After I wrote about the paralyzing effect eating responsibly can have at the grocery store, I received an email from the Carton Council, a group that connects consumers with carton recycling programs. In the article I said buying soup in a Tetra-Pak may be a better choice for your health than buying it in a BPA-lined can, but it may not be the better choice for the environment since the Tetra-Paks aren't as easily recyclable.

The email sent me to the Recycle Cartons website, which allows users to find out if carton recycling is available their community by putting in their zip code. It also informed me the number of households that could recycle cartons has grown from 18 percent in 2009 to above 58 percent today.

Encouraged, I put my zip code in and got the following: "Sorry, carton recycling is not available in your area yet." The website also said the Carton Council is "working to improve carton recycling availability and we hope to include your community soon." And finally, I was directed to information that explained how I could mail my cartons in for recycling.

Mail them in? Really?

I'm not putting the Carton Council down in any way here. The fact that they have been able to significantly increase the number of communities that accept cartons — both Tetra-Pak style and milk-carton style — is commendable. I encourage anyone who thinks their community doesn't accept cartons for recycling to click on the link above because that may have changed recently.

The "mail them in" part of the message made me wonder, though, what does "easy to recycle" mean to consumers like me?

For me, "easy to recycle" means I need easy access to the recycling process. Mailing in cartons does not fall under that definition. Holding on to cartons until there are enough of them to mail, finding a box to mail them in, taking that box to the post office and paying for postage makes the act of recycling cartons difficult, not easy.

I asked my Facebook friends to type in their zip code to find out if carton recycling was available in their community, and of those who responded about 50 percent said their community offered it. The rest, like me, would need to mail in the cartons.

A few other things that are recyclable but not easy to recycle in my community:

  • Alkaline batteries (one-time use). The closest place I can take these batteries is 10 miles away in Philadelphia. I live in New Jersey.
  • Polystyrene foam (Styrofoam). I can't find a place within driving distance to recycle this. Most people probably can't. I do take polystyrene packing peanuts to the local UPS store for them to reuse (along with bubble wrap), but the large blocks of Styrofoam that come in packages I receive often end up in the trash.
  • Food (composting). We don't have curbside composting or even community composting. Unless someone has a backyard compost system, food goes in the trash or down the drain.

It's difficult to make sure everything that comes into my home goes back out responsibly when we're done with it. I appreciate organizations like the Carton Council that are trying to make it easier for consumers to recycle materials. I appreciate it when local stores offer recycling bins for CFLs, rechargeable batteries, plastic grocery bags and other materials.

home-depot-recycling Some stores have recycling bins for things like batteries, light bulbs and old phones. (Photo: HeatherBlume/flickr)

It would be simple to only recycle the materials that I can put on the curb each week. But I've learned to change my definition of easy when it comes to recycling. I save up CFLs to take with me when I run to Home Depot. I save my wine bottle corks to take to a local winery that sends them for recycling. I save the packing materials the UPS store can reuse and take them when I need to drop off something for shipping. Basically, if I can find a place within a reasonable distance I can take items to, I'll call that easy because really, how difficult is it? The hard part is remembering to actually put the items in my car before I head out.

What does "easy to recycle" mean to you?

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.