You Need to Know How2Recycle

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

One of the biggest challenges I see time and time again when it comes to recycling and trash is consumer education. It’s hard to get people to care about something like packaging. Mostly it’s just viewed as a means to an end. However, that doesn’t make it any less important. The products we use every day almost always come wrapped or packaged in something. And that package’s value doesn’t have to expire the moment it’s opened. We need to recycle, but we need to do it right.

I live in a house of 4 people and I am constantly correcting them about what is and isn’t recyclable. It took a lot of communication to just get through that you can’t put flexible packaging in our curbside bin. I won’t lie, I even often get tripped up about how to dispose of random packaging, but I will usually take the time to look it up myself.

The challenge is the average consumer doesn’t know what can and can’t be recycled. What makes that worse, is they either don’t care to or aren’t willing to spend the time to look it up. The result is large amounts of our recyclables being sent to landfills due to contamination.

However, back in 2008 a project was launched by the Sustainable packaging Coalition in an effort to get more of the right thing into the recycle bin. That project is called How2Recycle. It includes labels like those below. These labels offer detailed yet simple critical information you need to know in order to recycle properly.

Photo from How2Recycle

Honestly it blows me away that something so simple took so long to catch on. This doesn’t take away from the ingenious concept because sometimes creating something so simple can be even harder. You’ll notice the labels are broken into 3-4 main sections.

At the very top you’ll find information about how to prepare the materials for recycling. This will include things like in the above example of just rinsing before recycling. It can also include information like what to do with caps, sprayers, pumps, or labels.

The next thing you’ll notice is the large recycle logo. This comes in a few different varieties. These range from the example on the left showing something that is widely recyclable, to the middle which is not recyclable, to the right showing something that requires checking locally. Another type that is not shown is items that need to be dropped off at certain store locations. One of the best things about this program is they have information on their website for checking locally and a store drop-off location finder.

Below the logo you’ll see the generic material type. This includes things like paper, glass, plastic, or metal. Below that you’ll see a reference to what part of the package the label is referring to such as pouch, box, or can. Between these two labels, you can get a pretty good idea of which part of the package should be disposed of where. This is great for packages with multiple components.

I highly suggest you check out How2Recycle’s website. They have a ton of information about the brands that are adopting their label and why all of this is so important. It’s a shame more brands haven’t adopted this labeling system. It offers all the tools consumers need to recycle correctly and their website updates frequently as things change and evolve. Keep an eye out next time you’re tossing something out. I’m sure you’ll start to notice these labels in more places than you realized.

WAIT, All Plastics Aren’t Recyclable???

Have you ever found yourself finishing something in your fridge and wondering if the package you are left with is recyclable? You’re not alone. You and countless others run into this issue constantly. Often people resort to wish-cycling, which refers to wishing or hoping the item you are placing in a recycling bin is recyclable. Unfortunately, this frequently ends up resulting in recyclables being contaminated with things that are in fact not recyclable. It might not seem like a big deal for a few things to slip through and contaminate a collection of recyclables, but it is. It often results in the entire lot being rejected and sent to a landfill or incineration. That’s a lot of valuable resources wasted in my opinion.

One interesting thing about this wish-cycling behavior is people that care about the environment the most also end up doing it the most. Think about it. Is your uncle Larry that doesn’t give a rats-a** about the environment going to put in the extra effort to put something in the recycling? No. He’s just going to throw it in the trash with everything else. You on the other hand will likely hope the item is recyclable. However, I don’t want you to just hope. I want to educate you so you are able to know the difference and dispose of these things correctly.

The first step to making sense of recyclables is starting with something that is often mis-recycled: Plastic. Plastic is one of those things that a lot of people just assume is recyclable, but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of varieties that are in fact recyclable though. The best way to start to learn the difference is to start taking note of those recycle codes on the bottom of your packages. So here is a brief overview of the 7 categories and their codes.

A super common code you will see is the #1, which is often just called PET, polyester, or its full name polyethylene terephthalate. This is the most common material used for things like water and soda bottles. This is also one of the most recyclable items you will see. It can both be recycled (turned into another bottle) or up-cycled (used for components in jackets and carpeting). Whenever you see this logo on a package, it’s safe to say it can be recycled.

#2 is also a super common code you will see. This code represents High Density Polyethylene. It is used for rugged containers like laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, or even grocery store bags. Although those items are recyclable, they are not always recyclable in your curbside recycling bins. Things like the milk jugs and detergent bottles are both recyclable at home, but HDPE flexible packaging should be taken to a store drop off. Flexible packaging refers to anything that’s really thin and malleable such as grocery bags or pouches.

