A Guide To Recycling By BankEditor (A Socially Responsible Company)
As a socially responsible company, we take the health of our planet and our community very seriously. For those who aren’t familiar, a socially responsible company is a company that prioritizes societal benefits as highly as it prizes shareholder value.
We consider it our duty to act in the best interests of our environment and humanity. That means that we will never be dumping toxic waste into rivers, polluting the air, or treating our employees with anything but the utmost respect. A considerable part of our socially responsible practice is recycling, and it is something that we urge everyone to engage with at every level.
Recycling or turning waste materials into new products has been a part of American culture for decades. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was established on December 2 of 1970, recycling helps to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators, conserves natural resources like timber, water, and minerals, prevents pollution, saves energy, and helps to support American manufacturing by creating jobs.
For all of these reasons and more, we would like to encourage you to recycle when you can. Recycling can seem daunting to people not familiar with the practice, so to demystify the recycling process, we have put together this guide to recycling properly and responsible. Here we will cover:
If you like the idea of reducing, reusing, and recycling but don’t know where to begin…you have come to the right place! Education is the first step, so read on.
A Brief History of Recycling in America
When most people think of modern recycling, they think of their homes first. Most households use two different waste receptacles: one for landfill-bound trash and one for recyclable materials.
In recent years, some households have even introduced a third bin for compost. Compost is organic material that can be collected and allowed to decompose naturally. Composted soil is incredibly nutritious and is fantastic for gardening.
While composting is a recycling component, it is not necessarily what people think of first when they think about reusing materials. Therefore, home recycling is all about separating reusable waste from true waste before anything ever goes into a bin. The good news is that there are bins created for the purpose of recycling.
But when did this begin?
According to The History Channel, the concept of recycling is almost timeless. They give early examples from the 1800s of patching torn shirts and reusing material for various projects instead of trashing them to buy new things, but the first official U.S. recycling center is much older.
According to the Northeast Recycling Council, a not-for-profit that focuses primarily on recycling, The Rittenhouse Mill opened as a recycling center in Philadelphia in 1690. This company used discarded linen and cotton to make paper that was later sold to printers who manufactured Bibles and newspapers.
Recycling is present so deep in American history that it predates our nation!
Moving forward in history, garbage pick-up didn’t begin until the late 19th century, which meant that before 1900, Americans didn’t reuse goods and materials that their homes would quickly become crowded uninhabitable. Just think about how awful your house would be today if a garbage man didn’t stop by once a week.
The trash in the corner of your kitchen would just pile up and pile up, attracting flies and smelling awful. You would have no way to get away from it and no one to call to help haul it way. If this was your reality, you would likely start to get better and reuse things quickly to avoid living in filth.
The Great Depression also contributed to the reuse mentality. Anyone with a grandparent who washed out old Cool Whip containers to use as tupperware has seen firsthand the lengths that generation would go to stretch their dollars and avoid buying new or redundant products. During this chapter of American history, nothing was wasted or thrown away unnecessarily, because no one knew what they would wind up needing or when.
World War II kicked off modern recycling as we know it today. The war effort was so taxing on our nation that households were encouraged to donate every bit of metal, rubber, steel, and paper that they had. It was a massive, nation-wide campaign.
The collected metal was used for bombs, ammunition, tanks, guns, and battleships. Rubber was used for gas masks, life rafts, cars, and bombers. This was faster and less expensive than relying on virgin material for the war effort. Posters were creating, and slogans were coined to get Americans at home excited about recycling. At the time, recycling was considered an act of patriotism.
In the 1960s, people began to finally connect the concept of recycling with the environment. This connection that gained steam in the 1970s. In fact, 1970 was the first year we celebrated Earth Day, a national holiday created to raise awareness about our planet’s state and spur environmental action. The real spark for action in the 1970s was the fact that landfills began to fill up.
The first landfill in the United States was created on Staten Island in 1947, and less than a half a century later, landfills everywhere were reaching max capacity. This prompted Americans to remove some of their waste from their landfill-bound bins to send them to a recycling plant, and curbside recycling gained momentum. This was the birth of convenient recycling. For the first time, Americans did not have to repurpose their items or drive their reusable waste to a recycling center independently. Local agencies were tasked with driving to each home and removing people’s recyclable materials. This is the system that is still in place today.
