cell phones, and televisions.
  • Batteries: Batteries, especially lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, like rechargeable and button batteries, contain harmful chemicals. Specialized recycling facilities handle the safe disposal and reprocessing of these batteries, neutralizing acids and recovering metals like lead and lithium. Check with your local recycling facility to see if they take these. If not, companies like Call2Recycle and EZ On The Earth can send you a recycling kit to mail back into them for safe recycling.
  • Paints and Solvents: Leftover paints and solvents can be hazardous. Many communities offer paint recycling programs, where you can donate unused paint to be mixed and repackaged for reuse. Solvents like paint thinner, mineral spirits, acetone, and turpentine can also be distilled and reused, which is a more eco-friendly option than simply throwing them away and risking them getting into your local waterways.
  • Pesticides: Pesticides used to kill insects, contain weeds, or add fertilizers to lawns are hazardous to human health and the environment. You should handle these carefully and take them to designated disposal sites or recycling facilities that can process them safely.
  • Medication: Unused or expired medications should not be flushed or thrown away. Many pharmacies and community programs accept unwanted medications for safe disposal or recycling.
  • Automotive Fluids: Automotive fluids like motor oil, antifreeze, and brake fluid are hazardous and can be recycled. Many auto shops and recycling centers accept these fluids for proper recycling and disposal.
  • Items Containing Mercury: IThermometers, fluorescent bulbs, and old thermostats contain mercury. Special recycling programs exist to handle these items safely, preventing mercury from contaminating the environment.

Recycling hazardous materials is necessary for reducing environmental pollution and safeguarding public health. Don't overlook recycling these items just because they involve more steps. Remember to handle them properly, call professionals when needed, and follow the guidelines set by your local facilities.

What Materials Can't Be Recycled?

While many types of plastics and materials are recyclable, some are not. Below is a list of commonly used items that should be separated and either discarded or repurposed, rather than recycled.

  • Plastic Bags: Plastic bags cannot be recycled in your standard home recycling bin in most communities. However, many grocery stores such as Food Lion, Target, Publix and Walmart, just to name a few, have recycling programs for your plastic bags.
  • Styrofoam: Styrofoam is not recyclable in most communities as it does not easily break down. Because of this, a lot of your local recycling centers don't have the resources to make sure that it is broken down and recycled correctly. You can still check with your local recycling center to see if they have a program for Styrofoam or you can visit Earth911.com and enter polystyrene to see if there is a location near you that will take styrofoam.
  • Broken Glass: Broken glass cannot be recycled in most communities. Make sure to dispose of it in the trash.
  • Pizza Boxes: While made of cardboard, the grease and food residue often make them non-recyclable.
  • Ceramics and Pyrex: Ceramic and Pyrex materials melt at different temperatures than regular glass, making them non-recyclable in most programs.
  • Mirrors: The reflective coating on the back of mirrors prevents them from being recycled with regular glass.
  • Waxed Paper and Waxed Cardboard: he wax coating makes these materials non-recyclable.
  • Photographs: Due to the chemicals and layers used in their production, traditional photographs are not recyclable.

The best way to determine what can and cannot be recycled in your community, is to check with your local recycling center. They can provide you with a list of accepted materials and recycling guidelines.

Additionally, there are several online resources and tools available that can help you determine what can and cannot be recycled in your region. We have included some of these online resources in the next section.

Recycling Resources

There are many resources available for individuals to learn how to recycle and properly dispose of waste in their communities. Here are some resources that can help:

  • Recycling Centers: Recycling centers are facilities where materials such as paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans can be dropped off. Some recycling centers may also allow you to drop off materials such as electronics, motor oil, tires and residential construction and demolition waste. The items each recycling center accepts will different based on your location. It is recommended to do some research on specific recycling centers in your area to make sure you are going to the correct location. To help you find recycling centers near you, there are online resources such as Earth911.com or you can download their iRecycle app.
  • Waste Management Companies: Waste management companies are responsible for collecting and disposing of waste in a safe and responsible manner. They often offer recycling services, as well as hazardous waste disposal. To find a waste management company near you, you can use online resources such as Waste360 or Waste Management World.
  • Scrap Yards: Scrap yards are facilities that will give you money for your scrap metal and other recyclable materials. They often accept items such as copper, stainless steel, brass, aluminum and old appliances. To find a scrap yard near you, you can use online resources such as the iScrap App or Scrap Monster.
  • Hazardous Waste Disposal: Hazardous waste includes items such as batteries, paint, and chemicals that can be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly. To safely dispose of hazardous waste, check with your local government for disposal guidelines. Online resources such as the EPA.gov's Hazardous Waste Disposal Guide can also provide guidance.
  • Terracycle: Terracycle is a company that focuses on eliminating waste and promoting sustainable living. They offer recycling solutions for hard-to-recycle materials, such as cigarette butts, coffee capsules, and snack wrappers, which cannot be recycled through traditional recycling methods. For homeowners, Terracycle provides recycling programs that allow them to send their hard-to-recycle waste to Terracycle, where it will be sorted, cleaned, and recycled into new products. Homeowners can participate in these programs either by mailing their waste directly to Terracycle or by dropping it off at designated collection locations.

By using these resources, you can make sure you are properly disposing of waste and recycling materials in the correct location.

