Recycling is a wonderful concept. We buy the things we need, make good use of them, and send them off to be reborn. It saves energy, conserves resources, and gives us feel-good sparkles as we fill up our blue bins.
Unfortunately, our global recycling systems are far from utopian. In the US, for instance, around three-quarters of our waste stream can be recycled – but we only capture around 35%. (US EPA)
But it’s not all bad news. While recycling isn’t as effective as we’d like, regular folks can use our shopping choices to make a difference.
Recycling matters. But what we purchase is even more important.
Most recycling bins are brimming with empty cans, bottles, and boxes; but packaging contributes to a relatively small portion of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Production and manufacturing, on the other hand, generate about 60% of the average product’s lifetime carbon footprint. (Scientific Reports, 2020)
Are you buying oat milk or dairy? Incandescent light bulbs or energy-efficient LEDs? These choices often matter more than the packaging they come in.
As consumers, the first and most impactful step we can take is to understand the relative climate impact of different products or services – and choose the most sustainable option.
Smart recycling doesn’t start at the bin – it starts at the store.
The most sustainable shopping habit is, simply, to buy less. But when you do shop, you can consider packaging in your purchase decisions.
- Avoid Packaging: Bring your own bags and containers and opt for items that are unwrapped.
- Opt for Compostable or Recyclable Packaging: If you need to buy something pre-packaged, choose easily recyclable or biodegradable materials.
- Shop in Bulk: Reduce packaging waste and save money by buying family-sized versions of things you use regularly, like toilet paper and shelf-stable food.
- Repurpose and Reuse: Glass jars and other sturdy containers can be used for leftovers, to store spices and pantry items, as homemade dressing containers, and so much more.
Note: In the US, the rules governing which materials you can recycle vary from place to place. You also may need to clean, sort, or crush your recyclables for them to be accepted. Visit How2Recyle.Info to check your local regulations.
Easiest to Recycle
Metal containers (like soup, soda, and vegetable cans) can be recycled easily and infinitely without losing quality. In fact, aluminum cans are the most recycled containers worldwide, and 75% of all the aluminum ever produced is still in circulation. (Green Biz, 2019)
Paper and Cardboard
Unless they’re heavily treated with chemicals, paper and cardboard are easy to recycle. Paper products can be recycled five to seven times before they’re unusable – so toss old notebooks, worn moving boxes, and Sunday papers in the bin.
Glass is infinitely recyclable and requires far less energy to produce than metal. Unfortunately, the US only recycles around a third of the glass in circulation. (Glass Processing Institute) It’s also heavy, which increases transportation emissions. So, if you have the choice, pick canned beer over bottled. (It’s cheaper, too!)
#1 and #2 Plastics
Plastic type is indicated by a triangle with a number in the center. Only types #1 and #2 - like pop bottles and milk jugs - stand much of a chance at getting recycled, at just under 30% (US EPA). Unfortunately, plastic can only be processed once or twice.
Hardest to Recycle
Items made from more than one material are tricky to recycle. Paper cartons and to-go cups, for instance, might seem recyclable; but they’re often coated in wax or plastic. It’s nearly impossible to separate these materials, so they usually end up in the landfill.
Plastics #3 – #7
When it comes to recycling, all plastics are not created equal; anything other than #1 or #2 is FAR more likely to end up in the landfill. Visit BeRecycled.org to check which plastics are recyclable where you live.
Never or Rarely Recyclable
Avoid styrofoam at all costs. While it’s technically recyclable, it’s an expensive process and most local programs steer clear. In fact, placing styrofoam items in your bin can cause the entire load to be discarded.
Plastic grocery bags clog up sorting machines and can’t be recycled with other items. If you have these, reuse them or return them to your local supermarket. (Better yet, bring your own or ask for paper bags instead!)
Plastic straws are too small to sort, so most recycling programs don’t accept them. Instead, they end up in our landfills, rivers, and oceans.
Soiled Paper and Plastic
Greasy pizza boxes, to-go containers, and napkins can’t be recycled and can contaminate entire loads. The good news? Soiled paper and cardboard are safe to compost!
In fact, composting is even better for the environment than recycling. So choose biodegradable materials when you can. Check online for composting programs in your city – or start your own backyard operation!