Once recyclable material leaves your home, it’s processed by a Materials Recovery Facility. Here, different types of material are sorted out and then melted down into raw materials. As of 2001, most of the Materials Recovery Facilities used by Americans were actually in China. The process went like this; material goods were manufactured in China and shipped around the world in large shipping containers. Instead of sending shipping containers back to China empty, those containers were filled with recyclable waste that was brought in to be processed. Unfortunately, that all changed with the National Sword program in China that banned certain foreign recyclables in 2018. Today, some foreign countries are purchasing American recyclable waste, and some Materials Recovery Facilities are popping up domestically in order to deal with the amount of material Americans recycle.
Today, Americans recycle about a third of the waste we generate.
Why Recycling Is Important
Now that we have covered how recycling came to be let’s discuss why it is so vital. In order to do so, we need to cover the difference between organic and inorganic material. Organic material is anything consisting of carbon-based compounds that are naturally occurring. When organic materials die or are disposed of as waste, bacteria ingest them and break them down into smaller, useful compounds. In contrast, inorganic material like plastic is ignored by bacteria, and can, therefore, last for an incredibly long time before it even begins to break down.
Most of the plastic we use today are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This material is incredibly strong and cannot be broken down by bacteria. That means that if a PET product is thrown into a landfill, that it will essentially last forever. Scientists do not know for certain how long plastics will last on our planet, but many estimate that it will take between 500-1000 years. Plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855 and was first mass-produced in 1907. That means that every piece of plastic that has ever been thrown away still exists on this planet somewhere. If we continue to throw away plastic, pretty soon, we will literally run out of storage space. However, if we recycle plastic materials into another good or product, we avoid putting something that is essentially permanent in a landfill, and we prevent further production of virgin plastic.
Virgin plastic is a brand new plastic that is created from raw materials rather than from a piece of existing plastic. Recycling prevents the creation of virgin plastic by allowing manufacturers to use existing materials in production. Think about it, if someone recycles a water bottle, that can turn into a new water bottle. If someone throws away a water bottle, then that PET plastic sits in a landfill forever while the water bottle manufacturers spend time, energy, and money, creating a new bottle from scratch.
Creating virgin plastic takes energy, which is disruptive to the environment. In a report that examines the energy requirements of plastic water bottles, experts discovered that water bottle production requires between 5.6 and 10.2 million joules of energy per liter, which is 2,000 times the energy used to create tap water. So not only are water bottle users contributing to the production of PET plastic, they are increasing energy output as well, which creates more greenhouse gasses in our environment. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most water bottles are single-use plastic items. That means that they are designed to be used once and disposed of, which is incredibly wasteful. A lot of the plastic that Americans use is single-use. Just consider the prevalence of take-out containers, disposable straws, grocery bags, coffee cup lids, and product packaging, and you start to realize how much plastic is designed to be thrown away. If Americans could commit to using reusable containers, for example, purchasing one water bottle and refilling it with tap water, the production of PET plastic and the energy required to create it would significantly drop.
The production of virgin plastic is incredibly disruptive to many natural environments. Another ecosystem that has been heavily disrupted by the existence and production of plastic is the ocean. If plastics are not recycled or disposed of properly, they can and do wind up in the water all over the globe, and there is an overwhelming amount of plastics in our oceans. In fact, scientists predict that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. That is the equivalent of the weight of 90 aircraft carriers. There is actually an entire island of plastic floating between California and Hawaii called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Alarmingly, this trash island is twice the size of Texas and three times the size of the nation of France. Even more alarmingly, this is not the only trash island out there. Scientists have recently discovered two more garbage patches, one in the South Pacific and one in the North Atlantic.
There is a key difference between plastic in the ocean and plastic in landfills is that U.V. light actually can break down plastic. Considering that plastic is less dense than water and will, therefore, float on the surface of the ocean rather than sink to the bottom, plastic floating in the ocean is going to have a lot more U.V. exposure than plastic buried in a landfill. The downside to this is that when plastic is broken down by U.V. light, it breaks down into microplastic or small plastic pieces of plastic that measure at less than 5mm. Microplastics can have serious deleterious effects on aquatic life. Specifically, on filter-feeders like crustaceans. If you have ever enjoyed an oyster, you had better get concerned about the number of microplastics in our ocean because they might actually bring about the demise of a fundamental and popular source of human food.
Recycling is about so much more than simply putting a plastic container in a recycling bin instead of a trash can. It is about reducing the size of our landfills, saving our oceans, and decreasing energy usage. Plastic is incredibly detrimental to our natural world, but it is so convenient and effective that humans are unlikely to ever stop using it. In order to use plastic responsibly, recycling must become a key part of the plastic life cycle. If we can move away from virgin plastic and single-use plastic items, it can have a significant and positive impact on our environment.
