You’ve heard that recycling and composting are good for the environment. But you might need some advice on how to be a better eco friend.
Let’s start with the basics.
Recycling is when something that could be thrown away is instead collected and turned into something new. If you count creatively reusing products as recycling, then people have been doing it for hundreds of years. At first, it was mostly done because new materials were scarce. Recycling then became a major part of the environmental movement in the 20th century, when landfills were filling up. Waste needed to be managed, and in 1970, the EPA (which now regulates recycling) and Earth Day were created. In 2018 (the latest EPA data available), 69 million tons of garbage was recycled out of about 292 million tons of total waste (that’s 4.9 pounds of trash per person per day...ew). There aren't any federal recycling laws, so state and local govs are responsible for it (see: plastic bag fees and plastic straw bans). Thing to know: several states are considering laws that would have the burden (see: cost) of waste management fall on manufacturers.
How do I recycle?
One study estimates that about half of Americans have access to curbside recycling. That’s when you bring recyclables to the curb to be picked up and dropped off at sorting facilities. You can also bring stuff to a drop-off center. In some states, some bottles and/or cans can be taken to a redemption center, sometimes in exchange for a few cents per container. Search the Earth911 database for info on ways to recycle near you.
What gets recycled?
That’s complicated. But typically a curbside program will accept paper, flattened cardboard boxes, cartons, aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastics that are clean and dry and have the numbers 1 or 2 and sometimes 5 on them. Heads up: numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 typically can’t be recycled through curbside pickup, even if they have those arrows we associate with recycling. Eye roll. Styrofoam and egg cartons could also go either way so check with your recycling center. Pizza boxes can be fine unless they’re greasy and cheesy. Rip them in half and recycle only the clean top part in order to avoid contaminating what else is in the bin. Typically dirty napkins/paper towels (which are sometimes compostable) and mirror glass don’t pass go. And to make things even more confusing, you’ll probably need to separately sort and drop off things like plastic bags and film (use this link or this one to find a location), ink cartridges (some spots are listed here) and batteries (search for local collectors here).
I’m taking notes. Anything else?
China used to take a lot of America’s recycling. But they announced restrictions on what waste they’d import in 2017. Since then, the price tag to recycle in the U.S. has gone way up, and some local govs have had their recycling incinerated or sent to landfills to save money. But most people agree that when it’s done right, recycling is clean and green. That’s because it reduces the amount of landfill material and carbon emissions. However, if you lose yourself and toss your Starbucks cup into the wrong recycling bin, there are consequences. Incorrectly recycled items can contaminate otherwise fine recyclables and can damage sorting machines. According to one estimate, 25% of what’s put in recycling bins shouldn’t be. And that number has probably gotten worse in the pandemic. When you want to be a good recycler in theory, but produce extra waste instead, that’s called wish-cycling. We wish we didn’t have to tell you that.
Now explain composting.
Compost, Aka black gold, is decayed matter, often a combo of food scraps and yard waste, that can be added to soil. People have used organic material for farming since at least the Stone Age, through the American Revolution (George Washington was a known composter) until today. Now, a number of individuals, home gardeners, cities with municipal operations, and private facilities compost. In 2018, nearly 25 million tons of material was composted. But the EPA estimates about 3x that could have been.
How do I do my part?
If recycling is on your to-do list...Start small. Search for a recycling site near you. Bring reusable grocery bags or totes to the store. And get in the habit of recycling these everyday items: glass bottles, aluminum cans, and magazines.
If you’re a regular recycler…Level up. Ditch plastic bottles for reusable water bottles and thermoses. Consider using plastic-free soap pods or filling up your glass containers with soap or shampoo at refill stations (see: Common Good, Recontained, Refill Room and Sustain). If you’re crafty, try upcycling, or repurposing something in an artful way, like turning almost anything you can think of into a succulent planter. Remember: reducing and reusing is even better than buying something brand new only to recycle it later.
If we should call you Captain Planet…Save the world. There’s a female millennial zero-waste movement out there. Are you a hero? Make it your mission to avoid products that aren’t reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Check labels to see if products are made from recycled materials and support eco-friendly businesses. Opt for reusable glassware when possible.
If you want to be a compost queen...All hail. A general composting rule is to mix two to four parts carbon or brown material (like leaves, shredded newspaper, twigs, and dead grass) to one part green or nitrogen (found in food scraps like coffee grounds, nut shells, and egg shells). Then add some water and soil, and wait for microbes to help break everything down. After that, you can search for curbside compost pickups or local drop offs near you (some take it as is). Or mix your batch yourself in a compost bin inside, or in a slightly sunny spot outside. Or, if you’re a plant mom, wait for your compost to be a rich, dark color, and sprinkle some on your soil.
Like anything that matters, recycling and composting might take some effort. But even small changes to reduce your daily waste count as a win for planet Earth.
Skimm'd by Carly Mallenbaum, Becky Murray, and Jane Ackermann
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