From the archives: Updated September 20, 2019
Recycling got its start almost four decades ago, when a U.S. paper company wanted a symbol to communicate its products’ recycled content to customers. The design competition they held was won by Gary Anderson, a young graphic designer from the University of Southern California. His entry, based on the Mobius strip (a shape with only one side and no end) is now universally recognized as the symbol for recycling.
To many people, recycling conjures up the blue plastic bins and bottle drives. Part of the problem is that major companies like big bottlers of beer and soft drinks use recycling to shake off the responsibility of dealing with their manufactured packaging. But recycling is a design principle, a law of nature, a source of creativity, and a source of prosperity. For anyone looking to steer clear of corporate sponsored recycling and hoping to make recycling a more integral part of their lives, this guide is an overview of the basic legwork as well as some of the finer and more advanced concepts that have emerged in recent years.
To wit: “Recycling a ton of ‘waste’ has twice the economic impact of burying it in the ground. In addition, recycling one additional ton of waste will pay $101 more in salaries and wages, produce $275 more in goods and services, and generate $135 more in sales than disposing of it in a landfill.” – From “Recycling: Good for the Economy, Good for the Environment.”
Read on to learn more about how recycling is green, and how you can make your recycling greener.
Top Recycling Tips
- First things first, a little R & R & R
The aphorism is so tired it almost might seem like “reduce, reuse, recycle” should go without saying. Most of us have only really heard the last third of the phrase, and they’re ranked in order of importance, but there are several steps we should consider before recycling. Reducing the amount that we consume, and shifting our consumption to well-designed products and services, is the first step. Finding constructive uses for “waste” materials is next. If it’s broken, fix it don’t replace it! If you can, return it to the producer (especially electronics). Or better yet – don’t by any packaged goods! Tossing it in the blue bin should be last. (The garbage can is not on the list, for good reason.) Through a balance of these three principals you can easily see your landfill-destined waste dwindle fast. A good example of recycling is setting your empty water bottles in the bin on the curb. But by using a water filter and reusable container you can reduce or completely eliminate your need for disposable plastic bottles.
- Know what you can and can’t recycle
Read up on the recycling rules for your area and make sure you don’t send anything in that can’t be processed. Each city has its own specifics, so try to follow those guidelines as best you can. But it can be more complicated than that. There’s real recycling, and there’s green-washed recycling and knowing the difference can help you avoid encouraging companies from ‘fake feel-good’ recycling. For example, Illy, the coffee company, began a capsule recycling program for its disposable coffee pods. The reality is that the ‘recycling program’ ships the capsules to another part of the country (hello carbon emissions!) and then downcycles the capsules to the lowest possible level. Their advertisements might make customers feel better about dumping capsules, but we know the truth behind the scheme, and it’s not recycling at its best.
- Buy recycled
The essence of recycling is the cyclical movement of materials through the system, eliminating waste and the need to extract more virgin materials. Supporting recycling means feeding this loop by not only recycling, but also supporting recycled products. We can now find high recycled content in everything from printer paper to office chairs. But make sure you know the difference between recyclable and recycled.Tetra Pak says the use recycled materials in their packaging, but only 18 percent of Tetra Paks get recycled – so the recycling looped is not closed.
- Encourage an artist
If you know someone interested in making art from recycled materials, offer to provide supplies. Many school children need items like paper towel tubes for art projects. Older artists use everything from rubber bands to oven doors. If you know someone who teaches art classes, suggest that an emphasis be put on making art from trash. While you’re at it, remind them to use recycled paper and biodegradable, earth-friendly glues, paints, and pencils whenever possible. See below for inspiration and groups that connect artists and students with useful “trash.”Don’t forget, you can get your creativity on and re-purpose your recycled materials too!
- Recycle your water
If you’re a homeowner, consider rearranging your plumbing so that rainwater or wastewater from your shower and tub is used to flush your toilet. If you have a garden, water it with leftover bathwater or dishwashing water (as long as you use a biodegradable soap). For more on water recycling see How to Go Green: Water.
- Recycle your greenery
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of the groundbreaking Cradle to Cradle, envision so-called “waste” divided into two categories: technical nutrients and biological nutrients. Biological nutrients are those that, at the end of their useful life, can safely and readily decompose and return to the soil. Composting is one of the simplest and most effective recycling methods. Both your garden cuttings and your green kitchen waste can go into an outdoor or indoor composter (with or without entertaining a population of worms). If you don’t have a garden yourself, find neighbors or a community garden that can make use of your soil. Composting food scraps will mean your regular kitchen wastebasket fills up more slowly and also won’t smell. Hotter, more active compost heaps can also consume tougher stuff like newspaper and paper napkins. After Christmas, many cities also have programs for turning your tree into mulch.