The #3 code is probably one you don’t see as often. PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. This is the same PVC that, you guessed it, PVC pipes are made out of. It is also used for things like garden hoses, blood bags, and those really annoying packages that scissors come in that require scissors to open (blister packs). While PVC can be very valuable to our day-to-day lives, its not so recyclable at the moment. In fact the vast majority of recycling facilities won’t accept PVC in their recycling. The chloride, or chlorine, component can be hazardous to work with once they break it down.

The #4 recycling code represents LDPE or Low Density Polyethylene. This a small variation in chemical structure that leads to some different properties. These changes lead to LDPE mostly being used for bags such as bread bags or even squeezable bottles. Just like with HDPE (#2), although LDPE is recyclable, only rigid containers are recyclable at your typical curbside. Well its unfortunate flexible packaging likes bags and pouches can’t be recycled on the curb, you can collect those items at home and drop them off at store-drop off locations.

The #4 recycling code is for PP, or Polypropylene. This plastic is often used for things like bottle caps, tubs (such as cool whip or sour cream containers), or straws. PP can often be recycled curbside, but this varies from area to area so its best to check with your local waste facility. The most recent information I have seen says to leave items like caps attached because when they are loose in recycling they can easily get mixed with other materials.

We’re almost there, only a couple more codes to go..

The last of the solid material types is #6 PS, or Polystyrene. This is what styrofoam is made out of. So it is used for the takeout containers, foam in shipping boxes, as well as things like plastic utensils. This is another plastic that is not recyclable and thus should always be tossed in the trash if you see it. One trick I use to remember this number is because the abbreviation is PS, I think of “P.S.” at the end of a letter to remember this is the last solid material code.

The last recycling code is #7 and really just refers to everything else. Often times manufactures will layer multiple plastic materials together to get the best properties from each of them and those will be listed under a #7 code. This code can also refer to other plastics not listed in the other 6 codes. Items with this code on them are never recyclable. There is simply no way for recycling facilities to separate the different materials out. Items such as baby bottles, fiberglass, or even small bags/pouches can be labeled #7.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what to do when you see these numbers on the bottom of your packages. Try to see if you can find these numbers on the packages you use in your day to day life. Remember to clean and empty anything you put in the recycling bin and that not all plastic is recyclable. These numbers are there to help you sort out what goes where. When the wrong thing ends up in the recycling bin it can lead to a lot of extra trash and waste being created. Feel free to reach out to your local trash/recycling provider to check their rules. If you don’t see a number, toss it in the trash. It’s safer that way. There’s an easy rule to follow here: When in doubt, throw it out!

Daily Dose of Waste. Part 1.

Quickly after thinking up this trash blog project, I got to wondering: How much trash do I really throw away? I mean, I like to keep the environment in mind. I have to be keeping my waste to a bare minimum, right? I figured, what better way to get to the bottom of this than to collect all the trash I created during 1 day.

1 day of trash accumulation


24 hours later, this is what I had to show for it. 8.2lbs. in all. I can’t say whether you think this looks like a lot of trash, but personally, I was somewhat appalled with what I had to lay out in front of me. When you multiply this by 365 days in a year and the nearly 330 million people that live in the united states, the amount of trash is staggering. According to the EPA the exact amount of waste is about 292 million tons annually. That means the average person produces almost 1,800lbs. of waste annually. Based on what I happened to produce today, I am far above that number at 2,900lbs.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) breakdown by materials

It’s easy to forget all the small things we get rid of on a daily basis from the cotton swabs and floss picks to start out the day to the countless wrappers and packages we receive our products in. Throughout this process I had to stop myself from instinctively just tossing these things into the garbage. This served to show me how second nature our trash is to us. We often don’t give it much thought at all. We simply toss it in the bin and other than maybe moving it out to the curb, it’s mostly forgotten. This is precisely why I think our environmental issues have grown to the state they have. Out of sight is out of mind.

I also had an unexpected lesson from this process: you can tell a lot about a person from their trash. Looking through it, the daily decisions I make become a lot more apparent. It was evident that many of the pieces of trash I had accumulated were a result of using a product/service that was a more convenient option. While I love the convenience of an at home meal delivery kit, there is a lot of individual materials that end up getting tossed because of this desire. Really the direct to consumer products (the things shipped directly to ourselves) are likely the largest contributors to the total trash creation in my case.

I would challenge you to do something similar for yourself. You don’t need to actually collect your trash like I did, but in order to think differently, you need to approach your day-to-day life differently. Spend at least a day or more taking a mental note of every little piece of trash you throw away. Think about was this piece of trash really necessary or was there another way you could have avoided it. Through small actions like this, we can collectively reduce our consumption and thus make a large impact on our total waste production.