A Guide to Improving Your Individual Carbon Footprint
Everything a Household Needs to Know Regarding Recycling and Waste
Americans may not think about the waste they’re getting rid of every day, but it adds up. In fact, the waste industry in the United States was estimated to have a $208 billion value in 2019 — a value that is growing every year.
Yet, as environment experts have explained, reducing waste, increasing recycling, and finding ways to make our environment more green-friendly are important to sustaining our environment long-term, among other reasons.
So, what can individuals and households do to reduce waste and increase recycling efforts? Here you will learn:
- How the recycling process works
- Ways you can recycle right from your home
- The difference between disposing of and recycling items
- What can be recycled
- A list of items that cannot be recycled
- What happens to non-recyclable items when you try to recycle them
- How to recycle certain items by mail
- List of items you shouldn’t put in your trash
- Tips for composting
- Answers to commonly asked questions regarding waste and recycling
- Helpful resources for household waste and recycling efforts
How the Recycling Process Works
You already know that recycling is important to the environment, economy, and to Earth in general, but how does it work?
The basic process of recycling involves individuals, businesses, or organizations submitting items or materials to be reused or repurposed for use. The way items are recycled may depend on the area where they are collected, the item itself and how it must be processed for recycling, and other factors.
The following are the basic steps in any recycling process:
1. Collection of Materials or Items
Essentially, you submit your recyclable items, such as at a recycling dropoff location or through a curbside pickup service. Some waste disposal providers pick up recycling alongside your regular waste. They may provide bins for this purpose or separate recycling bags.
2. Distribution of Recyclable Items
Once the items are collected, they are sent to a recovery facility to be processed accordingly. At these facilities, the items are first sorted, then cleaned and processed for manufacturing use. These facilities buy recyclable items, like other materials.
3. Manufacturing Process
How each item will be manufactured depends on the item in question. Recycled plastics can be used in new plastic bottles, such as beauty product containers or laundry detergent bottles. Recycled aluminum cans might be made into new tractor trailer or car body parts.
Paper that you recycle could be made into new paper plates, egg cartons, or construction paper. Not all items can be recycled, which is why it’s important to know the difference between items that can be reused and repurposed, and those which must be thrown away.
4. Items Made With Recyclable Materials Are Repurchased
After the reusable materials are manufactured into a new item, that item is sent to a distribution facility and used as needed. Consumers fulfill the recycling process by purchasing these recycled materials.
Ways to Recycle From Your Home
To reduce your individual carbon footprint and do your part in protecting the environment, there are a number of choices for recycling from home. Keep in mind that your options for recycling may vary according to the area where you live.
Curbside recycling refers to recycling your items through a waste disposal pickup service. If this service is available through your waste pickup provider, you will put out your recyclables along with your waste each week.
According to The Recycling Partnership’s 2019 State of Curbside Recycling Report, only 72% of American families have access to curbside recycling services. However, if your household cannot access curbside pickup services for your recycling, don’t worry. You have other recycling options available.
Many waste disposal service providers house recycling dropoff locations, where you can take your items or materials to be collected. These locations may be at the waste disposal facility location or in a separate location.
Some private, local recycling organizations or projects may also accept recyclables. A good way to find one of these programs or locations is to check with your local disposal service.
For example, Waste Management provides a recycling drop off facility finder page, where you can enter your zip code and find recycling facilities near you, as they have hundreds of facilities across the U.S.
Recycling by Mail
You can recycle a number of items by mail as well, such as batteries, cell phones, and other small electronics. Some mail-in recycling programs charge a fee, but many do not, which means you’ll just have to pay shipping.
You can even put your food scraps and certain yard trimmings or other organic matter to work by creating a compost. A compost is a valuable component you can use to improve the health of your soil and/or plants.
It works by combining certain materials, such as egg shells, coffee grounds, and other bits of food or leaves, to create a heap you can use in your vegetable garden, flower bed, and around your yard.
Recycling Vs. Waste: Know the Difference
With so much recent information about waste and recycling, it’s easy to assume that everyone should understand the difference between what’s considered disposable and what can be recycled. Yet this is not the case.