- Recycle your robots
Electronics recycling is becoming more common in many urban areas, battery recycling is ubiquitous (rechargeable batteries are ecologically sounder, but even they wear out after a while), and there are a number of non-profit organizations that will take computer parts and turn them into working computers for others. Companies like Ebay have also developed programs to help your electronics find new homes. Other groups will gladly recycle your cell phone or give it to a senior citizen, as even without a contract it can still make emergency calls. If you have a major appliance that doesn’t work and you’d rather replace it than try to fix it, offer it to local repair shops, trade schools, or hobbyists to tinker with. Many cities now offer hazardous waste recycling days when they will take not only hazardous waste, but electronics.
- Anticipate recycling
In addition to buying recycled goods, keep a keen eye out for recyclable goods. Whenever you purchase something packaged, think about how you can reuse the packaging, return it to a shipping store for reuse, or try to otherwise recycle it. If you get something likely to run down or wear out over time, such as an electronic component, give preference to the model that can be easily upgraded or cannibalized for parts so that you don’t have to junk the whole thing if one part breaks. Products that are impossibly fused together are often called “monstrous hybrids” and are, while often cheaper up front, frequently unfixable and unrecyclable.
- If you don’t love something, let it go
Lots of charities welcome your donations. Groups like Freecycle and Recycler’s Exchange exist to help you get rid of useful objects that you just don’t want to make use of. If you’re in a Craigslist city, make use of the “free stuff” section. Give away clothes that don’t fit, the boxes you used in your last house move, or scented soaps that don’t appeal to your sensibilities. Make it a rule in your house that nothing useable goes in the trash until you’ve given the community a fair shot at it.
- Become a waste-stream analyst
To better understand the kind of materials that enter and leave your home, office, or school, consider conducting a waste audit. Set a span of time like a week or a month, and separate your waste categories. Weigh the different kinds of material flows that go out the door (landfill waste, organic compost, aluminum, recyclable plastic, reusable material, etc.). Design a “material recovery” program that minimizes the amount going to the landfill. This is a great exercise to do with kids but can be very convincing to corporate higher-ups, too, especially since most companies pay to have their trash hauled away and can get money for recycled paper, containers, toner cartridges, corrugated cardboard, and such.
Recycling: By the Numbers as of 2014
- 544,000: Trees saved if every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin fiber paper towels (70 sheets) with 100 percent recycled ones.
- 20 million: Tons of electronic waste thrown away each year. One ton of scrap from discarded computers contains more gold than can be produced from 17 tons of gold ore.
- 9 cubic yards: Amount of landfill space saved by recycling one ton of cardboard.
- $160 billion: Value of the global recycling industry that employs over 1.5 million people.
- 79 million tons: Amount of waste material diverted away from disposal in 2005 through recycling and composting.
- 5 percent: Fraction of the energy it takes to recycle aluminum versus mining and refining new aluminum.
- 315 kg: Amount of carbon dioxide not released into the atmosphere each time a metric ton of glass is used to create new glass products.
- 98 percent: Percentage of glass bottles in Denmark that are refillable. 98 percent of those are returned by consumers for reuse.
- 51.5 percent: Percentage of the paper consumed in the U.S. that was recovered for recycling in 2005.
Recycling: Getting Techie
RES (resin identification code)
What do those numbers on the bottom of soda bottles mean, anyway? A key to the numerical system (resin identification code) can be found via Wikipedia. An alternate page can be found courtesy of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Polymer Science.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle To Cradle, have recast the way we look at recycling, illustrating how most of what we do is actually “downcycling,” or just delaying time at which, for example, a plastic bottle will come to a halt in a landfill (cradle to grave). These two innovators outline a system in which things are truly re-cycled in virtually endless loops; here’s more from McDonough’s site.
Criticisms of Recycling
Recycling isn’t all green and gold. For example, some argue that producing recycled goods is not energy efficient. It can also be quite costly. For common criticisms of recycling, see this Wikipedia page.
Reuse is the second cardinal rule of recycling, but make sure that what you’re doing is safe. Plastic waster, soda, and juice bottles and other plastic utensils aren’t made for multiple uses and can break down, releasing chemicals, especially in heat (like the dishwasher) and cold, (like the freezer).
With reporting by Manon Verchot
Here are some tips for taking your recycling to the next level.