Now that you have some context for understanding why recycling is so vital let’s talk about what (other than plastic) can be recycled.
What to Recycle & How To Do It Right
When most people think of recycling, they think of four main items: plastic, paper, metal, and glass. And while it is true that these items can generally be recycled, it does not mean that every scrap of paper or plastic in your home should be put into the recycling bin. In fact, the act of tossing anything and everything into the recycling receptacle has been come to be known as “wishcycling.”
Wishcycling is the ignorant but well-intentioned process of tossing everything into a recycling bin on a hope and a prayer that it can be reused. Picture this; a home cook is standing in his kitchen, holding an empty styrofoam carton of eggs. She cannot decide whether or not to recycle it. She recalls that last week she watched a friend recycle a carton of eggs that were made of paper, and figures that if that type of carton can be recycled, then hers can do. She tosses the styrofoam into her recycling bin and thinks, “Well, if it can’t be recycled, then it will just be sorted out.” Unfortunately, this is not true. Not only can styrofoam not be recycled, but even if it could, non-recyclable items are not sorted into waste bins at recycling plans. Wishcycling is a form of ignorance, and unfortunately, in this situation, ignorance can be quite damaging. If one item in a batch of otherwise properly recycled materials cannot be recycled, then the entire batch can wind up in a landfill. That’s right. Once a greasy pizza box can mean that every water bottle and tin can that has been lovingly cleaned and prepared for reuse winds up in a growing heap of trash. The best way to put an end to wishcycling is teaching the environmentally conscious of what can and cannot be recycled. When you first start recycling responsibly, it may feel like you are throwing more items away in your home, but ultimately you will be saving giant batches of recyclable materials from going to waste. It is counterintuitive but effective.
Below is a guide for how to recycle plastic, paper, and metal materials in a way that allows them to be broken or melted down and used to create more consumer goods.
How to Recycle Plastic:
It is incredibly vital to recycle plastic. Not only is it not possible for bacteria to break down plastics, but they are incredibly energy-intensive to produce. The first step in recycling plastics properly is understanding how different types of plastics work. Plastics are actually categorized and numbered #1-#7. Below is a guide as to which plastic products belong in each plastic category, and what those categories mean.
Plastic #1 (PETE): These are polyethylene terephthalate plastics. These are incredibly common and are intended to be single-use plastic items. Generally speaking, beverage containers like water bottles and soda bottles are made of #1 plastic. Cooking oil containers are also made of #1 plastic. If a single-use item made of PETE plastic is thrown away instead of recycled, it will live in a landfill in perpetuity. When this type of plastic is recycled, it is shredded into small flakes and can then either be reprocessed into a new bottle or spun into polyester fiber. If you have ever owned a fleece sweater, you have probably worn PETE plastic. Unfortunately, only 25% of the PETE bottles that exist in the United States today are recycled.
Plastic #2 (HDPE): These are high-density polyethylene plastics, and are stiffer than PET plastics. They are fantastic to use because they are sturdy. HDPE plastics make up things like milk jugs, laundry detergent containers, shampoo bottles, picnic tables, plastic lumber, trash cans, park benches, pick-up truck bed liners, and more. HDPE plastic is durable and weather resistant. It is recyclable, but only about 30% of the HDPE plastic in the United States today is recycled.
Plastic #3 (PVC): These are polyvinyl chloride plastics. This is a soft, flexible plastic that is used to make food wrapping, teething rings, and toys for bets and children. It is also often used as sheathing for cables, and for garden hoses. It is known as “poison plastic” since it can leach toxins and is not recyclable. This means that almost all PVC products require virgin material, so your best course of action with PVC items is limiting your use of them.
Plastic #4 (LDPE): These are low-density polyethylene plastics. They are commonly used to make thin bags, like grocery store bags, dry cleaner’s garment bags, shrink wraps, and even some clothing. It is known to be less toxic than other plastics, and yet is not commonly recycled. In the recent past, recycling plants were not able to process this type of material, but that is slowly beginning to change. For this reason, LDPE plastics are largely considered reusable, if not recyclable. Do not recycle LDPE plastic unless you are certain that it is possible and acceptable in your area.
Plastic #5 (P.P.): These are polypropylene plastics. This material is tough yet lightweight and can resist water, grease, and chemicals. It is commonly used in cereal bags, disposable diapers, plastic bottle tops, yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, and packing tape. It can also be found in furniture, luggage, bumpers, and car linings. Only about 3% of P.P. plastic is currently being recycled, but it is considered safe for reuse.
