How To Recycle? A Comprehensive Guide, Sort Of
Updated: Jun 23
"A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people." – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Building on the last blogpost What is a Circular Economy, that highlighted The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, who proposes a new plastics economy, where plastic never becomes waste or pollution, this post is also about recycling and what actually goes into our blue bin at home and what's not.
If you google 'how to recycle' you want to pull your hair out because it’s made so complicated and confusing. I have been meaning to write about this for months but even dealing with and researching the issue gives me a headache.
For example in Los Angeles alone, it changes from city to city what goes into the recycling bin. The City of Santa Monica varies slightly from West Hollywood as well as Los Angeles. I mean really???
The best option is to find out who your waste management company is and follow their guidelines, or look up the rules on your local .gov website to find out what exactly goes in your blue bin. I wished I could deliver you a “one size fits all” but unfortunately there is no such thing when it comes to recycling in America. However, I’ll do my best here to bring a little bit more clarity.
There are a few things to pay attention to. E.g. not everything that needs to be recycled goes automatically into your blue (color in California) residential recycling bin. Take batteries for example, which are considered as hazardous waste, DON’T go into the recycling bin. They have to be collected at permanent collection sites.
E-waste (electronic waste) also needs special treatment and either be picked up specifically by appointment or you can drop it of at permanent collection sites. BestBuy also recycles electronics for you. I brought old mobile phones and laptops there in the past.
Then there are the codes, plastic resin codes, also called SPI code, you may wonder about. Those are the little recycling symbol printed on the bottom of recyclable plastic, and depending on the product, there might be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 stamped in the center of the symbol.
What do they mean? If you are curious to learn what each of stands for, click here. The short explanation is that they help recycling plants sort materials. For the consumer, they define the likelihood of your recycling ending up in a landfill.
Before we exactly define what goes into the blue bin, let's look at the overview on what's going on in the recycling world and why it's so confusing. The plastic industry has been booming in recent years, which is really unfathomable with the growing public awareness about plastic pollution in landfills and our oceans across the globe, and microplastics contaminating our water, soil and air. How is this possible? Shouldn't it go in the opposite direction?
The Profit Makers
I came across this Consumer Report 'What's Gone Wrong With Plastic Recycling' that I highly recommend reading, but the gist of it is this:
The main question they are ask is why isn’t more plastic recycled, if about 76% goes into landfills in the U.S., only to break down eventually into microplastics, contaminating the environment with an additional potential thread of releasing problematic chemicals ?
The answer is that plastic is less recyclable than we think. Plastics manufacturers made us believe that recycling makes plastic use acceptable. To quote Judith Enck from the Consumer Report, who is a former regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency:
“The reason the public thinks recycling is the answer is that the plastic industry has spent 30 years on multimillion-dollar campaigns saying that,” she says. “That was absolutely the wrong message. The message should have been: Don’t use so much plastic.”
Plastic is made from fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas. A report by the World Economic Forum calculated that by 2050, 20% of oil production would be for making plastic and the global plastic production is expected to quadruple (!!!).
The Consumer Report further states:
"Much of the current plastic boom is the result of a technology known as ethane cracking, which uses a byproduct of fracking to create the sorts of plastics used in packaging, often single-use plastic packaging, according to Enck. A new ethane cracking plant being built by petrochemical company Shell is expected to produce 1.6 million tons of polyethylene plastic each year. Plastic production is a way for petrochemical companies to continue to profit even as countries turn from fossil fuels to renewable energy."
Then I came across an organization called Recycle Across America who are campaigning for society-wide standardized labels for recycling bins to help people to recycle more and recycle right. They say that our recycling doesn't work if society is confused at the bin. Agreed. In my research I realized I made so many mistakes and threw stuff into the blue bin that don't belong in there. Yikes!
I mean how are you really supposed to know? It is totally up to the consumer to educate yourself. Who is willing to do that? So we are all wish-cycling.... One thing I did wrong, I thought compostable plastics go into the recycling bin. THEY DON'T, they go into the black bin.
Recycle Across America argues that "the standardized labels reduce the amount of garbage thrown in recycling bins, which in turn makes recycling economically viable."
The recycling industry has been collapsing in the U.S. in recent years. Recycling programs have been shutting down nationwide for being too costly. Even though there are several reasons, the collapse of recycling is primarily due to high contamination levels in the recycling stream.
According to Recycle Across America there is a conflict of interest that's killing recycling.
The reason why large groups that influence the recycling industry are not motivated to fix the problem, is that some of the biggest and most dominant recycling companies in the U.S. are owned by landfill companies. If recycling doesn't work well, the landfill business becomes more profitable.
Look at these two short videos for a better overview.
The Recycle America Solution
To tackle the recycling problem from a consumer standpoint, Recycle Across America are campaigning for society-wide standardized labels for recycling bins to help people to recycle more, and more accurately. You can order the labels for your bin at home and workplaces on their website. They also have a wonderful TIPS TO REDUCE WASTE AND RECYCLE RIGHT page with nice graphics.
