Back To The Recycling Basics!

Show Notes

Have you been thinking about your waste? I know I’ve been thinking about mine a lot the past few weeks. Especially my recycling since I have more of that than I do trash. But even though I’ve been recycling diligently for the past few years, I still ask myself questions:

Is this recyclable?
Where is this going, really?
Am I actually helping by recycling?

If you’re asking yourself the same questions, don’t feel guilty. Recycling is highly discussed because it is something anyone can do, and there are blue recycling bins everywhere. But there is still a lot of mystery surrounding recycling – and that’s because there isn’t much education about it. It’s pretty much a message of “Recycling is good,” with the globally recognized green recycling symbol stuck on products that we buy.

The Recycling Symbol


But did you know that the recycling symbol doesn’t actually mean that it will be recycled? The recycling symbol was created during the growth of recycling in 1970 when Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old college student, won a contest sponsored by one of the largest paper recyclers at the time. Gary had no idea his symbol would be so widely known. He says that this symbol, the three-chasing-arrows in a Mobius loop, suggested an unbroken existence within certain boundaries. That things are both dynamic and static at the same time. It was simple and got the message across well.
Plastic products were all well and good for the businesses who were saving money and making a lot of money, and even the consumers who were undoubtedly thrilled to have these new things that made their lives more convenient and trendy.

What can you recycle?

So if the symbol doesn’t mean that it will be recycled, what does it mean? Let’s break it down.

In general, the symbol itself just means it is recyclable somehow someway. But usually, it comes down to the community and the company who made it.

If you see the symbol on a black circle or with a percentage in the middle, that tells you it has been made from recyclable materials. But it doesn’t always mean it can be recycled.

types of plastic

We’ve all seen the numbers on plastic – but they don’t all mean they are recyclable. These numbers tell us what kind of plastic they are and how we can dispose of them. Here’s a quick rundown of the primary 1-7 plastics:

  1. PET plastic – Our everyday plastic used in soda bottles, food containers, and other household containers. Picked up by most curbside recycling and can be recycled many times over.
  2. HDPE plastic – Another standard plastic used in milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and other household cleaning products. These are the thicker and more durable plastics you find around your house. Like number 1 PET plastics, this one is highly recyclable, up to 10 times, and is picked up often by curbside recycling authorities.
  3. PVC or V plastics – Think PVC pipe, vinyl flooring, mattress overs, siding, or shower curtains. This type of plastic should be avoided because it is not easily recycled and is not accepted by most facilities because it has so many different chemical compounds and additives.
  4. LDPE plastic – Plastics like six-pack rings, cling wrap, frozen food bags – mostly plastic that is thin and transparent. Because it is so lightweight, we often see it as pollution, especially in our oceans. It usually isn’t picked up curbside and can only be recycled once. HOWEVER, number 4 also can include more durable products like bottle lids, condiment bottles, or tubs – and can be recycled but usually go in the containers only recycling bin.
  5. PP plastic – Most microwavable containers are number 5 plastics because the plastic it is can withstand high heat. It is used for butter and yogurt containers, bottle caps, straws, and medicine bottles. It is recyclable up to 4 times and is becoming more accepted by curbside recycling programs.
  6. PS plastic – Please avoid number 6 if you can! PS plastic is packing peanuts, disposable cutlery, bowls, and plates, plastic egg cartons, and takeout containers. It is not easily recyclable and is not accepted often.
  7. Other – This is the weird stuff that usually isn’t labeled – signs, sunglasses, nylon, 5-gallon buckets, and more. These are items made of a bunch of different resins – which makes it really hard to recycle and why most authorities don’t pick them up.

is recycling broken?

If you noticed, it’s up to the local authorities which plastics they want to pick up. The United States doesn’t have a federal recycling program – meaning that each community has its own rules and regulations. This is one of the reasons many people say recycling in the US is “broken.” I wouldn’t say it is broken, but it is definitely not working as we need it.

The economy problem

Along with the lack of recycling infrastructure in most parts of the country – there are a few other reasons why recycling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I mentioned last week that out of 292.4 million tons of waste per year, 94 million tons of that is recycled and composted, and recycling alone accounts for 69.1 million tons. According to the EPA, Paper and paperboard account for approximately 67 percent of that recycled amount. Metals comprised about 13 percent, while glass, plastic, and wood made up between 4 and 5 percent. The amount that is recycled pales in comparison to the amount we produce. For instance, 35.7 million tons of plastic are made in the United States per year.