Plastic #6 (P.S.): These are polystyrene plastics. These are lightweight plastics found in take-out food containers, egg cartons, disposable cutlery, and foam packing “peanuts.” It can also be used in home construction as underlay sheeting for laminate flooring. It is considered structurally weak, but is lightweight and easily formed, which makes it convenient for single-use items. It is difficult to recycle, and experts predict that 35% of landfill material is, in fact, P.P. plastic.
Plastic #7 (OTHER): This is a catch-all category for the remaining types of plastics, which include acrylic, polycarbonate, nylon, and fiberglass. Baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles, and many car parts are all considered #7 plastic. When possible, it is best to avoid these plastics entirely.
In summation, plastics #1 and #2 are the most commonly recycled. Plastic #5 can be recycled, but it is less common, and the remaining types of plastics should be reused or avoided when possible in order to prevent additional plastic making its way into landfills.
How to Recycle Paper:
Paper is so commonly recycled in the U.S. that in 2011, more than 65% of the paper Americans used had already been recycled. When paper is recycled, it is first sorted into different grades. These grades include but are not limited to:
- Corrugated/kraft paper. This paper consists of layers of paper that are glued together with a fluted inner layer. Just picture a standard cardboard box, and you have got the right image.
- Kraft paper. This is any paper made from pulp. Picture stationery store paper or construction paper.
- Newspapers. The thin paper that always our daily news is printed on. A newspaper is generally considered low grade since it has already been recycled so many times.
- High-grade papers. This is your typical office printing paper. Both inked and uninked paper can be recycled.
- Mixed papers. This category can include old mail, paperboard, packaging, magazines, egg cartons, and more.
Once the paper is sorted, it will be shredded into small pieces, combined with water and chemicals, and heated. That picture is then passed through a screen to remove adhesives and contaminants. It is then spun clean and sprayed onto a flat conveyor belt, which is when the new paper started bonding together again. Finally, heated metal rollers dry the paper before it is put onto large rolls for use.
In order to recycle paper effectively, avoid getting it wet, use dark markers to remove sensitive information (rather than shredding it), and make sure that you are only recycling the types of paper that are accepted in your area.
How to Recycle Metal:
By recycling metals, we can reduce the amount of active ore mining happening throughout the world. The process of recycling metal consists of melting down like-types of metals in order to then form them into a new shape. In order to recycle metal effectively, you should be recycling every aluminum can that passes through your hands, because aluminum can be endlessly recycled without quality loss. Aluminum cans often contain beverages, so before you place the empty cans in your bin, simply rinse them with water and tap out excess moisture. It is as simple as that! In many cases, you can leave the pop tabs attached to the cans you recycle, but if you choose to remove them, you can donate them to the Ronald McDonald House. The Ronald McDonald House uses the money from recycling pop tabs to house families with sick children who require extended hospital stays.
Many people don’t realize that aluminum foil is also recyclable, so long as it is clean, dry, and scrunched into a tight ball. So the next time you unwrap a burrito, take a moment to clean your foil instead of tossing it directly into the trash.
The last type of metal that is really easy to recycle comes in the form of steel cans. Canned food is almost always stored in steel cans, which can be rinsed and placed right in the bin! You don’t even need to remove the paper labels; those will be burned off during the recycling process.
Of course, other metal scraps like bottle caps, razors, and the lids from glass bottles can be recycled as well, just make sure that they are clean and dry before they go into the bin.
How to Recycle Glass:
The most important thing to understand when it comes to recycling glass is that broken glass has little value. If you break glass, it is best to just wrap it in a rag and throw it away. The second important thing to understand is that non-container glass-like window panes and mirrors cannot be recycled in the standard, curbside pick up way. This is because everything but container glass (think jars of salsa, jam, olives, etc.) is the only glass that isn’t treated with harsh chemicals. If you choose to recycle old window panes or mirrors, find a construction and demolition (C&D) recycler to process the material.
Just like with metal and plastic containers, make sure that glass containers are rinsed and clean before they go in the recycling bin!
The Benefits Of Recycling
Throughout this article, we have loosely discussed that recycling can save energy and help to protect our environment, but it is time to delve into more specific examples of how impactful recycling really is. Below are some of the major and measurables ways the entire globe profits from recycling:
- Recycling helps conserve natural resources. Natural resources on our planet are finite. Think about how long it takes to grow a tree, and how quickly they can be chopped down. If we continue to chop down healthy trees every time we need a blank ream of paper or a new cardboard box, pretty soon we won’t have any left. Similarly, mining for metal is a dangerous and labor/energy-intensive process. Instead of building new mines, humans can and should rely more heavily on the metal materials that already exist.