Common Recycling Mistakes

Since you are reading this article, it's safe to assume that you are looking for guidance in creating a more sustainable environment. Although others may have the same good intentions as yourself, many people make common mistakes that can compromise the effectiveness of their recycling efforts. Here are some of the most common recycling mistakes and how to avoid them:

Not Sorting Properly

One of the most common mistakes when recycling is not sorting the materials properly. Proper sorting is crucial for the efficiency of materials recovery facilities, which handle the next stage of the recycling process. Different types of materials, such as plastics, paper, and glass, require different recycling processes. Make sure to separate your materials correctly and follow your local recycling guidelines.

Contaminating Materials

Contaminating recyclables is another common mistake. Contamination can occur when non-recyclable materials, such as food waste, are mixed in with recyclables. To avoid contamination, make sure to rinse containers before putting it in your recycling bin to remove any food or other debris.

Putting Non-Recyclables in the Recycling Bin

Putting non-recyclable materials in the recycling bin is another common mistake. As mentioned before, items such as plastic bags or styrofoam, are not recyclable in most communities.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can help reduce waste at landfills and supply processing plants with the material they need to create new recycled products and recycled packaging.

Beyond Recycling: Upcycling and Creative DIY Projects

Upcycling is defined as the process of transforming old, unused items into something new and useful, often with a creative and artistic flair. Instead of throwing away items that are no longer needed, upcycling can give them a second life and help reduce waste.

Here are some fun and creative upcycling project ideas:

  • Turn old t-shirts into a braided rug, tote bag, or general purpose rags.
  • Create planters for small plants or herbs out of old mason jars or tin cans.
  • Use any leftover glass jars for food storage.
  • Use wine corks to make a bulletin board or a picture frame.
  • Turn an old ladder into a unique bookshelf or plant stand.
  • Repurpose an old window frame into a picture frame or room divider.

Upcycling is a fun and sustainable way to give new life to old items and reduce waste. Get creative and try out some of these ideas or come up with your own unique upcycling projects.

Kids building a cardboard fort

Upcycling Ideas for Kids

If you have children, upcycling can be very beneficial to their development. It requires children to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to reuse materials. This will encourage them to be creative and also teaches them the skills they need to solve problems and build self-esteem. By participating with your child, you can show them the importance of reducing waste and promote resourcefulness that will lead to a more sustainable way of life. Here are some simple and fun upcycling projects and ideas for you to enjoy with your kids:

  • Egg Carton Caterpillar: Cut out an egg carton cup and have your child paint it. Once it's dry, glue on googly eyes and pipe cleaners for antennae.
  • Toilet Paper Roll Binoculars: Tape two toilet paper rolls together and have your child decorate them. Punch a hole in each side of the rolls and attach a string or ribbon to wear around their neck.
  • Bottle Cap Magnets: Collect bottle caps and have your child paint or decorate them. Once dry, attach magnets to the back with glue.
  • Cardboard Box City: Collect a few cardboard boxes and cut out windows and doors. Have your child paint and decorate the boxes to look like buildings. Arrange them together to create a city.
  • Create a birdhouse using an empty milk carton, some twigs, and a little paint.

Overview

Hopefully by reading this article, you have a better understanding of how recycling can be a crucial step towards building a sustainable lifestyle and how it can help in protecting the environment. We have explored the definition and purpose of recycling, discussed the importance of recycling, identified common recycling mistakes and gave you some fun upcycling ideas for you and your kids to enjoy. We also provided tips on how to determine what can and can' 't be recycled, listed resources that can be used to locate recycling centers and waste management companies near you and highlighted the economic and environmental benefits of recycling, such as conserving natural resources, reducing pollution, and creating jobs.

As individuals, we can all make a difference by taking small steps towards recycling and properly disposing of waste. This will lead to new solutions and new ideas. One great example comes from the company Biofase. They have come up with a way to reuse avocodo pits to create biodegradable utensils, bags, straws, plates and food containers. This is just one example of how businesses are using new innovative technology to repurpose old material into sustainable and eco-friendly products. It is up to us to create a better future for ourselves and for generations to come. Let us all take action today and commit to building a more sustainable world through recycling.

FAQs

1. Is Recycling Worth It?

Recycling is absolutely worth it as it plays a crucial role in promoting environmental sustainability. It significantly reduces waste, conserves essential natural resources, and mitigates the effects of climate change. Moreover, it offers economic benefits by creating more jobs compared to landfilling. So, recycling is unquestionably worth the effort.

2. What Plastic Cannot Be Recycled?

Not all plastics can be recycled. Items like plastic bags, styrofoam, and PVC usually can't go in your curbside recycling bin. To know for sure, look for the recycling symbol on the item and check your local recycling rules.

3. Can You Recycle Anything With a Triangle?

The triangle symbol, also known as the Mobius loop, can be confusing. It means an item could be recycled, but that doesn't mean it will be accepted everywhere. Check the number inside the triangle and look up your local recycling guidelines to be sure.

4. What Is the Real Environmental Impact of Recycling?

Recycling is great for the Earth. It saves important resources like water and minerals, cuts down on pollution, and means we need fewer landfills. It also helps fight climate change by reducing harmful gases that come from waste.

5. Does Recycling Actually Reduce Our Carbon Footprint?

Absolutely, recycling helps lower our carbon footprint. It uses less energy to make new things from recycled materials than from brand-new ones. For instance, recycling aluminum cans uses 95% less energy than making new ones from scratch. So, recycling is a big help in reducing harmful emissions.




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