In an interview with CNBC, TerraCycle and Loop founder and CEO Tom Szaky said our economy is a big problem. We think putting items in a bin means they are recycled, but if companies can’t make money off of them – likely, they aren’t going to be recycled. And it’s all about demand. Companies can make new plastics cheaper than purchasing recyclables when oil prices are low.

Out of sight out of mind

There’s also another big problem – where we ship our recyclables. I was kind of shocked to find out that almost half of the world’s discarded materials have been shipped to and handled by China for decades. Columbia’s Climate School reports that

“In 2016, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper, and metals to China. In actuality, 30 percent of these mixed recyclables were ultimately contaminated by non-recyclable material, were never recycled, and ended up polluting China’s countryside and oceans. An estimated 1.3 to 1.5 million metric tons of plastic found its way into the ocean off China’s coast each year.”

Then in 2018, China banned imports of these kinds of recyclables. So we started shipping to Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Thailand. “The U.S. still ships over 1 million metric tons a year of plastic waste abroad, often to countries already overwhelmed by it.”

That brings us back to infrastructure. When we are shipping it elsewhere without regard to what really happens to it, we don’t have any incentives to create a structure to deal with it or prevent it in our own country.

Recycling Mishaps

So if the recycling symbol doesn’t mean it is recyclable, and we ship most of our recycling to other countries – what else is there to know?

Well – the way many of us recycle is putting them all into the same bin, single-stream recycling, which makes it easy for consumers and easy for pickup – but increases the risk of contamination for the entire batch of recycling, rendering it useless.

Some of this is due to “wish-cycling,” when you throw something in the recycling, hoping it can be recycled, but you aren’t sure. These extras can spoil an entire load of recycling.

But there is hope!

Three Steps to Become a Better Recycler

Nationally recognized waste experts, Republic Services, give us three easy steps to become a better recycler.

Know what you throw

The first step is to Know What You Throw. We just went over a little bit about plastic recycling – but the best thing to do is contact your city and see what they allow. Ask them about leaving the lid on when you’re recycling bottles, as it needs to be kept on most of the time, and about crushing your items before putting them in the recycling, as sometimes it is easier to sort when it is 3D form. That is truly the best way to ensure you don’t wish cycling or recycling incorrectly.

Empty. Clean. Dry.™

Step two is Empty. Clean. Dry.™ They say to keep all recyclables free of food and liquid. One dirty item can contaminate an entire truckload, so make sure recyclables are empty, clean, and dry. It does take a little extra time, but it is worth it if it means it can be used again.

Don’t Bag It

Step three is Don’t Bag It. Leave items loose in a bin unless told otherwise by your city.

A few other tips are: not to throw away anything smaller than a credit card, as it can clog up the recycling processing machines, and to make sure to keep your recycling bins clean as they can contaminate your empty, clean, and dry recyclables.

If we incentivize companies to use recycled materials because consumers demand it, it can change the game.

The truth is, many places don’t even have recycling available because it isn’t profitable or built into the infrastructure – like my hometown and surrounding area. But things can always swing towards sustainability, especially if we make it a habit.

Recycling as a habit

Recycling is the starting point for many people getting into sustainable living. It is tangible and can be the catalyst for more sustainable action. And if we start making recycling a habit, we can improve the process and the economics as we go along.

A few ways to make recycling a habit is to:

  • Have a bin somewhere visible
  • Start with paper and cardboard – the easy recyclables.
  • Have a printout of what is recyclable on your fridge or somewhere nearby so that you don’t have to question if it is recyclable or not.
  • Ensure everyone in the house pitches in and is held accountable for treating their waste with care.
  • And, keep separate bins for recyclables that can’t be picked up curbside, like batteries, electronics, and more. Remember, companies like Terracycle and Gimme 5 take items that regular recycling authorities don’t!


But if you want to really practice better waste management, you can go back to the top of the hierarchy from last week: prevention and reduction. 

We can consume less – meaning we have less waste to worry about adequately handling and the implications of improper handling. We can also focus on reusing instead of recycling – keeping it one step away from the landfill yet again.

Something to grow on

For this week’s something to grow on, I want to challenge you to contact your city about recycling find out more about what they accept. Then pay attention to your waste – what plastic numbers do you have the most of? Are they recyclable? Is there another alternative when you go to the store that you could get instead that is more recyclable, or could you replace it altogether with a zero-waste alternative? Get creative and think about how you might be able to reuse your items instead of recycling them at all.

Here are some ideas:

I’ll end with a quote by Musician Jack Johnson,

“An individual action, multiplied by millions, creates global change.”

That is what we are doing here—adopting sustainable habits that are better for our planet so that, together, we can create global change.

Thank you for being here, and I’ll see you next week, neighbor.

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