- Recycling helps to preserve natural habitats. In addition to conserving our natural resources, recycling can save natural habitats from being destroyed. Think about it, if we chop down rainforest in order to create virgin materials, where will the animals that rely on the rainforest go? If you guessed nowhere, you would be correct. Disrupting and damaging ecosystems is significant, and increased recycling can put an end to those disruptions.
- Recycling saves energy. It requires less energy to recycle an existing product than it takes to create a brand new product. For example, fashioning an existing aluminum can into a new can uses 95% less energy than it takes to create a new can from scratch. Also, the amount of energy saved from recycling one glass container can power a 100 watt light bulb for up to four hours.
- Recycling reduces carbon emissions. Humans began producing an alarming amount of CO2 during the industrial revolution. Today, more than 80% of the CO2 in our environment was created by humans. The increased CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat, which contributes to global warming. Global warming threatens to drastically change and damage natural ecosystems all over the planet. The more we recycle, the less CO2 is emitted.
- Recycling will help to stem the garbage crisis. The United States produced 254 tons of trash in 2013, and that amount is rising. Landfills are unsafe and unhealthy, and the more material we throw away, the worse it gets. Recycling helps to keep certain materials out of landfills, thus slowing down the crisis we currently face.
How To Up Your Recycling Game
So at this point, you are probably asking yourself, “How can I get better at recycling?”. The good news is that there is always more you can do, and the actions required are less tiresome than you may think.
Below is a list of things you can start doing today to up your recycling game:
- Stop “wishcycling.” Now that you are armed with knowledge stop recycling things that you think might be recyclable. Only recycle things that you are certain can be reused. Otherwise, your entire recycling bin may wind up in a landfill.
- Read your local recycling guide. This is an extension of ending the “wishcycling” practice. It is best practice to know what is and isn’t recyclable in your area.
- Make sure the items you are recycling are rinsed clean. This is as simple as running an empty can under the faucet for a few minutes before tossing it into the bin.
- Pause before you throw something away and ask yourself, “Can I reuse this again?”. If you cannot, then ask yourself the follow-up question of “Can this be recycled?”.
- Make recycling in your home as easy as throwing something away. The best way to do this is to set up your trash bin and your recycling bin right next to each other. This will make recycling more convenient for everyone.
- Hold on to your recyclables until you find a proper bin. If recycling bins are not immediately available when you go to dispose of something, hang on to it until you find a responsible way to dispose of it (i.e., until you find a recycling bin). This happens a lot out in public, but committing to hanging on to your recyclables until you find a bin or make it back home can have a tremendous impact.
- Support recycling by buying things made from recycled materials and avoiding consumer goods that use too much packaging.
- Stop using plastic supermarket bags. Purchase a few reusable bags (most grocery stores sell them at checkout) and bring them to the store with you every time you shop.
- Speak up when recycling bins are missing. Does your office only offer a trash can? Go to management and request that a recycling program is put in place.
- Say “no” to plastic cutlery when you order take-out. If you plan on eating take-out food at home, use your permanent cutlery and avoid the plastic stuff altogether.
If you are able to accomplish everything on this list, you will be a recycling rockstar, but just changing your habits in one small way can have an incredible impact. The key is to commit to doing just a little bit better. If everyone did that, then recycling would become much more effective.
Who doesn’t love a bit of trivia? These recycling facts might come in handy if you ever find yourself on Jeopardy!
Corrugated cardboard boxes are the most recycled material in the country.
25% of our garbage is actually plant matter that can be composted.
The average American creates seven and a half pounds of garbage every day. That is more than 2,700 lbs of garbage per individual, per year!
In 2005, more than 70 million tons of waste was diverted away from landfills thanks to recycling and composting.
Every year, enough plastic to circle the earth four times is thrown away.
More than 60% of aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use today.
One ton of recycled paper can save up to 17 trees.
The average American uses more than 650lbs of paper every year.
If everyone could commit to recycling just a little bit more and a little bit smarter, we could protect our environment, prevent more global warming, use less energy, and reduce the need for landfills. Recycling is not difficult, so long as the proper infrastructure is in place, so educate yourself and set up a functioning recycling system in your home and workplace.
It is our responsibility as citizens of this planet to respect our home and do our part to ensure a habitable future for those who will come after us. Recycling is a huge part of that. Together, we can have a positive impact on our world. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?