How to Recycle Anything (the Sustainable Way)
We know, we know! We should be reducing, reusing, and recycling at all times, but it’s just so time-consuming. Looking up plastic codes, sorting through sticky bottles (ick), and finding postage to send recyclables to the right place can be a serious pain in the neck. But going the extra mile is important — in 2010, the average American generated more than 1,500 pounds of waste over the course of the year (and only 551 pounds of that amount was recycled or composted). Over seven billion pounds of PVC plastic are chucked every year, while only one percent of that amount is recycled. Whether you’re an Earth Mama or a proud SUV owner, the truth is we’re throwing away too much stuff. And while ditching the clutter might make us happier, tossing it all into a landfill doesn’t make the planet smile.
In honor of America Recycles Day, here’s a guide to getting rid of junk in an environmentally friendly way. We’ve done the work for you — some items cannot be recycled easily, so we’ve included resources to upcycle, donate, or give away surplus stuff.
Note: If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with single-stream recycling (SSR), all recyclable items can be put out for collection together. Call the local department of sanitation or waste management organization to learn if your area has SSR.
Plates, bowls, pots and pans, and utensils: Most recycling programs do not accept china or ceramic plates and bowls. The most sustainable way to get rid of old crockery is to simply donate it to a thrift store, charity, or friend in need. Metal pots and pans and flatware can be recycled if your program accepts “scrap metal,” but these items are usually not collected at the curb. Pans lined with Teflon or another anti-stick compound are usually not recyclable. When recycling old knives, make sure to cover them in cardboard and write “SHARP” on the outside so sanitation workers are not injured.
Plastic cartons, jars, and containers: Before dumping anything into the recycling bin, mosey over to your state or municipality’s website to scope out which varieties of plastics are acceptable. The Plastics Industry Trade Association created the “Resin Identification Code” system, in which numbers one through seven identify grades of plastic. Look on the bottom of any container for the number inside the triangular recycling symbol to know whether it’ll be accepted in your area. Some towns may not accept certain numbers, so check before tossing that yogurt cup.
Plastic bags: The best way to reduce the number of plastic bags in circulation is to stop using them. Bring canvas or nylon reusable bags when shopping, even at the drugstore or a clothing store. Most plastic bags are recyclable; check your municipal website or look here to learn where to bring your unwanted bags.
Cardboard boxes, paper grocery bags, and paper packaging: Time to break it down — literally. Cardboard and other paper boxes should be flattened and stacked together for easy transport. Note that wet, greasy, or waxed cardboard cannot be recycled because it clogs the sorting machines used by most recycling plants. Milk, juice, soup, and wine cartons are recyclable, but they should go with plastic items and not with paper or cardboard items.
Aluminum foil wrap and trays, metal cans, and bottles: Almost all recycling centers accept aluminum objects as long as they’re clean of grease and food residue. If scouring foil ‘till it sparkles isn’t appealing, aluminum wrap is amazingly useful and versatile, so definitely consider reusing it. Making new products out of recycled aluminum only takes five percent of the energy needed to create new aluminum from ore, so wash, recycle, and repeat often.
Glass bottles and jars: Fun fact: Glass is one of the only materials that can be melted down and reformed over and over again without losing strength or quality. Rinse and dry bottles, cups, and jars, remove the lids (metal or plastic tops can usually be recycled, too), and take them to a local bottle collection center or drop-off location, or leave them curbside. Note: Other kinds of glass, like mirrors, Pyrex, window glass, crystal, and light bulbs cannot be recycled because they are manufactured differently from food containers and don’t combine well with bottle and jar-grade glass. Broken glass is recyclable, but many municipalities do not accept it because of the danger it poses to sanitation workers. Check your town or city website to see if you can drop off double-bagged broken glass at a recycling facility.