And now finally......
The Blue Bin
The information below of what goes into the blue bin is my best effort after hours of research. I hope you will find this useful.
All items must be Empty, Clean and Dry before placing in your blue container. Do not bag or box recyclables; please leave loose in the bin. NO food, NO liquid, NO straws, or loose plastic bags should be placed in the recycle bin.
'WHEN IN DOUBT THROW IT OUT. As much as we might want everything to be recyclable, many things are not. In fact, making too many mistakes can cause even good materials to go to landfills. So instead of wish-cycling, make sure every common recyclable such as metal cans, plastic bottles, plastic jugs, clean cardboard, and clean paper gets recycled. And if you're not sure about something, let it go to the landfill to avoid contamination.' (I copied this paragraph from Recycle Across America).
According to LA Sanitation & Environment (LASAN) this goes into the blue bin:
All clean dry paper, including:
Arts and craft paper
All envelopes, including those with windows
All cardboard boxes and chipboard, including:
Dry food boxes
Frozen food boxes
Paper towel and toilet paper rolls
Cardboard boxes (broken down and flattened)
All refrigerated, shelf-stable, aseptic packaging, including:
Fruit juice boxes and cartons
Orange juice cartons
Soy milk, rice milk and almond milk boxes and cartons
Heavy cream cartons
Egg substitute cartons
All aluminum, tin, metal, and bi-metal cans, wiped out if possible, including:
Pet food cans
Clean aluminum foil
Empty paint and aerosol cans
All glass bottles and jars, wiped out if possible, including:
Spaghetti sauce jars
All plastics numbers 1 through 7
Empty plastic containers, wiped out if possible, including:
Dishwashing liquid bottles
Tubs for margarine and yogurt
Food and blister packaging
Rigid clamshell packaging
All clean plastic bags (grocery bags, dry cleaner bags, and film plastics)
All clean polystyrene products (plates, cups, containers, egg cartons, block packaging, and packing materials)
Non-electric plastic toys
Plastic swimming pools
Plastic laundry baskets
Car seats (cloth removed)
DON'T RECYCLE THESE ITEMS IN THE BLUE BIN
DO NOT THROW COMPOSTABLE PLASTICS IN RECYCLING BINS.
If these items below are placed in the blue container, there's a likelihood of contaminating the other clean materials. Please ensure that the items placed in the blue container are clean and free from contaminants.
Heavily soiled papers or bags with oils or food waste should be placed inside the black bin.
Glass (the following items should be placed inside the black bin):
Standard light bulbs
Construction materials, including asphalt or concrete, wood and wood products
These materials may have special handling requirements so please contact the LASAN Customer Care Center at 1-800-773-2489 for information on how to dispose of such items. Electronic Waste:
All electronic devices
Electrical cords and wiring
Electric or battery operated toys
Compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs
All batteries (including car batteries, household batteries, and rechargeable batteries)
E-waste is accepted at the curbside by special appointment (call LA Sanitation (LASAN) at 1-800-773-2489) or by drop-off at S.A.F.E. Centers and Mobile Collection Events. Or as we mentioned above BestBuy also recycles electronics for you.
Addition to Batteries
I have listed batteries as hazardous waste and electronic because I found them in both categories in my research. You can also recycle your batteries at Call 2 Recycle. You can drop them off or even ship them.
Syringes and needles
Drugs (pills, liquids, gel caps, vials, and injectables)
All partially filled aerosol cans and containers for cleaning fluids, automotive fluids, pesticides, oil based paint, garden chemicals, and pool cleaners
In other words: acids, antifreeze, household batteries, car batteries, brake and transmission fluid, household cleaners, pool chemicals, gasoline and other flammables, mercury thermometers, motor oil, oil-based or latex paint, paint thinners, pesticides and herbicides, barbecue-style propane tanks, and solvents.
Household hazardous waste (HHW) can be taken to S.A.F.E. Centers and Mobile Collection Events. (S.A.F.E. stands for Solvents/Automotive/Flammables/Electronics.)
CRV Glass Recycling:
Then there is an addition to glass recycling. Consumers pay California Redemption Value (CRV) when they purchase beverages from a retailer, and receive CRV refunds when they redeem the containers at a recycling center. If you think of it, you pay up to 10 cents for each bottle you buy, you might as well bring your bottles back and get a refund.
If you are willing to take your recycling more seriously, consider composting. Ad Vitam has a couple articles about it on our Sustainability At Home page. You can also follow guidelines from CalRecycle.
The Take Away: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
I am going to finish this post with another quote from the Consumer Report that sums it all up.
"Yet according to Enck and other experts, recycling doesn’t work if you keep making more plastic the whole time—you need to make less of it in the first place. “We can’t recycle our way out of the problem,” says Enck, who says consumers can pressure companies to move away from plastics, especially single-use plastics, altogether. “The only solution is reducing the generation and use of plastic.”
The infographics below are taken from www.lessplastic.org.uk.
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