To start, many who recycle, while having good intentions, may include many items in their recyclables which cannot be reused or repurposed. Because of this, these items must then be disposed of, which hampers the recycling process.
Further, many people also throw away items which may have a valuable use if they could just make their way to a recycling facility.
In fact, it is estimated that each year every American throws away about 1,200 pounds of organic matter alone which could be composted, while one-third of each average ‘dump’ is made up of packaging material (which can often be recycled), according to the University of Southern Indiana.
To that end, it is important to understand when to recycle, when to throw away, and to keep a handy list of what to do with each type of item you need to get rid of.
Can Everything Be Recycled?
The answer to this question is complicated. Technically, nearly everything can be broken down to its basic components and repurposed in some way. However, we cannot and do not recycle everything. Why?
The answer is simple: recycling is an industry like any other, and, in order to recycle, there must be both demand and purpose for recyclable materials. The materials which can currently be recycled are those which have a current market, i.e. aluminum, paper, packaging, rubber, etc.
Companies buy these materials both because they fulfill a need and because it helps with sustainability of the environment. Unless every type of material has a market, it can’t be recycled.
The good news is that with developing technology and, especially, with advances in the market for recycling, more and more reusable items are being sought all the time. In fact, recent estimates show that recycling technology and demand increases mean we may — with effort — be able to recycle up to 60% of our waste stream, and maybe as high as 80%, according to the University of Pittsburgh.
Top Tips for Avoiding Recycling Mistakes
What can you and your household do to help contribute to the increase of recycling and sustainability? Here are some tips to make your family more green-friendly:
1. Learn The Items You Can and Cannot Recycle
Unfortunately, not all disposable items can be recycled at this time, and trying to recycle items which cannot be repurposed only strains the recycling market. Learn the items you can recycle and adhere to this list when recycling.
It may help to print off a list of recyclable items and post it on your fridge or desk, so it’s easily accessible when you need it.
2. Know How to Properly Dispose of Items That Can’t Be Recycled
Many items which can’t be recycled must simply go to landfills, like diapers. However, you may be able to repurpose some, such as by donating used clothing, shoes, and other household items.
You may be able to find local organizations which accept materials for certain projects. Food and other organic material may be used for composting in some cases.
3. Discover the Different Ways to Recycle
Depending on where you live, you may not have access to curbside service for recycling. While this is unfortunate, you do have other options. You can find a local dropoff location, or mail in certain items. This adds an extra step, of course, but helps you rest assured that you are doing your part to contribute toward long-term sustainability.
4. Begin a Compost
Use your table scraps and yard leftovers to create a compost pile for your garden, flower beds, or yard soil. Don’t have a garden or flower beds? You may find a compost useful for some household plants, some household or farm pets, or even be able to donate to friends or family who need compost.
5. Tell Your Friends
Recycling, to be truly successful, must be a large-group effort. In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the recycling rate in the United States is at 32%, up from 7% in 1960. If we could get the recycling rate to just 75%, the effect of eliminating/repurposing waste would be similar to removing 50 million passenger cars from the roads!
List of Items You Shouldn’t Recycle
You may already be familiar with the items you can recycle, such as paper, plastic, and electronics, but what can’t be recycled? Here is a list of items you should not recycle:
• Plastic bags and plastic wrap: You can still recycle these items, but they must be taken to a store dropoff location for take-back.
• Hazardous materials: This includes items such as medical waste, motor oils, or household poisons. Empty packaging for such items must be thrown away, and cannot be repurposed. Some communities have locations for dropping off hazardous waste.
• Batteries: These can actually start fires when thrown away or put in recycling bins. Instead, you should find a hazardous waste facility which accepts batteries.
• Stringy materials: Anything which can tangle up other materials and create a knot or mess should not be recycled. They can snag or even destroy recycling machines. Examples include cords, headphones, wires, or chains.
• Bagged plastic bottles or aluminum cans: Most recycling facilities simply cannot recycle materials you store in plastic bags — they must send them to the landfill instead.
• Multilayer bags: These include chip bags, wrappers for snacks like granola bars, and more. These bags and packaging simply have too many layers to be recycled.