Appliances: Most people ditch household appliances (microwave, refrigerator, washer/dryer, blender, slow cooker, food processor, etc.) because they want a shiny new model, not because the machines are actually broken. The best way to get rid of a still-functioning appliance is to donate it. Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and local charities often accept both large and small appliances. You can also list appliances on a free-exchange website like Excess Access or Freecycle. Some municipalities offer special large scrap metal collection days for broken machines and appliances; check your local program for more information.
Bottles: Most bathroom bottles (shampoo, body wash, hair gel, face wash, etc.) are marked with resin code 2 or 4, which makes them pretty darn recyclable.
Medications: Don’t just toss old prescriptions! Flushing or trashing old drugs improperly can pollute the environment or cause unintentional overdose in children or pets. Before recycling packaging or instructions that came with medication, check to see if there are any specific directions about getting rid of extra doses (some medications should be flushed). Many communities have drug take-back programs, in which unused drugs are properly disposed of. Otherwise, the FDA recommends mixing pills with coffee grounds, kitty litter, or another strong smelling and undesirable substance, sealing it all in a bag or empty can, and throwing it away with the regular trash. Most pill bottles are made of #5 plastic, so check with your municipality to see if they are accepted. To keep your identity safe, cross out any identifying information before adding pill bottles to the recycling bin.
Plastic shower curtain: Most recycling facilities will not accept shower curtains or liners because they’re often made of PVC plastic. If the curtain is moldy, consider cleaning it and repurposing it as a tarp, a drop cloth for messy crafts, or a waterproof drape for a bike or scooter.
Cardboard toilet paper and paper towel tubes: Pop those bad boys in the paper recycling bin. Even better, use cloth towels instead of paper and spring for tubeless toilet paper.
Toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes: Recycling these bad boys takes some research, but it’s definitely not impossible. Toothbrushes are tricky because they’re made of three materials: nylon bristles, a plastic handle, and metal wiring that holds the whole shebang together. Terracycle accepts toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, and empty floss containers as part of their Oral Care Brigade. Also, some toothpaste manufacturers like Tom’s of Maine offer in-house recycling — just pack up a box of empty tubes and send ‘em back. Or start out ahead of the game with a Preserve toothbrush made of recycled yogurt cups (part of the Gimme 5 initiative for reusing hard-to-recycle #5 plastic items).
Home cleaning products: From drain-clearers to floor-polishers, most of us use plenty of chemicals to keep our homes sparkly. Going with natural cleaning products is a personal choice, but if you decide to use strong chemicals, be sure to dispose of them correctly. Most household cleaners are designed to interact with water and eventually go down the drain (shower scrub, detergents, soaps, etc.), so these liquids, gels, or powders can be dumped in the sink. Be sure to rinse and recycle the plastic bottles afterwards. Solid items like sponges, sheets, sticks, pads, and towelettes should go in the trash. For more exotic products — furniture polish, oven cleaners, etc. — call the manufacturer to learn how to get rid of excess product safely.
Furniture: Large furniture items are more suitable for upcycling than recycling. Reupholster a tired-looking couch, refinish a scuffed chair or table, or paint a dingy old filing cabinet to give it new life. If it just doesn’t fit in your house or lifestyle, charity organizations (see the groups mentioned in the “appliances” section above) can take old furniture off your hands. Some cities offer curbside recycling for furniture, but talk to a municipal employee to make sure it’s not just going in the junk heap.
Light bulbs: Reduce the number of light bulbs in the trash by switching to an energy-saving LED or CFL bulb. CFLs use way less energy (70 percent less, in fact) and last about 10 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. However, CFLs also contain mercury and other chemicals, so it’s important to dispose of them carefully. Dispose of burnt-out bulbs at a waste collection agency, a municipality’s waste collection day, or a local retailer (many hardware stores offer light bulb recycling). Also, some bulb manufacturers sell recycling kits so you can send used bulbs to recycling centers.
