Reduce, reuse, recycle; a phrase most of us learn in grade school, but how many of us continue to act upon that phrase once we’re grown? Looking at the mess under my kitchen sink (paper bags full of unorganized clutter that may or may not actually be recyclable), I know I need to step up my game.
Let’s be honest, most of us could benefit from some recycling re-education (waste technology is constantly changing). But why should we care about keeping up instead of just throwing the mess out? Because we only have one home, one planet, and we need to start taking better care of it. With Earth Day just around the corner (Friday!), I felt it would be appropriate to clean up the embarrassing pile under my kitchen sink and actually educate myself on the proper ways to recycle.
Don’t worry—this isn’t going to be a detailed, in-depth post on what is and isn’t recyclable. That’s too complex and would make for a really long read. At the end of this post I’ve pointed out a few resources for more information on that. What I want to cover are the basics of recycling so that we can be more efficient with our processes at home. I’ll also talk about some of the most common mistakes we make when recycling (I’m not pointing the finger, but we’ve all done these at some point).
The basics of recycling
Before you start sorting through your trash, you should find out if your city’s recycling program is “single stream” or “dual stream.” If it’s dual stream, you’ll need to sort all of your recyclables separately into groups. If it’s single stream, congratulations! You don’t have to spend time sorting and can simply put all recyclables into the same bin.
Recyclables fall under these four categories:
Metals: Wash them out before recycling
- Aluminum cans, foil and bakeware (pie pans)
- Steel and tin cans (veggie and soup cans, coffee cans)
Paper: Be polite and break down/fold your cardboard boxes
- Magazines and newspapers
- Office paper
- Paperboard (like cereal boxes)
- Paper cardboard (dairy and juice cartons)
- Phone books and junk mail
Glass: Wash these out before recycling
- Clear glass
- Brown glass (beer bottles)
- Green glass (wine bottles, some soda bottles)
Plastics: Wash these out before recycling
This category is tricky because regulations differ by area. You should look at your city’s recycling program website for specific details. In general, you can recycle any plastic bottles, jugs and tubs you have, so long as they are cleaned out and the caps are removed.
Another important aspect of recycling is composting. Composting helps reduce the amount of waste that goes to our landfills, and it also prevents harmful gases from entering our atmosphere. Some cities (like mine) no longer allow you to throw food and compostable paper into the trash. For homeowners, it’s easy to compost in your yard, but for those of us who live in apartments, it might not seem practical (where do you put it?!). As an apartment dweller, I’m here to tell you that you can compost with a countertop bin like this, or at least set up a scrap bucket. A lot of apartment communities have compost bins outside next to the recycling and trash bins. You can empty a scrap bucket there a few times a week.
You can compost:
- All food scraps
- Uncoated food-soiled paper (pizza boxes, paper towels, napkins)
- Plant and yard waste
Organizing your recycling area
Now that you know what to recycle, it’s time to put that knowledge into action by setting up your recycling area. If you can single stream, you only need one bin. If you have to dual stream, you’ll need a bin for each category of materials. I like to use paper bags for my recycling bins—they are free, and also recyclable! Some people like to make their recycling area fancy by buying colored or stackable bins. You can get pretty creative if you like! However you do it, it’s important to label your bins to eliminate your chances of contamination (unless you can single stream, you lucky reader, you).
The most convenient place to put your recycling bin(s) is usually the kitchen, because you’ll be working with recyclable materials there the most. If you don’t have space in your kitchen, you can stick the bin(s) in your garage or in a closet.
For composting in small spaces, like an apartment, you can repurpose an empty coffee can with a lid, or buy a small scrap bucket with a lid (don’t skimp on the lid, you’ll need it to contain the smells), and stick it under your sink. Wrapping food in newspaper and emptying your scrap bucket a few times a week are other ways to keep your kitchen smelling fresh.
Common recycling mistakes
Aside from knowing what you can and can’t recycle, you’ll also want to watch out for these common mistakes:
- Recycling plastic bags. You shouldn’t put grocery/retail/ziplock plastic bags with your other recyclables, as most cities don’t accept them. You should take them to the nearest store that has a bag-recycling program (like Target, Walmart, or some grocery stores). They recycle them in bulk.
- Removing labels. You can save yourself some time because you don’t have to remove labels from cans and bottles. Yay!
- Not washing out recyclables. You have to wash AND dry out cans, bottles, and glass containers before you put them in your bin. If you don’t, they will be thrown in the trash at the recycling plant because food debris contaminates the materials.
- Leaving lids on containers. Most cities don’t accept plastic lids unless they are a certain size (usually 3”+ in diameter), so you should take them off and toss them in the trash (I know, this really sucks… I wish we could recycle all plastic).
- Recycling frozen food boxes. Any type of paper that has a shiny coating on it, like freezer boxes, cannot be recycled, sorry.
And there you have it
So that’s recycling in a nutshell! I hope you feel motivated to go organize (or start) your recycling area. I feel so much better since I’ve cleaned up the mess under my kitchen sink, and I’m happy to report that my recycling is now on point!
If you’d like more in-depth information on what can and can’t be recycled, go to your city’s recycling website. They usually have brochures you can print out and stick on your fridge for reference (very handy). Some sites even have places to look up specific items if you’re not sure if you can recycle them. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has a ton of helpful information, including a page on what to do with broken or old electronics.
Do you have any tips for making recycling and composting easier at home? Please share!