Many of us have run into confusion around recycling, not sure what is recyclable and what isn’t. Well, it’s not just you, recycling is complicated. This is mostly because the term recyclable is pretty complicated. While anything can technically be used as a material for something else, whether something is recyclable is different from something actually getting recycled. Recyclable is a gradient of the potential, from VERY likely to get turned into other things, to very unlikely to get turned into other things.
Glass and Aluminum
Glass and aluminum are our recycling all-stars and are VERY recyclable.
- They are 100% meaning they can be recycled over and over without losing quality
- They can be recycled very quickly, going from the recycling bin to back on the shelf in 60 days or less
The alternative to using recycled materials is environmental devastation. The natural resource used to make aluminum is called bauxite and mining this material is very harmful to the environment and local populations.
When we make aluminum cans out of recycled material not only do we avoid this destruction, we also save 95% of energy in the manufacturing.
Glass is a similar story but energy saving is even more important because it takes immense amounts of energy to produce glass. When made from natural resources you have to heat the material to over 3,000 degrees, but from recycled material you save 74% of energy as well as skip the destructive mining process of the raw material (silica sand and a few other compounds).
These two are no-brainers. These items are easy to recycle and valuable material for manufacturers, so there is a very steady market for them, hence very recyclable. But Americans throw away ~ $1 billion worth of aluminum cans every year. When we recycle these items we help the planet and the economy.
Plus they are pretty straightforward to identify. Recyclable glass products include all kinds of glass containers like bottles and jars and do NOT include other types of glass like windows, mirrors, and cookware. Recyclable metal is also only metal cans (either kind) and does NOT include scrap metal.
Paper is also fairly straightforward and very important to recycle. Paper products make up 25% of our waste stream. Tropical forests are being lost at the rate of two football fields a minute worldwide. On top of habitat loss and endangering species deforestation is contributing to our carbon excess the SAME amount as the entire transportation industry. Not only does carbon off-gas from these cut trees, but we are eliminating the trees’ potential to take that carbon out of the atmosphere. In the manufacturing of these paper products from raw materials, we get pollution of all kinds of chemicals, dioxins being among the worst. Dioxins are known to be hazardous to human health and are as pervasive as microplastics, appearing in our water, food, and bodies.
By making paper from 100% recycled content fiber instead of virgin forest fibers, we cut impacts almost in half on energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, wastewater, and solid waste, and eliminate 100% of wood use. Paper can be recycled 5 – 7 times before the fibers get too short to be used again.
We do get a few gray zone items in this category. Some paper products are recyclable and some are not.
Recyclable: Newspaper, magazines, phone books, printer paper, cardboard, chipboard.
Not Recyclable: Tissue paper, toilet paper, paper towels, napkins.
We also have to be wary of mixed material, paper products that also contain some plastic or metal. For example, cardboard boxes meant for the freezer often are coated in plastic to keep them waterproof and can’t be recycled, while a cardboard cereal box meant for the pantry does not contain plastic and can be recycled.
Plastic is our trickiest material type. It is not infinitely recyclable, losing quality with each reuse, but most of it doesn’t even get the chance to try. Only 9% of our plastic gets recycled and most of this tiny sliver is being downcycled into things like carpet, pants, shoes, plastic lumber, and recycling bins, not back into plastic containers. Plastics are complicated because they range widely in recyclability potential, which creates a not very user-friendly system for consumers to follow.
The term ”recyclable” does not just mean whether the technology exists, it also depends on the market for that material. Paper, glass, and metal manufacturers buy back their own materials because it’s more financially viable than extracting and refining new resources, but this is not the case for plastics. Because plastic is not inherently good at being turned into other plastic, manufacturers continue to use raw materials instead, drilling and refining oil and gas. To perpetuate the problem there are many subsidies and private funding for fossil fuel extraction that keep it the easiest option.
And meanwhile, recycling companies are dealing with this mountain of plastic, 300 million tons of plastic every year, which is not only much more difficult to sort than other material types, it also has very little value since no one will buy it. And the result of this is that most of those 300 million tons of plastic turn into a giant game of global hot potato where the environment is usually the loser.
For this material especially, it is so much better to REDUCE. No one wants plastic on the back end and yet production has increased 20-fold in the last 50 years. While we try to eliminate single-use plastics from our world, let’s also do our best to get as much plastic recycled as possible:
In order to decipher between the MOST recyclable and the least recyclable plastics, we can use the floppy sloppy/rigid recyclable rule. If you can scrunch it in your hand easily it is sloppy and should be landfilled or taken to a special film plastic recycler. If it keeps its shape, rigid, then it is likely recyclable. Unfortunately, the plastic symbols 1 – 7 are not a lot of help here. These do not mean the item is recyclable! They indicate the type of plastic which does not always correspond to recyclability.