Rugs and mats: Americans kick five billion pounds of carpet to the curb every year. Carpets usually go straight to the landfill, so the government has teamed up with the carpet industry to create the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), an organization for recycling those old mats and rugs. Check out the website to find a CARE drop-off facility in your area. If the rug, mat, or carpet is in relatively good shape, you can donate it to Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill, or a local charity. Also consider repurposing it — use squares of carpet as doormats, car mats, or furniture pads.
Books: That Literary Classics Collection is nothing but paper and maybe a cardboard cover, so technically it’s good to go in the paper recycling bin. Most libraries, schools, and hospitals gladly accept book and magazine donations, provided the goods aren’t too dirty or missing pages. If you’re looking to make some real paper (aka money), sell old reads to a thrift shop or online via eBay, Amazon, or a book buy-back site.
Miscellaneous paper, newspapers, and magazines: Paper products make up 29 percent of all solid waste, but we’re making great progress. In 2010 Americans recycled about 63 percent of the paper we used, and up to 80 percent of U.S. paper factories are designed to use recycled items. Paper is one of the most straightforward items to recycle, so just toss those old newspapers, fliers, notes, and to-do lists into the recycling bin. Note that there’s no need to remove tape from boxes or plastic windows from envelopes, because sorting machines are able to winnow out small amounts of non-recyclable material.
Cell phones, televisions, computers, printers, and other electronics: Considering how fast technology has developed in the past 10 years, many of us have a junky old computer and a pile of antiquated beepers, MP3 players, and flip cell phones gathering dust in the attic. Put these items to good use — there are hundreds of organizations that donate computers and cell phones to those in need. The World Computer Exchange, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Cell Phones for Soldiers, and eBay Giving Works are just a few national non-profits that refurbish and redistribute old technology. Also take a look into local charities — religious institutions, senior citizen homes, homeless and battered women’s shelters, and schools often sponsor electronics drives. If you’re gung-ho on recycling, many municipalities have special days where people can bring old gadgets and gizmos to the recycling center — check your town or city website for more information.
Printer cartridges: Buying new ink and toner for a home printer is a bummer, especially given how much packaging each tiny cartridge comes in. Luckily, most major office supply stores offer drop-off catridge recycling, and many even give you back a small deposit (usually around $2). Some printer companies also include envelopes with pre-paid postage in their packaging to make sending used ink back to the manufacturer a no-brainer.
Batteries: These days, most batteries are of the rechargeable variety (oh hey, iPod), but people still use good old fashioned AAs from time to time. Alkaline batteries produced after 1994 can go straight in the trash, but lithium, button, and rechargeable batteries (including car or motor boat batteries) must be recycled because they contain toxic or reactive chemicals. Collect old batteries and bring them to a municipal hazardous household waste disposal center or a chain electronics store such as Best Buy, Circuit City, etc. There are several online resources and companies that make battery recycling even easier. Check out Battery Solutions, The Big Green Box, or The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.
Hangers: Recycling metal clothes hangers is pretty simple — just return them to the dry cleaner. Even if they’ve been bent out of shape, dry cleaners can send them to hanger manufacturers to be reformed. About 3.5 billion hangers end up in landfills every year, mainly because people don’t know that they’re super-recyclable. If you can’t give them away to friends (honestly, who doesn’t need more hangers?) or a local dry cleaner, bring them to the town or city recycling center on scrap metal day.
Mattresses and box springs: Unfortunately, finding a sustainable final chapter for your mattress can be tough. Some charities, such as The Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul, accept and either re-sell or strip mattresses and recycle the component parts. Usually, an organization that accepts a mattress will also take a box spring, but definitely do some research and call ahead (because schlepping a mattress across town — twice — is nobody’s idea of a good time). If all else fails, there’s always Craigslist and Freecycle, where you can find just about anything a new home.
