There are so many recycling guides online, and so many of them contradict each other! This post focuses more on general tips – a realistic guide to recycling – with some thoughts on why we should primarily focus on minimizing our waste. Too many of us have the habit of buying whatever we desire and then optimistically dropping all kinds of waste into our recycling bin (“wish-cycling”). That might abate consciences for a while but it’s not a solution.
Guidelines for recycling
I’ve been meaning to write a post on recycling for a long time. When I was home in Ireland, last September, there were numerous discussions over what could and couldn’t be recycled. It was even headline news that month as the government approved recycling of plastic film. This then prompted more domestic discussions over what kind of plastic film is considered acceptable!
This underscores the point that there’s no universal guide to recycling – it varies from region to region. So you really need to look up guidelines for your own county or city. However, we can discuss some general points.
The video shown in the last post, California’s plastic problem, covers this topic pretty well, I think. In the video, recycling center manager Pete Keller calls out two examples of materials that are harder to recycle. One is a liquid soap dispenser, which consists of three kinds of plastic and a metal spring. As covered in my post on the footprint of soap, liquid soap is way less sustainable than solid soap bars, for reasons that include the packaging and the amount of soap used for each wash.
The other example given is a bubble envelope from Amazon – this kind of packaging has become more common at Amazon, lately. I’ve previously covered Amazon’s social and environmental impact and packaging is one area that badly needs improvement.
It should really be obvious that Amazon’s plastic bubble envelopes are not recyclable but of course Amazon wants us to perceive them as recyclable so that we can all feel OK about ordering more stuff. It should also be obvious that the pump mechanism from a soap dispenser isn’t likely to be recycled – it’s too complex.
A realistic guide to recycling
I think it’s best to be pragmatic about recycling, rather than dumping everything that you think may be vaguely recyclable in your blue bin and then patting yourself on the back. Here are some tips:
- Paper, metals and glass are recycled at pretty high rates worldwide, although the US lags on glass and needs to fix that.
- For plastics, HDPE (high density polyethylene, which is denoted by the number 2 in the recycling scheme) has the highest value, particularly when undyed.
- Containers that are made from a single type of plastic have a much higher chance of being recycled than more complex items like soap pump dispensers. Bear this in mind when shopping.
- Minimize purchases with plastic packaging and assume that only some plastic items (like HDPE bottles) will really be recycled. That little piece of plastic film with a label probably won’t, so don’t kid yourself.
- If you use a lot of hot water and soap to wash crusty plastic trays from frozen dinners, then you’re probably doing more harm than good since energy and water was wasted on something that probably won’t be recycled.
- If you do wash items for recycling, do it in the water leftover at the end of a dish washing session (for those that wash by hand) so that you’re not using extra hot water.
- If you do purchase items that come in plastic packaging, support those that use post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic – for example, Seventh Generation, Beyond Meat, Ripple milk, and Dr. Bronner’s.
That last point is important – if you do need to buy items that come in plastic packaging (detergent, plant milk, meat substitutes, etc.) then it’s important to support the companies that are using recycled plastic. When China stopped accepting much of the world’s plastic waste, the system was shown to be broken. In order for it to function, there has to be a demand for recycled plastic.