• Food and food contaminants: Some food can be composted, but it can’t be recycled. Recyclable materials which have had direct contact with food may not always be recycled. Some food residue is acceptable, so it’s best to consult a list of containers which must be rinsed prior to recycling.
• Electronics: It’s a common misconception that these items can be recycled. Instead, they should be donated for use or for parts, or taken to a dropoff location.
• Propane cylinders: These should be returned to the provider or taken to a hazardous waste dropoff location.
• Clothing: People mistakenly try to recycle clothing since textiles are often reusable, but recycling plants can’t do anything with them. Take them to a local shelter, thrift store, or consignment shop to give them new life.
• Dishes: Ceramic dishes cannot be recycled but should be donated instead.
• Light bulbs: Light bulbs should be neither thrown away nor recycled, but should be given to specialized recycling programs (like those that accept batteries).
• Furniture: Neither indoor nor outdoor furniture can be recycled — even if its materials are recyclable. However, many local communities hold special yearly events where waste disposal facilities accept items like old mattresses or unwanted playground equipment.
• Wood and yard trimmings: Some people believe wood can be recycled due to its widespread use, but this isn’t true. It can, however, be used in compost piles, for small fires, and in other ways.
What Happens When You Throw Away A Non-Recyclable Item?
It helps to recycle items, but attempting to recycle items which can’t be upcycled or downcycled may cause equal harm. Here’s what happens when you try to recycle items which aren’t accepted in recycling facilities.
Recycling Machinery Jams
Some items can cause recycling machines to jam, or even break down. Such things as hoses, plastic bags, cords, or other tangleable items can disrupt the entire recycling process, leading to decreased efficiency — and possible harm to recycling facility employees.
Health Exposure Risks
If you try to dispose of hazardous materials which are not discovered until they reach the recycling plant, these materials could pose a health risk to all those who come in contact with them. This is why it’s so important to dispose of hazardous waste in the proper way.
Of course, even once recycling issues are discovered, the materials must be disposed of, and where do they go? To landfills. While there is no other option for some materials, most can be recycled if given to the proper takeback program, donated, or composted.
Increased Waste and Recycle Costs
All of this, in turn, increases the cost of the waste and recycling industries, straining the system.
Recycling Through the Mail: How to Do It
You have already learned about recycling dropoff locations and curbside services, but there’s another less-commonly used method for recycling: by mail. Mail-in recycling programs accept certain items through the mail and distribute them to the proper facilities. To mail in items for recycling, here is what to do:
1. Learn Which Items Can Be Recycled by Mail
Top items which can be recycled by mail (depending on the program) include:
- Cell phones
- Small electronic devices/li>
- Light bulbs
- Certain plastic items
- Inkjet and toner cartridges
- Medical items
- Ceiling tiles
- Propane cylinders
- Eye glasses
2. Choose the Appropriate Mail-In Program
Different mail-in recycling programs will accept different items, so it’s important to choose the program which accepts the items you need to recycle.
3. Pay Shipping and Mail in Your Items
You may not have to pay shipping, depending on the program. Some mail-in recycling programs will even provide a mail-in kit to ensure safety and security. Many will include instructions for how to mail in your items as well.
List of Items You Shouldn’t Put in Your Trash
Just as people often mistakenly try to recycle non-recyclable materials, they also throw away items which should be disposed of in a more secure way or which can be used for recycling. Here are top items you shouldn’t throw away.
Most electronic devices can be recycled or donated. Some local programs accept small devices such as cell phones for places like housing shelters for those in need. You may be able to return cell phones to your service provider. Many mail-in programs also accept electronics for recycling.
Furniture usually can’t be tossed out with your usual garbage unless your disposal service provider is holding a community take-back day. However, some recycling programs accept furniture for donation, such as Educational Assistance Limited, which turns reusable items into college tuition assistance.
Medications and Prescriptions
You can usually take medications and prescription drugs to a local pharmacy or police department for surrender. You should never throw away or flush medications. If a medication ends up in the wrong hands, it could cause serious harm, while flushing medications or pouring them down drains can cause contamination.
Yard clippings, leaves, and sticks can be recycled by way of composting, but they shouldn’t be thrown out with your trash. Look for a take-back day, or try posting on a local social media page to see if anyone can use compostable or reusable organic materials. Hazardous waste should be taken to a hazardous waste-accepting facility to avoid dangerous outcomes.