Clothing and shoes: Recycling old clothing is pretty easy. First, determine the level of quality you’re dealing with. Sell or donate clean, dry, and undamaged clothing and shoes to a secondhand store, thrift shop, or charity. Local religious institutions, homeless shelters, and battered women’s shelters usually take clothing donations. Don’t worry if your old clothes aren’t exactly ship-shape — Goodwill, The Salvation Army, and other secondhand stores often sell unwearable items to textile recyclers, where they become insulation, rags, or ingredients in paper products. Also check out national clothing recycling programs like USAgain (for clothing) or Soles 4 Souls (for shoes).
Sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels: In terms of recycling or donating, sheets and towels are pretty similar to clothing. Unless they’re dirty, stained, or torn, household linens and blankets can be donated to a house of worship, homeless shelter, or thrift shop. Pillows are not recyclable, and most secondhand stores won’t accept them for hygienic reasons. However, many animal shelters accept old blankets and pillows to provide bedding for the animals.
Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft
Running shoes: The physical therapist (and the salesperson at the local sneaker store) recommends replacing kicks every few hundred miles to avoid injury, but they’re hardly reduced to flapping sole-less wonders by that point —so why not let someone else take them for a spin? There are dozens of organizations that distribute running shoes for those in need. Check out One World Running, The Shoe Bank, and Soles 4 Souls, to name just a few. Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program turns the rubber and other materials from athletic shoes into raw materials for playgrounds, tracks, courts, and playing fields.
Workout clothes: Regular old T-shirts and shorts can go to Goodwill or The Salvation Army. Anything too torn or ripped for reuse can live again as rags, insulation, or stuffing for furniture or car seats. Some exercise companies, like Patagonia, accept threadbare old clothing for recycling. The nonprofit Sports Gift provides sports equipment, including attire and accessories (socks, shin guards, pinnies, etc.), to underprivileged children around the world.
Small exercise equipment: Not sure what to do with that long-neglected jump rope, foam roller, resistance band, exercise ball, medicine ball, dumbbell, or yoga mat? All-metal weight equipment (i.e. anything not covered in plastic or rubber) can be dropped off for recycling on scrap metal day. Most municipal recycling programs accept foam rollers made of EVA material. Other miscellaneous fitness equipment can be donated to a local recreation center or a community program like the YMCA or Big Brothers, Big Sisters. There are also plenty of options for recycling or repurposing an old yoga mat. Recycle Your Mat redistributes old yoga mats to new users or recycles them, while organizations like The Art of Yoga Project, the Mind Body Awareness Project, and Bent on Learning (among many other similar projects) use donated mats to provide yoga instruction to at-risk youth.
Larger exercise equipment: If you’re really dedicated to repurposing an old treadmill, elliptical machine, rower, or other large fitness equipment, you’ll have to find a recycling center where it can be taken apart for scrap materials. Check out the resources for recycling large appliances in the “Kitchen” section above, because many sites that accept refrigerators and washing machines also take treadmills and other fitness machines. If the equipment still works (or requires a fairly simple repair), consider donating it to a community charity or non-profit. For a bit of cash, sell it to a secondhand fitness equipment company like Play it Again Sports or 2nd Wind Exercise Equipment.
Reusable water bottle: Strangely enough, it’s tougher to recycle an eco-friendly reusable water bottle than a disposable plastic one. Many recycling centers will accept metal (aluminum and stainless steel) bottles, but not alongside regular curbside items. Because water bottles are designed to be sturdy, they are more difficult to break down than flimsy aluminum cans. To recycle metal bottles, bring them to a scrap metal recycling center (without the cap — molded plastic tops are not usually recyclable). Plastic bottles are usually made of #7 plastic, which is the “catch-all” code for plastics that don’t fit in any other categories. This variety of plastic is recyclable in some municipalities but not others, so call ahead of time to check.
This is just a short list of the most commonly trashed items. For more information about recycling, contact the local sanitation department. To learn how to donate to a local organization (or local branch of a national non-profit), check out donationtown.org.
Do you recycle? What kinds of materials are accepted in your town or city? Share your perspective in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.
Originally published on April 26, 2013. Updated November 2013.
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