How Recycling Works
Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. It prevents waste from ending up in landfills and reduces the need for extracting new raw materials. There are many different materials that can be recycled, including paper, plastic, glass, electronics, and metals.
When I put recyclables in my curbside bin, they are collected by waste management trucks and taken to a materials recovery facility (MRF). At the MRF, the materials are sorted and processed. Sorting happens both mechanically and manually. Materials are separated into different streams like paper, plastic, glass etc. Then, the sorted materials are processed to prepare them for manufacturing into new products. Processing may involve activities like shredding, crushing, baling, pulping or melting.
Once processed, the recyclable materials are sold to manufacturers. Manufacturers use the recycled materials instead of new raw materials to make new products. For example, recycled plastic bottles can be made into polyester fabric, old newspapers can be turned into new newsprint, and recycled glass bottles can be remade into new bottles and jars.
Maximizing the Recycling Process
While the recycling process is straightforward in theory, being an effective recycler at home requires following some key steps:
Clean and Dry Materials
It’s important to rinse and clean recyclable materials before putting them in the bin. Food residue or grease/oil can contaminate other materials, reducing the quality and value of recyclables.
Check Local Guidelines
Recycling guidelines can vary by location. I should check with my local waste collection service to know what materials are accepted and how they should be prepared. For example, some programs require removing caps and lids from bottles and jars.
Wishcycling refers to tossing questionable items in the recycling bin and hoping they get recycled. This causes contamination and more work for facilities. I should avoid wishcycling items like plastic bags, styrofoam, batteries, lightbulbs, and clothing.
Keeping different materials separated, like paper, plastic, and glass, helps improve the sorting process. I can use separate bins at home or dividers in my recycling cart.
Flatten and Breakdown Items
Flattening items like cardboard boxes, milk cartons, soda cans, and plastic bottles saves space in the recycling truck and facility.
Know What to Avoid
Some common unrecyclable items are plastic bags, styrofoam, batteries, electronics, and clothing. These need to be disposed of or recycled through specialty programs. Hazardous materials like chemicals, oils, and lightbulbs should never go in the recycling bin because they can harm workers and contaminate other materials.
Making Recycling More Effective
While standard household recycling does divert waste from landfills, there are extra steps I can take to make recycling even more impactful:
Buy Recycled Products
Creating demand for recycled materials boosts recycling rates and motivates companies to use recycled inputs. I can help “close the recycling loop” by checking labels and purchasing products made from post-consumer recycled content.
Recycle Beyond the Bin
Many everyday items can be recycled beyond the curbside bin. I can look into recycling options for electronics, batteries, lightbulbs, scrap metal, clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, and more. My local waste agency’s website is a great resource for specialty recycling programs.
Support Deposit Programs
Some states have bottle deposit programs that charge a refundable deposit on beverage containers to encourage recycling. I can support the expansion of existing programs and creation of new ones.
Advocate for Improvements
I can provide feedback to my local waste agency to improve recycling services and work with community organizations that promote recycling initiatives. Improving recycling infrastructure and education are key to increasing participation.
Reduce and Reuse First
The waste hierarchy prioritizes reducing consumption and reusing materials over recycling. I can minimize waste in the first place by refusing single-use items, buying used goods, borrowing instead of buying, and repurposing old items.
Recycling Different Materials
Each material type has unique processes and issues to consider when recycling:
Paper and Cardboard
Most curbside programs accept paper, newspaper, cardboard, cartons, and boxboard. Glossy paper is often not accepted.
These need to be clean and dry. Grease stains ruin paper quality.
Remove plastic linings and windows from envelopes.
Shredded paper usually can’t be recycled because machinery can’t separate it.
Break down boxes, flatten and stack them. Remove any packing material.
Not all plastics are recyclable; I need to check numbers inside the triangular arrows symbol. #1 and #2 plastics like bottles and jugs are commonly accepted.
Plastic bags, polystyrene/styrofoam, and black plastics often can’t be recycled.
Thoroughly rinse and clean containers; leave on labels and caps.
Most programs take glass bottles and jars of any color. Items need to be clean with no food residue.
Ceramics, mirrors, lightbulbs, and Pyrex should not be mixed in.
Separate lids and caps if required, but leave neck rings on bottles.
Most accept aluminum, steel and tin cans. Rinse clean; labels can stay on.
Aerosol cans need to be completely empty and have any caps removed.
Small metal items can be recycled, but may fall through sorting equipment.
E-waste contains hazardous materials but also recoverable metals and plastics.
I should utilize specialty drop-off or mail-back programs, or retailer take-back to recycle electronics responsibly.
Common Recycling Mistakes to Avoid
To improve my recycling habits, here are some common mistakes I should avoid:
Putting loose plastic bags in the bin – these jam sorting machines. Return bags to retail drop offs instead.
Forgetting to rinse or clean containers – contamination ruins whole batches.
Wishcycling non-recyclables – when in doubt, find out or throw it out!
Putting materials in plastic bags – loose items are easier to sort.
Mixing non-recyclables into recycling – one bad item can spoil the bunch.
Not breaking down bulky items – flatten boxes and containers for more efficient transport.
Forgetting to remove caps, lids or labels if required – check guidelines.
Disposing hazardous, electronic, or medical waste – these require special handling.
Overfilling bins so lids can’t close – loose items end up as litter.
With some extra care and effort, I can help reduce contamination and improve the quality of materials sent for recycling. This allows more of what I put in the bin to ultimately get recycled and made into something new. Pairing recycling with overall reduction and reuse of materials is the key to sustainable living.