Top Tips for Composting
Composting is the easy way to recycle at home and put your waste to work for you and your family members. If you have never created a compost before, here is what you need to know.
1. Know Your Compostable Items
To make a successful compost, you need four key elements, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. For this reason, it’s important that your compost contain a healthy combination of these elements. To achieve the right compost, include such items as:
- Coffee grounds
- Egg shells
- Shredded paper
- Fruit scraps or peels
- Vegetable scraps or peels
- Tea bags
- Shredded cardboard
- Nut shells
- Yard trimmings, such as twigs, branches, leaves, or grass
- Sawdust or wood chips
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ash
2. Know Why Some Items Cannot Be Composted
Certain items which are similar to compostable items cannot be used in your compost. It’s important to the health of your compost pile to not include the following items:
• Charcoal: This could harm your plants
• Diseased plants: The disease could survive and harm existing plants
• Black walnut tree trimmings: Gives off substances which can be toxic or harmful to other plants
• Grease and other oils: Gives off a bad smell and may attract vermin
• Meat and fish or their bones: Gives off a bad smell and may attract vermin
• Chemical pesticides (such as on plants in the yard): Can affect plant health
• Housepet waste: This is not the same as cow manure, for instance, and can contain parasites or bacteria
3. Understand the Benefits of Composting
When used correctly, a compost will aid in enriching the health of your soil, resulting in a better garden yield and/or healthier plants. Using a compost can also reduce your need for chemical-heavy fertilizers or weed-killers. It may also help ward off the wrong kind of insects which can harm your plants.
Waste and Recycling FAQs
If you still have questions regarding waste, recycling, or composting, browse answers to the commonly asked questions below.
Household Waste and Recycling Resources
Consult the following resources for your recycling needs and to improve your waste use and recycling efforts.
Recycling Drop-Off Resources
A vast majority of U.S. communities now provide access to local recycling drop-off facilities. To find a facility in your hometown or city, call your local waste disposal service provider. You can also search the Waste Management website, which provides a search tool for recycling drop-off facilities nationwide.
Your local government, such as a Department of Ecology or Department of Environmental Protection, or even your local health department, may also provide recycling information.
Hazardous Waste Drop-Off Resources
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all hazardous waste information is maintained in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). You can search the website to locate a hazardous waste handler near you.
The NRDC provides a wealth of information for the different types and benefits of at-home composting. You can also look to the EPA for top composting tips, or visit this extensive composting guide compiled by Cornell University.
Battery and Electronics Recycling Resources
Battery Mart: Accepts car batteries, NiCad batteries, rechargeable batteries, and lead batteries. This program does not pay shipping costs for mail-in recyclables.
Battery Solutions iRecycle Kit: Kit includes all you need to recycle rechargeable batteries, single-use batteries, NiCad batteries, and small electronics.
• Communities for Recycling — Recycling, Trash, Donating and Composting — What’s the Difference?
• Earth911 — 10 Things You Can Recycle Through the Mail
• Earth911 — How Curbside Recycling Works
• United States Environmental Protection Agency — Composting At Home
• United States Environmental Protection Agency — How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables
• United States Environmental Protection Agency — Recycling Basics
• United States Environmental Protection Agency — Reducing and Reusing Basics
• Green Blue — Top 18 Things You Should Not Recycle Curbside
• LiveScience — 7 Everyday Toxic Things You Shouldn’t Toss in the Trash
• Maine Department of Environmental Protection — What Do Your Recyclables Become?
• Natural Resources Defense Council — Composting 101
• The Recycling Partnership — 2019 State of Curbside Recycling Report
• Southeastern Chester County Refuse Authority — Why We Can’t/Don’t Recycle Everything
• United States Census Bureau — America Recycles Day: November 15, 2021
• The University of Pittsburgh — Recycling Facts
• The University of Southern Indiana — Solid Waste & Landfill Facts
• Washington Department of Ecology — Recycle Right: How empty is empty enough? How clean is clean enough? How dry is dry enough?
• Waste Management — Drop Off Locations
• Waste Management — What Can Be Recycled: Recycling Guide