A realistic guide to recycling

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: California’s plastic problem. Two items that aren't readily recyclable are shown - an Amazon bubble envelope and a soap dispenser top.
Amazon’s statement on “recycling” of bubble envelopes: “Some cities offer curbside recycling. Where not available, use designated store drop-off locations where plastic film is accepted.” In other words, throw it in the trash.

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:

  1. Paper, metals and glass are recycled at pretty high rates worldwide, although the US lags on glass and needs to fix that.
  2. For plastics, HDPE (high density polyethylene, which is denoted by the number 2 in the recycling scheme) has the highest value, particularly when undyed.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

14 thoughts on “A realistic guide to recycling

  1. We live out in the country and don’t have the ease of that big blue bin to dump our recycle stuff. I have bins on my kitchen porch for glass, recyclable plastic, and cardboard so it is presorted before I have to make the 40 minute trip into town to the recycle site. This has taught my family to be aware of what we purchase and whether the packaging can be recycled or not. I am learning to purchase in bulk when I can and to upcycle as many containers as possible. When recycling becomes a conscious choice I have found my choices have improved considerably. Your last point is crucial! The more companies our dollars support that do use recycled plastic may give other companies the cue that we do care. Thank you for this article, Jkaybay. (Hugs from Whimsical Moon Farm! 😀 )


    1. Yeah, if dealing with waste was less convenient for all of us, then we’d be much more likely to think twice before buying stuff we don’t absolutely need. Thank you for the great comment! Hugs in return, J


    1. There are certainly options for using mushrooms and other options to make compostable packaging.
      They will take off eventually, but they depend on a mix of economics and consumer adoption.


  2. In the UK the items that are recycleable varies from area to area which of course is confusing and probably off putting to some.

    But I also wanted to raise the issue of what the Covid Pandemic has done to the world’s effort to recycle.

    Obviously there has been a huge world-wide increase in the use of PPC (gloves, masks, aprons, etc), but also harmful changes of policy at recycling centres here in the UK, blamed on Covid.

    If I had a half used tin of paint instead of it being recycled it now goes into landfill. The same is happening to old oil from people’s home fryers,
    it used to be recycled and repurposed but now it goes into land fill.

    I’m sure there are many example around the world were recycling has taken a backward step which is blamed (rightly or wrongly?) on the pandemic.


    1. Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, sadly some things have regressed during lockdown and we are definitely generating more taste.
      It’s a pity because Covid isn’t even spread (to any significant extent) through touch, so there’s no reason for some of these policies.
      Like cafes that still won’t let you use your own mug, even after two years of accumulated evidence that Covid is spread through the air, not surfaces.


  3. Interestingly practical information. …

    I’ll never forget the astonishingly short-sighted, entitled selfishness I observed about five years ago, when a TV news reporter randomly asked a young urbanite wearing sunglasses what he thought of government restrictions on disposable plastic straws. “It’s like we’re living in a nanny state,” he retorted with a snort, “always telling me what I can’t do.”

    Astonished by his shortsighted little-boy selfishness, I wondered whether he’d be the same sort of individual who’d likely have a sufficiently grand sense of entitlement—i.e. “Like, don’t tell me what I can’t waste or do, dude!”—to permit himself to now, say, deliberately dump a whole box of unused straws into the Georgia Strait, just to stick it to the authorities who’d dare tell him that enough is enough with our gratuitous massive dumps of plastics into our oceans (which are of course unable to defend themselves against such guys seemingly asserting self-granted sovereignty over the natural environment), so he could figuratively middle-finger any new government rules with a closing, ‘There! How d’ya like that, pal!”

    His carelessly entitled mentality revealed why so much gratuitous animal-life-destroying plastic waste eventually finds its way into the natural environment, where there are few, if any, caring souls to immediately see it.

    As individual consumers, too many of us still recklessly behave as though throwing non-biodegradable garbage down a dark chute, or pollutants flushed down toilet/sink drainage pipes or emitted out of elevated exhaust pipes or spewed from sky-high jet engines and very tall smoke stacks — even the largest toxic-contaminant spills in rarely visited wilderness — can somehow be safely absorbed into the air, water, and land (i.e. out of sight, out of mind). It’s like we’re inconsequentially dispensing of that waste into a black-hole singularity, in which it’s compressed into nothing. Indeed, I, myself, notice every time I discard of trash, I receive a reactive Spring-cleaning-like sense of disposal satisfaction. Heck, I even feel it, albeit far more innocently, when deleting and especially double-deleting email.


  4. My city has had an abysmal recycling program for years, but I believe they’re going to start accepting more this spring! I know it’s not a perfect solution, but I hope it will divert some stuff that right now is being forced to go straight into the landfill.

    I’m also really excited that my city is going to start a green bin program for food waste sometime in the next few years (I think it’s a legal requirement by the province to have one in place by 2025). The green bin program is really exciting because since composting has become more common in the city, so, unfortunately, have pests (like rats). I know some people who have had to stop composting because of rat problems. 😦

    I also encountered my own problem this winter: my composting bin filled up and then froze (and then got buried by all the snow we got this winter!) I wish we’d had the green bin program in place, it would have definitely helped! Thankfully warmer weather is here!


    1. Hi Shauna,
      Yes – a green bin is a really important resource.
      If we can stop putting compostable waste in landfill, we’ll avoid a lot of methane emissions.
      Hope your program comes soon!


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